September 16, 2008

Decoration of the text

The paper was often dyed, partly as protection against insects and partly to achieve an attractive glossy surface. Yellow was a favourite choice but many other colours were also used, including red, green, pink and blue (Tsuen-Hsuin, 1997).

From the earliest development of writing in China, calligraphy was considered an art form in its own right, and this may explain the lack of decoration on the vast majority of the Dunhuang manuscripts. A keyword search for “illustrated” in the IDP database returned only about 60 results, from over 20,000 manuscripts. When the manuscripts were decorated (apart from the calligraphy), it was mainly with line drawings (Peald 3c Recto) done in the same ink as the text. Drawings were often diagrams or representations of the text, as in this star chart (Or.8210/S.3326), rather than purely decorative.

Most of the manuscripts have visible gridlines; these were likely to assist in making the text uniform, but they may also have been considered decorative – in most cases the lines are as visible as the text. If they were purely functional you would expect them to be fainter so as not to draw attention away from the text.