Lijiang Mural was the product of open Naxi society
The famous "Lijiang Mural" was the product of open Naxi society in Ming Dynasty, which lasted 300 years from the early Ming to early Qing Dynasty. Late Ming and early Qing dynasties, Lijiang Mural has a history more than five hundred years.
In these long years, Lijiang had experienced more than ten generation of the ruling of Chieftain and flexible officers, among which there were enlightened person and stupid person; the person who brought flourished, and the person who brought decline; the person who believe in Buddhism, and ones who believe in Taoism or Lamaism. Various religious in Lijiang often had alternate development process due to the ruler's preferences; besides, with rise and fall of Lijiang temples, the murals were affected directly.
In 1962, the investigation report of cultural relics teams in Yunnan province was recorded like this: "Lijiang Murals are located in Wande Palace of Yangxi Town, Refuge Hall of Dayan Town, Hantan Temple, Dajue Palace of Shuhe Town, Former Residence of Mu family of Yajiao Village, Fuguo Temple of Zhishan Mountain, Liuli Temple of Baisha Town, Dabaoji Palace, Fuguo Temple of Zhi Mountain, Liuli Hall of Baisha Town, Hufa Hall, Dading Pavilion, Cedar Temple of Cedar Village”. There are more than ten places and 200 pieces of works of Lijiang existing murals. The existing 55 murals are distributed in religious buildings around the city, including Maharatnakuta Palace, Liuli Temple, Dading Pavilion, and Dajue Palace in Shuhe Town. Therein, the murals in Dabaoji Palace of Baisha Village which is five kilometers from Dayan ancient town was announced as the fourth batch of national key cultural relics protection units by the government  in 1996.
The earliest mural in Liuli Temple should be earlier than the fifteen-year of Yongle (AD 1417). This was the early-stage of Lijiang Mural. However, the religious paintings of the Central Plains region were at the bottom during this period.
In Song Dynasty, Taoism was preferred by the ruler, and so Taoism art was regarded as national art, many famous artists were willing to engage in Taoism painting. There were a large number of famous painters such as Yan Liben, Wu Daozi, Zhou Fang, Wu Zongyuan, who were all the master of Taoism paintings, and their works were regarded as the treasures of the country. From “painting tea on the gateway, and tiger on the wall" in Yan and Huang emperors period to painting bricks in Han Dynasty and then Taoism murals of Wu Daozi and Wu Zongyuan Han, the murals have been brilliant for thousands of years. With the time passed by and the decline of the status of Taoism, Taoism art also declined. There was no famous religious painter in Ming and Qing dynasties as recorded. Painters were no longer painting for the public, because in this period, the court preferred the Indian Buddha, and the artists who influenced by Confucianism and Taoism were not really willing to paint those India Buddha, and thus the religious paintings of the matter were left to the folk artist. Scholars were isolated and pride, advocating "painting according to their own desire", therefore, they began to draw landscape, and bird-and-flower painting made significant progress. However, the figure painting of China (i.e. the main characters shaped in religious paintings) was stalled.
But there were exceptions, the artistic achievements of someone who loved the Taoism master painting, or figure painting artists have been demonstrated and extension after they left the mainland to remote areas.
Lijiang murals are the show and extension of this art, which is the direct successor of mural art in Tang and Song, the most perfect form of Chinese mural art, and the treasures of world mural art.
From Taoism history, religious art history, and Chinese painting history, it can be obviously found and concluded that: Taoism paintings in the Central Plains mainland began to decline from Ming Dynasty, while the Ming Dynasty is flourishing period in remote areas of the Taoism arts.
Compared with the Dunhuang murals, Wu Daozi and Wu Zong Yuan's works, artistic achievement of Lijiang murals are closer to Yongle Palace murals, which have remarkable progress. But as long as appreciation and compare carefully, we can conclude that Lijiang murals are slightly better than Yongle Palace murals. If we say that Dunhuang murals creates a mural brilliant beginning chapter of China, then Chaoyuan Xianzhang Painting (A Guard of Honor of Chaoyuan Immortals) of Yongle Palace boots the chapter to new heights; and Lijiang Dabaoji mural completes the peakedness of Chinese religious mural art.
It is very necessary to conduct that: China's religious paintings was created and drew by knowledge-based artists before the Ming Dynasty. Subsequently, the most of them were drawn by the folk painters, while the scholars were turned to flowers and bird creations. Therefore, the famous religious paintings derived from Ming Dynasty ago. And then they were mostly folk art, with no masterpiece.
In Ming Dynasty, the Taoism paintings in The Central Plains were frustrated, thus many famous painters turned to literati painting, part of the masters were employed by the Naxi chiefs with lavish gifts, so Lijiang murals were improved overstating on the basis of the Central Plains murals; and these masters had drawn a large number of mainland religious paintings, and laid a solid foundation to reached the highest artistic achievements of its murals at Yulong mountain.
From the view of Dabaoji Palace murals, the drawing program should like this: Each piece painting should be served by a master who is the painter in chief. From the overall composition to gesture, tone, and color of figure, they were all determined by this person, which was called in jargon "the manuscript". Meanwhile, the rest artist should draw in strict accordance with the manuscript, and the key parts should be drawn by the painter in chief. After the work is completed, the painter in chief should polish the whole works, the uncoordinated parts should be adjusted, and the colors which have gone out of tune should be transferred back to unified tune, and thus the mural was completed.
The murals in Dabaoji Palace can be summarized as two major religions styles. Two great religions include: Taoism, Chinese Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism. Two styles are: Tibetan Buddhism style and Taoism style.
Among which, the Taoism style is the main style in two styles. Three masterpieces including Buddha Map on the front wall and Sea Map, Bodhisattva Universal Door Story Map on the side wall are all based on Taoism painting style. Therefore, we can find that the painter in chief is the master of the Central Plains.
Although the work with Tibetan Buddhist style is not painted at a prominent place, but the number is still quite a lot, which include all five painting on west wall, the first painting from the west on the north wall and three lines of Tibetan Buddhist statues above Buddha Map on the front wall. Although these Tibetan Buddhist style works have been adjusted by the painter in chief, but they still have prominent still, therefore, we can find that the painter in chief and the painters are all from Tibet. According to the record of Painter Guzong Gu Chang on Wande Palace monument in Yangxi village, which means that this painter is a Tibetan named Gu Chang.
As for Naxi Dongba painting style, it is not reflected in murals. It is certain that Chieftain Mu has sent Dongba mural painter to participate, but because the theme of murals are all Tibetan Buddhist cultures, so they only served as ordinary painters to draw painting as the meaning of the painter in chief.
From a content perspective of religious murals, the Chinese Buddhism is the center. From three main works, the major gods are Buddha and Buddha in Chinese Buddhism. As the above discussion, Taoism was frustrated in Ming Dynasty and converted into civil activities. And Buddhism was preferred and became the protagonist from the royal court to the important temples.
The second place of religious painting is the Taoism. At that time, although the Taoism of the Central Plains was suffered hit, border areas was not seriously affected, besides the chief creator of these mural totals are the master of Taoism theme. The major gods should be drawn based on the requirements of the Chieftain Mu, and the rest of the gods were drawn as the skilled character of Taoism and therefore from the characters of the murals, Taoism was accounted for a prominent position.
The content of Tibetan Buddhism is ranked as the third place. In the twelve works, six paintings are painting of Lama, but they are in non-prominent position with small breadth. From here, we can see the diplomacy of Chieftain Mu is tilted to the central Dynasty. However, with the efforts of the monks, six works with Tibetan Buddhist style show unique styles with the strong independence.
The happy journey begins here