Avalokiteshvara, a colour woodblock print

From Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China
Five Dynasties, 10th century AD

One of the earliest coloured woodblock prints

This print was found in Cave 17 at Mogao together with many other woodblock prints, including the world's earliest dated printed book, the Diamond Sutra (dated AD 868, now in the British Library, London).

By the tenth century AD printing on paper was widely available in Dunhuang and was popular as a cheaper way of producing images. As in Europe six centuries later, the earliest use of printing in China was fuelled by the desire to spread religious texts and images.

This print combines text and image, enhanced with colour added by hand. Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, is seated in the middle. He is without his usual attribute, a figure of the Buddha Amitabha in his headdress, though he is identified in the cartouche on the right. The text below contains a prayer.

This layout, with the image on top and text below, was to become the dominant one for Chinese illustrated books from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries.

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More information


R. Whitfield, Art of Central Asia: The Ste-1, vol. 2 (Tokyo, Kodansha International Ltd., 1982-85)

R. Whitfield and A. Farrer, Caves of the thousand Buddhas: (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)


Height: 39.900 cm
Width: 17.000 cm

Museum number

Asia OA 1919,1-1,0.234


Gift of Sir Marc Aurel Stein


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