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The Teachings of Parrots in Dunhuang

Photographer:Zdeněk Macháček ©Unsplash

Mogao caves of Dunhuang are the most famous treasure house of Buddhist art in the world. Strolling through these caves, we unveil the beauty of exquisite art and crafts and the wisdom of the ancients that lasted for thousands of years.

Zaojing, Cave No.369, 875-907 AD

Not only filled with celestial frescos and sculptures of buddhas and saints,  the Mogao caves also covered aspects of the secular world. Whether it be people bustling about their business or celebrating festivals, all depicted by painters in great detail. Gazing at the spectacular mural paintings, one can be reminded of the festivity of Chinese New Year: families gathering round, sitting joyfully for delicious food and exchanging red packets. Even the family pets get to enjoy the occasion by having a big meal.

Photographer:Tina Witherspoon ©Unsplash

A Festive Chinese New Year

You may wonder what a truly authentic Chinese New Year is like. Usually, people start the preparation a month prior to the grand celebration. Everything needs to be red, clean, and brand new. Wearing new clothes is definitely one of the most exciting things during this time. As the New Year nears, a spring clean is undertaken. Each family member takes up a cleaning task—the house, the yard, everything will be thoroughly cleaned. Older family members go shopping in the market, purchase firecrackers, and cook traditional food (style varies in different regions), all of which bear a hopeful wish for the coming year. 

Decades ago, when most Chinese people lived in poverty, the New Year celebration was the only opportunity to enjoy good food and family time. Now that times have changed and people have seen considerable improvements in living standards, the sentiment for Chinese New Year is gradually thinning out. But oh, do we miss the good old times!

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Parrots: Embodiment of Buddha, Symbol of Good Luck

Parrots are intelligent animals capable of complex cognition, which is why we love them so much. In Buddhism, parrots are regarded as exotic spirit creatures, the embodiment of Amitabha Buddha, fluttering their wings across continents to spread the Dharma.

Through Mogao caves, we also catch a glimpse of how parrots are portrayed as a representation of good fortune. If you stop at Cave No.61 and look up at the roof, you will see graceful images of spinning curling lotus petals surrounded by parrots circling, singing, and dancing on all four corners. It is a scene of religious reverence, conveying joy, blessings and prosperity.

Cave No.369 shows splendorous images of coiled dragons with parrots dancing around at each corner and decorated with green drapery, jewel pendants, and wreaths. Every detail was exquisitely coloured, rendering a festive and harmonious sentiment.

Since Chinese families love having birds, especially parrots, as pets, many of us grew up with the fond memory of playing with parrots and teaching them how to say “Happy New Year.” The parrots would jump up and down, trying to repeat the words. Sometimes they’d chirp something hard to understand, but there were times when they managed to say “Happy New Year,” and the kids would scream with joy! 

From Mogao caves to Chinese New Year, from swirling parrots to family feasts, we celebrate life and long for eternity. We will always believe tomorrow is a better day as it is deep-rooted in our nature. But let’s not forget the past and the sweetest childhood memories.

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Dunhuang, Mogao cave, Parrots, Chinese New Year, ARTiSTORY, licensing
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