Asparas, the angels of DunhuangThere are more than 4500 apsara figures in the Dunhuang caves, distributed in more than 270 of the remaining 492 caves. These figures are one of the most unique and distinctive elements of Dunhuang art.

"All ancient civilizations of the world have their own flying deities. The Greeks have cherubims, their angels with wings. India has winged angels with halos, surrounded by floating clouds. The Chinese have yuren with feathers growing out of their arms." (Duan Wenjie, Dunhuang Art)

The Dunhuang style of flying figures, called apsaras or feitian, originated in India. Early figures in caves to the west of Dunhuang were depicted with round faces, handsome eyes and short, stout bodies. Following the Indian style, they were represented in the nude with a big Persian scarf wound around them.

After these figures reached Dunhuang, they merged with the symbolism of Chinese flying yuren. By the Northern Wei period (434–539 CE), apsaras had plump faces, long eyebrows, slit eyes, hair tied in a top knot and the upper torso covered by a big scarf over the shoulders. These became the distinctive apsaras of Dunhuang.

The apsaras from the Northern Wei period (434–539 CE) have a bold, abstract quality that should not be taken for lack of sophistication. In fact many people find these figures the most striking of all the asparas at Dunhuang. Many of them resemble the work of socialist mural painters of the 1920's and 30's Mexico and the United States.

The Northern Wei ruling elite were nomadic warriors from north of China. They established their rule over north China and dominated the Silk Road routes. They were also devoutly Buddhist. This combination meant that the Northern Wei had a keen eye towards the western trade routes and influences from India. At the same time, the Northern Wei adopted Chinese practices with great urgency, even requiring its people to adopt Chinese names. (Gernet 193)

Most of the asparas of this period are clearly male, with musculature defined in wide, heavy strokes. There is an intensity of color and a palette to these images that is very striking. The viewer has the sense that the mineral pigments are still wet, still raw after nearly 1500 years.

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The Sui and early T'ang emperors (581-755 CE) were obsessed with apsaras. They constructed mechanical devices in their palaces so apsaras could raise curtains, recreating the Buddhist paradise. During this period the art of apsaras at Dunhuang reached its zenith. It is also the period of China's greatest control of and involvement in the Silk Road trade, which funneled through Dunhuang. Early Tang era caves depict apsaras in large numbers and in a variety of postures and moods. Many were equipped as heavenly musicians or as dancers.

The features of the early Tang apsaras became more refined and more Chinese. The figurature is lighter and the drapery more subtle, but the color intensity remains. Also the gender of the figures have become less clearly identifiable.

A Traveler's Sketchbook
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The apsaras of the middle Tang dynasty(755-845 CE) neither had wings nor rode on the clouds, but they flew gently and danced in a carefree manner by means of a long scarf described by the famous Chinese poet, Li Bai:

"Lotus in their delicate hands,
Behind the deities and fly high,
Like lightning their colour'd bands
Rising up and floating in the sky."

(Duan Wenjie, Dunhuang Art)

The trends of feminization and refinement of the apsaras continued in the middle Tang. The apsaras became increasingly finely detailed, but detail came at the cost of color. Clearly the use of color in this period has changed radically since the Northern Wei period.

These images of apsaras are all reproduced from a series of postcards acquired at one of the many merchants stalls outside of the grottoes. Publishing information unavailable.
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