by Xinhua writers Gan Chun, Wang Yanming
LANZHOU, April 17 (Xinhua) -- A mural featuring a monk seemingly mimicking the signature pose of Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven Year Itch" has managed to amuse Chinese netizens. It has even stirred up a new appetite for parodying the ancient paintings in the Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang, which has upset scholars, unhappy with the public's superficial take of Buddhist art.
Preserved in cave 468 of the world's largest Buddhist grottoes, in Gansu Province, the mural didn't attract any attention until Chen Shiyu, a cultural magazine editor, photographed the mural and uploaded the picture onto douban.com. The caption read: "Afraid of being scolded by his teacher, the monk turns as bashful as Monroe."
Thousands of netizens have forwarded the picture since Chen posted it, adding an album title "the Unexplainable Dunhuang" along with a photo of Marilyn Monroe's famous picture to highlight the similarities.
"People used to think that Dunhuang was all about glamorous Buddha statues and delicate frescoes, but if you look at other parts of Dunhuang, there's lots of fun to be had," Chen said.
On March 31, another post featuring the Dunhuang murals was uploaded to tianya.com, and again was forwarded widely. The fresco, featuring a man going to the toilet, reveals what netizens call "the vulgar side" of Dunhuang.
VULGAR OR DIVINE?
The art of the Dunhuang grottoes is trending widely on the Internet in China, but scholars and Buddhists alike have mixed feelings. Although Dunhuang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of China's most popular tourist destinations, few Chinese are familiar with the archeological and artistic significance of its ancient paintings, they say. In fact, the Mogao Grottoes were never widely discussed on the Internet before the so-called "Monroe parody" was discovered.
For Zhao Shengliang, a senior researcher at Dunhuang Academy, however, the "Monroe parody" remark has completely missed the point.
At first sight, one can see both the monk and Monroe lean forward with their hands laid on their bent knees. But the context and facial expression tell the difference, he noted.
During the filming of the Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe was captured laughing as her skirt is blown up by a blast from a subway vent. In the cave of Dunhuang, the mural in question was created by a Tang Dynasty painter (618-907) as part of a mural to illustrate one of the 12 vows made by the Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha, according to Zhao.
To depict the seriousness of observing precepts, the painter drew a scene where the master was about to physically punish a student who had been misbehaving. This student was about to receive blows of a cane, and is leaning forward but also looks upset and scared, Zhao explained.
"This is actually the earliest, and possibly the only mural that shows a scene from the ancient temple schools, so it is very valuable," he said. "In the Tang Dynasty, the entire country believed in Buddhism. Temple schools played a great role in the education system at that time."
Aware of some people's perplexity over why a man urinating is depicted in the sacred mural, Zhao said that in Buddhist art, every word or sign has a profound meaning and shouldn't be taken at face value.
The seemingly vulgar painting is part of the mural of the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-581) in cave 290 of Mogao Grottoes. It illustrates the auspicious signs that appeared with the birth of Gautama Siddartha, who became Buddha Sakyamuni, he said.
"When Gautama Siddartha was born, oxen and sheep bred, flowers bloomed, and all bad smells turned fragrant," Zhao explained. "How does one depict foul odors? The painter came up with the idea of drawing a man urinating. This is the artist's way of using an image to illustrate the smell. And it is possibly the earliest image of ancient Chinese toilets."
Zhao said in order to make Sutra stories more accessible, ancient painters would adopt many scenes of daily life in their creations. Some might appear comical nowadays, but these paintings preach profound Buddhist teachings.
Li Yang, a Buddhist in Beijing, said she felt regretful about the public mockery. "It might seem like a harmless joke for the layman. But if these comments mislead the public, and degrade the Buddhist art and Buddhism, that will be really a pity."
As Sakyamuni, the great master of Buddhism, has taught, people shall not take words of the Buddha or Buddhist images for granted otherwise they may miss the real meanings. The clergy, constrained by their precepts and out of compassion for the beings, must be always careful about what to speak so as not to strangle a person's interest in and confidence of the Buddhism which can guide them to leave suffering and get happiness.
Situated along the ancient Silk Road, the 1,600-year-old Mogao Grottoes epitomize cultural exchanges and became China's first UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. They feature more than 2,000 colored sculptures and 45,000 square meters of frescoes in over 730 caves spread across 1,600 meters of hillside.
The greatest discovery at the Mogao Grottoes was the Sutra Cave, also known as cave 17. This is where over 50,000 Buddhist scriptures, documents, embroidery, and paintings on paper and silk were kept, including the Great Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom.
Archeologists also found three remarkable documents related to Manichaeism, a religion influenced by both Gnosticism and Christianity. It originated in Persia in 230 AD, and spread throughout Asia and the Roman Empire. The 19th century scholars had to base their studies of Manichaeism on the materials gleaned mostly from Christian sources as the Manichaeists declined rapidly in the 15th century.
Also found were classical works belonging to seven sects of Nestorianism, a branch of Christianity which spread to China in 635. They serve as important historical materials for research into cultural exchanges between China and the West.
Despite this rich history, netizens have denounced Dunhuang as unworthy of its reputation, as many of the painted murals look sketchy and immature. They appear to fall short of people's expectations of legendary Dunhuang art. In some online comments, netizens left various reactions including "I think this painter should have been fired," or "Is this what kids did at an ancient kindergarten?"
Zhao Shengliang explained that many murals from the 4th to 14th century were created by painters who were hired to reproduce the Buddhist practices of their employers. "The rich could afford to hire good painters, but the poor had to make do with the average or amateur ones. Although these paintings differ in quality, they are equally valuable for the study of ancient society and culture," Zhao said.
As a researcher, Zhao worried that some of the comments online may be misleading. "For people who are familiar with Dunhuang culture, this is harmless, but for those who have never been to Dunhuang, the mockery can be harmful."
Zhao suggested that netizens interested in Dunhuang should obtain authorized reading materials, through which people can have a thorough understanding of the Mogao Grottoes.
But he also admitted that misunderstanding reflected the challenge in the spread of Dunhuang culture. "The online discussion has sounded an alarm bell. We failed to make good use of the Internet to publicize Dunhuang's culture. The existing websites about Dunhuang are too academic, thus less appealing to the public."
"If we could harness the power of the Internet, and use it more effectively, I am sure more people would be touched by the cultural treasures Dunhuang offers," Zhao said.