A Journey through Aesthetic Realms
Jessie Fan: Bringing to Life the Ancient Art of Dunhuang (In Chinese)      
Today’s A Journey through Aesthetic Realms will be presented in Chinese, with subtitles in Arabic, Aulacese (Vietnamese), Chinese, English, French, German, Hungarian, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Mongolian, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Thai.

The greatest love is universal love. Likewise, great art should be universal and should embrace all things. This dance represents my love towards Dunhuang, my love towards dance and my passion towards choreography. From the beginning, I always had the vision that it should be universal.

Halo devoted viewers, and welcome to A Journey through Aesthetic Realms on Supreme Master Television. Today, through our interview with an esteemed Chinese dancer we will learn of a glorious folk dance inspired by the spiritual art found in Dunhuang, an ancient city in northwestern China. As a young woman, Jessie Fan studied dance at Chinese Culture University in Formosa (Taiwan). On a fortuitous occasion, she was exposed to a unique dance style which changed her life forever.

I first became passionate about the Dunhuang dance when I was in college. I watched a fellow student’s performance of the Dunhuang dance for the first time. I was told by the school that it was one of the classic dances. The costumes, the music and the choreography in this dance were all different from those of the folk dances that I learned when I was little.

Later, when I went to study in Japan, I watched a documentary film on TV on Dunhuang, which touched me deeply and brought me to tears. Since then, I started to study the Dunhuang dance. Whenever I talk about Dunhuang, I always feel like crying. It’s because it has shaken me to the core and I think I will never give it up. It has become part of my life.

Starting with the Han Dynasty, Dunhuang, situated in a desert oasis in China’s Gansu province, has been a key city on a once-thriving golden trade route that connected the Chinese civilization with the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and Europe. For centuries, it has welcomed monks, merchants, diplomats and travelers from afar, supplied them with provisions and merchandise, and embraced them with friendliness. Dunhuang’s history as a Buddhist center began in the 4th century AD.

In the beginning, there were two monks named Le Zun and Le Shan, who came to an area between the Sanwei Mountain and the Wushan Mountain to beg for alms. When they were walking along the cliff, they suddenly saw golden light coming out of the cliff walls. They were very excited. They thought that it was a sign from Buddha. So they immediately knelt down and thanked the manifestation of Buddha’s light. They thought that it must be a sign from Buddha, telling them to do Buddha’s work in that area. So they raised some funds from donations and used them to build two small caves.

Slowly, more caves were built. They were called the Thousand Buddha Caves. The sizes of the caves are all different. Some are only as big as a palm with one mini Buddha statue inside. I think these caves are so grand because they came from a spontaneous effort by the people, as they were moved by their faith. Their caves are so beautiful, so artistic and so touching that they inspired people to continue to build more caves in the next ten dynasties.

There are a total of 492 caves in Dunhuang, also known as the Mogao Caves. In the early 20th century, thousands of ancient manuscripts in various languages were found in one of the caves. The books range in date from 100 BC to 1200 AD. They cover a wide range subjects including religion, philosophy, literature, history, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, music, and dance.

Inside the caves are a total of 42,000 square meters of colorful frescos depicting Buddhist stories and heavenly scenes as well as many sculptures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

One of the murals is about fairies standing by a fence. The fence was like a fortress and the fairies stood in line and looked as if they were looking into the mortal world.

There are standing Buddha statues, and one of them is called “The Angel of the East.” If we observe its expression and shape, we’ll find that it has a long upper body and a beautiful waistline; the lower body is relatively short.

The images of Bodhisattvas, whether they are standing, playing an instrument, or contemplating, all have dance elements in them.

These elegant images have inspired many modern artists to create a distinct style of choreography called Dunhuang dance. This dance genre aspires to artistically replicate the cave mural scenes such as “Flying to Heaven,” and “Fairy Scattering Flowers” with graceful dance movements accompanied by traditional Chinese music. Ms. Fan has created a unique form of Dunhuang dance that reflects her interpretation of the frescoes and she believes it can be understood by all audiences irrespective of nationality or culture. She has named this dance “Vu Shon.”

I was called to this path. As a professional choreographer, I thought I should contribute my part to bring the murals in the Dunhuang caves to life after I had digested them and then introduce the cultural origin to more people in the world, telling them it’s such a great work and it’s a treasure of the world.

All of these provided me with great materials for my dance movements. For example, the fairies are descending from the sky, and their expressions gave me a lot of inspiration for the choreography of my basic movements.

Ms. Jessie Fan now explains the distinct features of Dunhuang dance.

All of the dance movements has these things in common: the “S” body shape, the eye expressions, the variations of the hand gestures and the leg movements. These are different from other forms of dance. Even the steps in this dance are different from those of the Western dances such as ballet.

As to the Western dances, you can see from modern dance and ballet that they emphasize the beauty of the straight line. In ballet, the dancers have to stretch and elongate themselves. Modern dance also emphasizes the power of stretching and speed. So part of the unique beauty of the Dunhuang dance, or the mural dance style as I prefer to call it, is the display of the body in the shape of an “S.”

We can immediately tell that it is different from the Western style. The second feature of the dance is that it displays a different kind of beauty through making use of small gestures. First, there are the hand gestures. In the Dunhuang murals, the hand gestures can be seen in many places, so they are very important.

Our Oriental dances emphasize small things including the expression of the eyes.

Jessie Fan now gives further examples of why Dunhuang dance is such a refined art.

The greatness of the Chinese Dunhuang murals is the beauty of the indirectness and subtle expressions of the figures. When they refer to a bird, they don’t use their hands to make a bird shape. They use their emotions coming from the heart. The artists had to digest a lot of things before they could replicate the looks on the Bodhisattvas’ faces.

That’s why these gods’ expressions can touch people. When you look at them, or when the faithful look at them – they see how compassionate this Bodhisattva looks, so compassionate, so compassionate – this expression will touch people. I have been working on this for many years – the expressions, and these are one of the most important things in Vu Shon. They are very subtle and very difficult to perform.

Some of the Bodhisattvas are shown playing music in the cave murals and many Dunhuang dancers draw upon this sacred theme.

Actually the dancing poses depicted in the Dunhuang frescoes have many unique features. These features are reflected in the various Bodhisattva postures. For example, the basic hand gestures I designed in section two are derived from the poses of the music-playing Bodhisattva. Of course, in these basic moves, I also incorporated the materials of my teacher, Ms. Gao Jin-Rong, the Dean of the Gansu Academy for Performing Arts. Let me now demonstrate a few poses related to musical instruments.

The music-playing Bodhisattva’s poses include the Woodwind- playing Pose and the Holding-the-Sheng Pose. Holding-the-Sheng. There is also a livelier pose, the Stag Pose and the Lotus Pose.

Of course, the most famous dancing pose derived from the fresco is the Reverse Pipa-playing Pose.

Usually we play the pipa instrument like this, but in the fresco, it’s played from the rear. Let me demonstrate this pose to show the beauty of it. The pose after this is the Joining-Palm Pose, which is a basic pose for the beginning and the ending.

The Lotus is a symbol of purity and divinity and is frequently found in Buddhist artwork.

And for the Lotus movement, I’d add a hand move called “Little Flower Dance” move. Even though this kind of thing is just a connecting movement, you can make it very beautiful. Then you can let it flow to the next movement. So I think we need to design a basic set of movements and then add more elements. Then the whole dance will come to life with new energy. Then these movements are not just static poses as depicted in the frescos. This way you don’t limit yourself.

The most well-known Dunhuang dance is derived from one of the most famous mural scenes in the caves called “Flying to Heaven.” The scene is one of the most beloved as it reminds people of their home in Heaven.

We can say that in 490 caves, there are about 1,200 pictures of “Flying to Heaven” and of course many of them are similar to one another. You can also find pictures of “Flying to Heaven” in India, Thailand, Cambodia, in the Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism traditions. Their poses are also very similar.

In the Kizil cave, I saw a picture of a family flying to Heaven together, including a father, a mother and a child. It’s a happy picture of a family. The more I research the images of “Flying to Heaven,” the more I find them interesting. I can never seem to finish my research.

Our sincere thanks Ms. Jessie Fan for your introduction to the Vu Shon style of Dunhuang dance and we laud you for your devoted efforts to preserve Dunhuang culture. May your pursuit of beauty always yield blessed rewards!

For more details on Ms. Jessie Fan, please visit

Gracious viewers, thank you for your thoughtful presence on today’s episode of A Journey through Aesthetic Realms. Up next on Supreme Master Television is Vegetarianism: The Noble Way of Living. May your virtuous heart forever shine with the qualities of Heaven!

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