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Music and dance scene with "pipa" played behind the back

(Please click for enlarged image)

South wall of Mogao Cave 112
Mid Tang dynasty
Copy by Wu Rongjian

The music and dance scene in this painting is copied from the lower centre of the tableau illustrating the Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra (Sūtra of Amitābha-Mindfulness).

Three musicians holding different musical instruments are sitting on either side of the stage. The left hand of the dancer in the centre of the stage is raised high up towards the back holding a pipa while the right hand is swung behind the body to strum on the strings. This almost acrobatic feat was designed to emphasize the superb dancing skill of the dancer. ‘Playing the pipa behind the back' is a typical dancing posture depicted on Dunhuang murals.

Orchestras depicted in religious scenes on Dunhuang murals offer an epitome of the court orchestras of the Sui and Tang dynasties. The musicians are usually symmetrically arranged in two groups flanking the dancers in the centre. The number of musicians in an orchestra is not fixed but basically equal numbers of musicians are placed on either side.