Mogao Cave Murals
Some 450,000 square feet of murals and sculptures dating from the fourth to the 14th centuries, the Mogao Caves are a complex and illuminating database of Chinese politics, theology and history. As illustrated by the adventures of Xuan Zhang, bringer of Buddhism to China, Buddhist cave art, like Buddhism itself, is basically an Indian import.
When they started, the cave walls offered rare visualization to the spiritual ideas that facilitate meditation. But as time went on, the caves came to be used to proselytize Buddhist concepts to an illiterate audience, offering an attractive and accessible library of parables and sutras. The long drawn-out process of excavating and renovating a cave involved importing high-quality decorative materials and fostering artistic talent. It did not come cheap, and a sponsor might have more worldly motives: The largest of all the statues, the massive structure in Cave 96, for example, contains a 100-foot White Buddha sculpted in 695 for the Tang Dynasty Emperor Wu Zetian, modeled on her physiognomy. It was built a year after the top lady – the only female Emperor in Chinese history – issued an edict that giant Buddha statues should be erected all across the country. Why? Because as Buddhism assimilated into China’s everyday political and religious life, an emperor’s legitimacy could be reinforced through his, or especially her, association with the popular Buddhist order. Compare and contrast this with 12 centuries later, when statues of Mao were being erected everywhere.