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Art, Religion, and Politics in Medieval China

The Dunhuang Cave of the Zhai Family

Qiang Ning

Publication Year: 2004

The cave-temple complex popularly known as the Dunhuang caves is the world’s largest extant repository of Tang Buddhist art. Among the best preserved of the Dunhuang caves is the Zhai Family Cave, built in 642. It is this remarkable cave-temple that forms the focus of Ning Qiang’s cross-disciplinary exploration of the interrelationship of art, religion, and politics during the Tang. The author combines, in his careful examination of the paintings and sculptures found there, the historical study of pictures with the pictorial study of history. By employing this two-fold approach, he is able to refer to textual evidence in interpreting the formal features of the cave temple paintings and to employ visual details to fill in the historical gaps inevitably left by text-oriented scholars. The result is a comprehensive analysis of the visual culture of the period and a vivid description of social life in medieval China. The original Zhai Family Cave pictures were painted over in the tenth century and remained hidden until the early 1940s. Once exposed, the early artwork appeared fresh and colorful in comparison with other Tang paintings at Dunhuang. The relatively fine condition of the Zhai Family Cave is crucial to our understanding of the original pictorial program found there and offers a unique opportunity to investigate the visual details of the original paintings and sculptures in the cave. At the same time, the remaining traces of reconstruction and redecoration provide a new perspective on how, for over three centuries, a wealthy Chinese clan used its familial cave as a political showcase.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xii

This book is partially based on my Ph.D. dissertation, which was completed at Harvard University in 1997. I would first like to thank my dissertation advisers, Professor Wu Hung and Professor Irene Winter, for their intellectual guidance and encouragement over many years. I am especially grateful for the support of Professor John Rosenfield, whose...


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p. xiii

Map of the Silk Road

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p. xiv

Chronology of the Mogao Caves

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p. xv

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pp. 1-10

Buddhism and Buddhist art occupied an extremely important position in the culture and society of the Tang dynasty (618–907 c.e.), a period often referred to as the golden age of Chinese civilization. The vast number of Buddhist monuments surviving today provides us with the opportunity to understand the glorious and complex visual culture of this great period in Chinese history. The largest remaining site containing...

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Chapter One. Iconography of the Original Early Tang Paintings: A Reexamination [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 11-63

In the early years of the Tang dynasty, Dunhuang, Tang China’s westernmost territory, was politically unstable. Local warlords rebelled several times and challenged Tang authority. At the time of the fall of the Sui (581–618 C.E.) and the rise of the Tang dynasty, the small kingdom of Liang in the Hexi corridor (the western part of present-day...

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Chapter Two. Reconstruction: Historical Layers of the Zhai Family Cave

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pp. 64-105

In the preceding chapter, I focused on the iconographies of the original early Tang paintings and carefully examined the motifs depicted on the north, south, east, and west walls of the Zhai family cave. These paintings, I believe, express the political ideology and religious feeling of the early Tang patrons. However, this cave was repeatedly redecorated...

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Chapter Three. Historical and Cultural Values of the Zhai Family Cave

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pp. 106-133

This case study of the original pictorial program of the Zhai family cave and its reconstruction history suggests that the meaning and function of the cave are closely tied to the religious, political, and social changes within the local context. If research is limited to using only Buddhist scriptures to explain the paintings and sculptures in the cave, or if energy is concentrated solely on describing the formal features of...

Appendix One. Illustrations of the Bhaisajya-guru Sūtra in the Mogao Caves

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pp. 135-136

Appendix Two. Illustrations of the Western Paradise in the Mogao Caves

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pp. 137-138

Appendix Three. Illustrations of the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa Sūtra in the Mogao Caves

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pp. 139-140


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pp. 141-154

Chinese Characters

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pp. 155-159

Works Cited

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pp. 161-169


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pp. 171-178

E-ISBN-13: 9780824861490
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824827038

Publication Year: 2004

OCLC Number: 777471864
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Art, Religion, and Politics in Medieval China

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Subject Headings

  • Buddhist art -- China -- Dunhuang Caves.
  • Dunhuang Caves (China).
  • China -- Civilization -- 221 B.C.-960 A.D.
  • Art, Chinese -- Tang-Five dynasties, 618-960.
  • Buddhist mural painting and decoration -- China -- Dunhuang Caves.
  • Mural painting and decoration, Chinese -- China -- Dunhuang Caves.
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