In the Wei, Jin, and North-South Dynasties, when Buddhism was first spread, the flying immortals in the murals were once called Fei Tian (飞天, flying apsaras). With the deep development of Buddhism in China, the Buddhist flying gods and flying immortals merged with each other in artistic images. Dunhuang Fei Tian is the flying apsaras painted in the Dunhuang caves, which later became a special term for Chinese Dunhuang mural art.
01 Origin of flying apsaras
In Buddhist culture, the term "Tian" not only refers to celestial abodes but also to the deities within them, such as the "Gongde Tian," which represents auspicious heavenly maidens. Within the heavenly realm, there exists a category of minor deities who flit about and attend to various matters for the apsaras.
They possess exceptional singing and dancing abilities, and whenever the Buddha expounds upon his teachings, they soar through the air in graceful dances while playing music and scattering flowers. This imagery actually originated from two minor deities in Brahmanism - Gandharvas and Apsaras. The former is associated with music while the latter embodies dance.
The early translators aptly rendered these minor deities as "Fei Tian," denoting their ethereal nature of soaring through space whilst fulfilling their divine duties. This romantic name has endured till this day. The depiction of flying celestials in India is rather intricate, evolving over different periods with distinctive features. In its earliest form, Indian flying celestials bore distinctively Indian characteristics; both male and female figures were adorned in traditional Indian attire - men were robustly powerful while women possessed harmonious beauty, all deviating greatly from today's representation of flying apsaras.
This sculpture depicts a flying apsaras during Balhara's era (2nd century BC).
Later on, India was influenced by Greek culture which led to an appearance resembling winged cupids called Putti-like flying apsaras boys that became prevalent mainly in Gandhara region (present-day eastern Afghanistan). Traces of Greek influence can still be found in some Buddhist relics preserved in present-day Xinjiang region.
For instance, this mural from the Milan Buddhist Temple in Xinjiang.
The pinnacle of Indian Buddhism was during the Gupta empire when flying apsaras shed their cumbersome wings and instead depicted soaring through ribbons.
02 Spread of flying apsaras in ancient China
The first destination for flying apsaras' visit to China was Xinjiang, although it did not fall within the territory of Han Dynasty at that time but rather belonged to the Western Regions.
The earliest depictions of flying apsaras in China can be found near Kizil town, Baicheng County, Xinjiang - then part of Gaochang (Qiu Ci) Kingdom. Kizil grottoes feature distinctive characteristics of Gaochang's flying apsaras art with round faces and robust physiques that distinctly represent Gaochang people. However, they also suffer from a lackluster sense of dynamism due to short drapery ribbons.
Nevertheless, Kizil grottoes hold significant historical significance as they mark the starting point of Chinese cave art. Flying apsaras made their formal entry into Central Plains during the Northern Liang dynasty. The Northern Liang, Northern Wei, and Western Wei were eras which witnessed the nascent stage of Chinese flying apsaras art primarily inspired by models from Western Regions.
Initially, Buddhism did not flourish within Northern Liang region, until Kumarajiva - a legendary monk who played a pivotal role in promoting local Buddhist culture despite his ill-fated life journey.
The Mogao caves in Dunhuang contain three caves from Northern Liang era, predominantly featuring male flying apsaras until the appearance of both genders during Western Wei dynasty.
This is Cave 272 in Mogao Caves, belonging to the Northern Liang period. It exhibits evident characteristics inherited from Western Regions including distinctive halo-smearing painting technique along with round facial features and stocky physiques, all following the same lineage originating from Western Regions. The so-called halo-smearing painting technique refers to blending colors gradually towards the center while accentuating highlights with white color at central high points; its advantage lies in emphasizing a sense of volume within the human figures.
By the time of Northern Wei dynasty, flying apsaras began exhibiting Han Chinese characteristics. To witness flying apsaras during Northern Wei era one need not specifically visit Mogao Caves but can instead find countless sculptures at Yungang Grottoes located in Datong City, Shanxi Province. The artisans during this period seemed particularly fond of depicting flying celestial figures; they were almost omnipresent throughout various sections to an extent that their abundance became somewhat daunting.
This is a depiction of a flying celestial figure from the Yungang Grottoes. It is evident that both the attire and appearance of the flying celestial figures in the Yungang Grottoes exhibit characteristics of sinicization, including their clothing and slender, rather than round, facial features. During this era, there was a fusion of techniques derived from the Western Regions and dynamic forms originating from Central China, showcasing a harmonious blend of Eastern and Western influences.
Next comes the period from Northern Zhou to Sui Dynasty, which marks the middle phase of flying apsaras art. During this time, ancient chinese gradually developed unique understanding of celestial figures with distinct Chinese characteristics. It's worth mentioning that during this period, female apsara figures began to dominate.
At this time, there was a departure from painting styles influenced by the Western Regions and instead adopted traditional techniques originating from Central China. Especially during the Sui Dynasty, brought forth an open-minded and confident atmosphere that greatly influenced artistic expression. Flying apsaras were boldly depicted as charming or graceful maidens. The artistic style also became more daring with exposed chests, bare backs, and bare feet; paintings exuded fervor and splendor.
This is murals in Cave 404 at Mogao Grottoes dating back to Sui Dynasty, two leisurely and graceful flying apsaras soar through blue skies. The former wears a long red skirt while looking back playing a Sheng (a reed instrument), while the latter adorns herself in a black dress holding lotus flowers with her hands styled into double-looped buns atop her head, her well-proportioned figure exudes lightness, a clear representation of Central Plains' characteristics.
03 Tang Dynasty Flying Apsaras
The flourishing Tang Dynasty following the Sui Dynasty marked its peak for flying apsaras artistry. The most famous pose in apsaras art, known as the play the lute backwards, was created during this prosperous Tang Dynasty. Academically, a mature phase of apsaras art is marked by its comprehensive embodiment of dynamic beauty.
The so-called dynamic beauty can be understood by comparing the postures of Tang Dynasty flying apsaras figures with those from previous eras and Indian depictions. This artwork titled "Play the lute backwards mural," created by contemporary artist Gao Shan based on Tang Dynasty's renowned plucking lute posture, depicts a pose that does not exist in actual performances but is purely drawn for aesthetic purposes.
It has had significant influence in modern times and appears as an iconic dance move in many related performances. The image above showcases a still shot from the large-scale ethnic dance drama called "Flowers Rain of Silk Road" produced by Dunhuang Art Theatre Company, which has gained recognition worldwide.
The "play the lute backwards" pose actually reflects one prominent element associated with renowned Tang Dynasty flying apsaras figures, the element of music and dance. In Tang Dynasty paintings featuring flying apsaras, we often see them playing flutes mid-air or plucking lutes; some have phoenix-shaped instruments or play long drums, forming a joyous symphony orchestra performance.
Such grand jubilance was unique to the Tang Dynasty. Whether craftsmen were depicting scenes from heavenly Buddhist realms or idealized earthly visions of distant Chang'an (the capital city), perhaps only they themselves knew for certain.
One of the distinctive characteristics of Tang Dynasty flying apsaras is their leisurely demeanor. It is rare to see them flying in haste; instead, they often display graceful postures and relaxed expressions. They casually scatter flowers as their mood dictates, while some choose to admire the mortal world from the railings, truly embodying the phrase "floating beyond the heavens, gazing down upon immortal palaces." This sense of relaxation was unique to the grand Tang Dynasty.
During this era, long and colorful ribbons representing ethereal beauty were widely used in depictions of flying apsaras. Their natural and effortless flight dynamics were also exclusive to the flourishing Tang Dynasty.
04 Development of traditional flying apsaras
Although the artistry of flying apsaras reached its peak splendor during Tang Dynasty period, it would gradually fade away. In fact, signs of crisis within the concept of flying celestial beings had already surfaced during the prosperous Tang Dynasty, there was an increasingly evident tendency towards standardization or what could be called solidification.
After the Tang Dynasty, formats for paintings depicting these heavenly creatures became repetitive with similar themes. Only skills continued to improve while losing that ever-changing and innovative atmosphere reminiscent of its golden age in Tang Dynasty artistry. Moreover, they lacked that vibrant liveliness and joyous tone found in Tang Dynasty representations of flying apsaras. Especially during Yuan Dynasty depictions where dresses were shorter and bodies appeared heavier with less dynamic movement, it paled in comparison to those from Tang Dynasty.
In Yuan Dynasty portrayals, clouds were often used as symbols for flight but lacked any sense of soaring; they merely served as support for floating figures amidst colorful clouds without recapturing that imaginative artistic tension seen during the glorious days of the Tang Dynasty.
Although flying apsaras declined after the Tang Dynasty, as stated in "Flying Apsaras in the Mortal World," they did not perish with the passing of time. They continued to exist, appearing in new songs and dances, murals, and artworks. The imagery of flying apsaras can be found everywhere.
It can be said that they descended from heaven to earth and will forever live within people's hearts, continuously inspiring and providing enjoyment through their beauty. Even after enduring centuries of washing away by time's tide, the aesthetic appeal of these flying apsaras remains stunningly unparalleled.