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  • Art, Religion and Politics in Medieval China: The Dunhuang Cave of the Zhai Family
  • Susan Whitfield (bio)
Ning Qiang . Art, Religion and Politics in Medieval China: The Dunhuang Cave of the Zhai Family. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2004. xv, 178 pp. Hardcover $39.00, ISBN 0-8248-2703-1.

Every so often there is an archaeological find that proves so important as to attract the attention of a body of scholars devoted to interpreting it. In biblical scholarship, one thinks of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Over the past century there have been several such finds in China, from Mawangdui woodslips to the Chu tomb artifacts, but none can compare in scope or importance to the so-called Dunhuang Library Cave, which has even generated a new discipline: Dunhuangology.

This small, man-made cave, originally fashioned in the ninth century as a memorial chapel for a local Buddhist abbot, was filled sometime in the next century with tens of thousands of manuscripts on paper in Chinese, Tibetan, and many other languages and scripts, along with fragments of textiles and hundreds of paintings and banners on fine silk, hemp, and paper. Sealed and hidden in about a.d. 1000, it was not rediscovered until 1900. The dry desert climate had preserved its contents, and although they were dispersed worldwide and access was not always easy, scholars soon realized their importance as a unique cache of primary documents.

But the find also brought attention to the cave site itself. The Library Cave was only one among almost five hundred extant cave temples that honeycombed the Mogao Cliffs and dated from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries. Many caves retained their original murals and some their original statuary. Together with the portable paintings from the Library Cave they constituted a rich art collection. The Chinese painters Wu Zuoren and Zhang Daqian visited the caves in the early 1940s, and in 1944 a research institute, the Dunhuang Academy, was established at the caves themselves.

There are now over a thousand scholars studying the Dunhuang manuscripts and Dunhuang art, many at the Dunhuang Academy but hundreds of others in universities throughout China and Japan, with thriving research teams in France and elsewhere in Europe and the United States. However, the discipline is divided into two distinct streams: art history and textual history. These rarely mix. Separate conferences continue to be held and many scholars studying the cave art make little reference to the contemporaneous manuscripts, while textual historians rarely look for support for their hypotheses in the art. As Ning Qiang says, the art and manuscripts were "produced within the same sociohistorical context," and, therefore, "examined together, they form an ideal case for interdisciplinary studies of art, religion, sociology and politics" (p. 2). In this case study of cave 220 adapted from his doctoral thesis, Ning Qiang presents such an interdisciplinary study. [End Page 209]

Cave 220 was commissioned in 642 by an important local family, the Zhai clan, who maintained it over several hundred years. Ning argues that because the Zhai family were solely responsible for the cave and made their "ownership" clear by having "The Zhai Family Cave" inscribed on the wall opposite the entrance, this deserves to be considered the first family cave. Others, such as 285, also contained family portraits, but they seem to have been commissioned by more than one family. He examines cave 220 following three themes, forming the sections of his book: the iconography of the original cave, the historical context for the various repaintings of the cave, and the role of the cave within a broader social and historical context.

Ning's arguments in his initial section are persuasive. He presents a case against the traditional identification of the north wall painting based largely on reviewing the translations of the sutra available when the wall was painted. Instead of the wall showing the paradise of Bhaisajyaguru, the Healing Buddha, he argues, it shows the healing ritual. The Dharmagupta translation of the sutra (Taisho 449), available at this time and five copies of which were found in the Library Cave, instructs the faithful to make seven images of the Healing Buddha and place seven lamps...


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