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Silk banner with resist-dyed motifs

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Tang dynasty

Banners are among the paraphernalia used by Buddhist clergy and lay followers in religious activities. Two types of silk banners, mostly multicoloured, have been unearthed from Mogao Caves at Dunhuang. The first type is a symbol of buddha's mighty presence, or to be hung on either side of the stūpa and canopy, or used to lead the way. The second type is the votive banners offered to Buddhist shrines by lay followers in anticipation or on fulfilment of wishes such as eliminating mishap and disease, and gaining fortune and longevity. This banner belongs to the latter type.

This silk banner was unearthed in 1965 from a rocky hole beneath the surface of a mural on the south wall of Mogao Cave 130. It comprises a triangular head, a long body made up of six pieces of conjoining fabric with decorative motifs, and a bifurcated tail.

The head is made of white double-layered silk gauze printed with roundish floret motif, adorned with red silk borders.

The body of the banner comprises six pieces of square silk fabric sewn end to end; three purple ones spaced by a green or a yellow piece. The cloud-head, flower and bird motif against a yellow ground shown on the third piece from top down is the result of wax dyeing. To perform this dyeing method, a knife is used to pick up dissolved wax to draw the desired patterns on white silk. Then the piece is dipped in dye. The waxed parts will resist the dye and remain white. Finally the fabric is put into hot water to remove the wax and then rinsed under running water. The wax-protected white patterns will stand out against the dyed background, as seen on the present banner. The beautiful decoration is imbued with a sense of archaic elegance.

The other five silk squares are tie-dyed to give neat rows of white dots against a green or purple ground. To perform this dyeing method, needle and thread, or simply threads are used to manipulate the fabric into folds or pleats according to a certain pattern, or the fabric is simply crumpled and knotted in specific places. The unexposed areas will partially resist the dye while the exposed areas will pick up the colour more easily, resulting in various patterns.

The bifurcated tail of the banner is made of blue silk.

This silk banner attests to the various resist-dyeing methods, exquisite decorative designs and harmonious colour scheme used in the Tang dynasty. It is the most refined and most vividly coloured example of silk banners found in Mogao Caves.