The Kizil Grottoes, also known as the Kizil Thousand-Buddha Caves, form a significant complex of Buddhist rock-cut caves situated on the northern bank of the Muzart River in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. These caves were first established in the ancient Kingdom of Kucha (c.2nd century-648 BC), the most populous oasis in the Tarim Basin in today’s Northwest China.

As one of China's Four Great Grottoes (the other three being Mogao Grottoes, Longmen Grottoes and Yungang Grottoes), the Kizil Grottoes are the oldest, with construction beginning in the third century and continuing until the ninth century. A total of 236 caves have been cataloged, and while many statues have suffered significant damage, numerous architectural features and murals remain well-preserved.

Murals depicting Kucha music and dance in Cave 76 [Photos/Official WeChat account of Ethnic Costume Museum]

Numerous images with music and dance elements are part of the unique charm of the murals in the Kizil Grottoes, especially the gorgeous mural named Tian Gong Ji Yue Tu, which depicts a breathtaking view of celestial beings playing music, dancing and praising the Buddha in the heavenly palace. This mural is a prime portrayal of Silk Road music. The images in the grottoes were built not only to serve Buddhism, but also as a true reflection of the high musical level of ancient Kucha society.

Kucha dances, along with related instruments such as the harp, Qiang flute, transverse flute, and pipa, spread eastward to the Central Plain area along the Silk Road through artistic exchanges. They not only quickly rose in popularity, but were also incorporated into court music, thus integrating into local life. The images depicted in the Kizil Grottoes, together with Central Plains documents showing that Kucha dance and music were popular in the royal courts during the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-907) and spread throughout East Asia and Western Territory, prove the exchanges of music and dance art along the Silk Road.

Mural depicting Kucha music and dance in Cave 38
Mural depicting Kucha music and dance in Cave 38
Mural depicting flying celestial beings atop the back corridor in Kizil New Cave 1


The Kucha murals depict up to 27 instruments, roughly divided into three categories: plucked instruments, wind instruments, and percussion instruments. Among them, the five-stringed pipa, ruanxian (a plucked string instrument), konghou (Chinese harp), bili (a reed flute) and jiegu (hourglass-shaped drum) are particularly representative.

Five-stringed pipa

The five-stringed pipa is the most frequently depicted instrument in the Kucha region’s cave complexes, appearing in numerous caves such as the Kizil Grottoes, the Kumtura Caves and the Simsim Caves. The wooden five-stringed Pipa depicted in the murals has a straight neck with a trapezoidal head that hold a total of five tuning pegs. Its elongated pear-shaped resonator integrates perfectly with its neck. Two crescent-shaped sound holes are placed on both sides of the strings on the resonator, whilst there’re four to five, or no frets on the neck. Playing the five-stringed pipa typically involves plucking the strings with the right hand while using the left hand to shift the pitch by pressing the frets. Playing postures can vary depending on performers, who sometimes play and dance and sometimes perform in ensemble with bili (a reed flute).

A flying apsara playing a five-stringed pipa is depicted in Cave 8 of the Kizil Grottoes


The panpipe is made of 9 to 14 bamboo tubes tied together with rope. In the Kizil Grottoes, there’re two types of panpipes: one with several tubes arranged from short to long in a trapezoidal shape (known as the Central Plain style), while the other type has tubes of the same length arranged in a square shape. The square panpipes make more frequent appearances in early Kizil murals, representing changes made by Kizil musicians based on Kizil temperament. The sound of the panpipe is melodious and refreshing, and the more tubes there are, the wider the range of notes. It’s the trapezoidal panpipe that was used in Kucha music.

A celestial being plays a panpipe.

Vertical konghou (Chinese harp)

The vertical konghou can be spotted in Cave 80 of the Kizil Grottoes, Cave 13 and 58 of the Kumtura Caves, and Cave 28 and 30 of the Kizilgaha Caves. There are various forms of the vertical konghou: some have a bow-shaped neck with strings hanging straight (as seen in Cave 13 of Kumtura and Cave 69 of Kizil), while some have strings that are slanted in front of a long, semi-pear-shaped resonator (as observed in Cave 30 of Kizilgaha), and some have a pouch-like resonator at the bottom into which a bow-shaped neck is inserted, with strings hanging straight or diagonally (as depicted in Cave 80 of Kizil). Most of the konghous depicted in Kucha murals are small in size, have 10 to 14 strings, and are held by left or right arms and plucked with both hands. Originating from Western Asia, this instrument was later introduced to Kucha via Persia and Gandhara.

A celestial being plays a vertical konghou.


The jiegu, an hourglass-shaped drum, is one of the representative instruments in Kucha music and is clearly depicted in Cave 186 and 224 of the Kizil Grottoes and Cave 68 of the Kumtura Caves. The drum rose to popular during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) after being introduced to the Central Plains, and it was frequently used for solo performances. Covered with leather at both ends, the drum produces a loud sound and is distinctive when played at different tempos. Playing the drums require highly skilled techniques, such as placing the drum on a small bed and striking it on both ends with drumsticks. The jiegu drums in Kucha murals are depicted being struck with hands rather than sticks.

A celestial being playing the jiegu drum was depicted in Cave 1, 3, 5 of the Kizil Grottoes.

Bow-shaped konghou

The bow-shaped konghou, an ancient Chinese plucked string instrument, has no decorations at its head and resembles a curved bow, hence its name. According to research, the Kucha bow-shaped konghou deviates from the norm. It has a gourd-shaped resonator that is covered in leather and its neck passing through it. As an instrument used in Kucha secular music performances, the bow-shaped konghou is one of the earliest and most frequently depicted instruments in Kucha murals.

A bow-shaped konghou depicted in Cave 80

Crooked-neck pipa

The crooked-neck four-stringed pipa, the second most frequently depicted musical instrument in Xinjiang’s cave murals, is vividly depicted in Cave 23 and 30 of the Kizil Grottoes, Cave 24 and 46 of the Kumtura Caves, and Cave 29 of the Bezeklik Caves.

The crooked-neck pipa is depicted in Cave 227.


Ruanxian, a plucked string instrument, is mostly characterized by its straight and thin neck, with a round and large body. The shape of its tailpiece could vary, and it often has two sound hole openings. A minority of these instruments have a round body with a crooked neck. Moreover, there’s a depiction of a three-stringed ruanxian in Cave 77 of the Kizil Grottoes, which has a circular body and a slender neck. The three-stringed ruanxian requires frequent shifting of positions due to tone transposition. All images depicting four-stringed ruanxian can be found in Cave 14,17,38, 98, 118 and 224 of the Kizil Caves, as well as Cave 11 of the Kizilgaha Caves.

The ruanxian depicted in Cave 77
The ruanxian depicted in Cave 118 
The ruanxian depicted in Cave 38

Waist drum

The waist drum, commonly used in Kucha music, can be spotted at Cave 13 and 68 of the Kumtura Caves, and Cave 135 and 224 of the Kizil Grottoes. Wrapped with leather, the waist drum is thin in the middle and wide at both ends, making a sound when struck by hands. It is typically tied around a person’s waist with a rope when being played.

A waist drum depicted in Cave 224
A cylindrical drum depicted in Cave 77


Where there’s music, there’s dancing. The types of dances depicted in the Kucha murals are just as diverse as the instruments. They cover vigorous dances, gentle dances, animal mimicry dances, dances that require props, and more. These art forms can be divided into solo, duet and group dances. Kizil dance features expressive facial expressions and alternating tempos that create strong contrast. The movements blend strength and grace, exuding a powerful artistic charm. Various props are used in Kucha dances. Among the images depicted in the Kucha murals, there are many representations of dancers holding scarves and ribbons, indicating the influence of Central Plain’s silk dances on Kucha. It is common practice to combine dancing with musical instruments, but Kucha had the tendency of simultaneously playing instruments while dancing. The use of small, handheld instruments serves both for creating music and as dance props, becoming a prominent feature of Kucha music and dance culture.

Paired dances

Paired dances are the most expressive form of dance in Kucha music and dance. Depicted in numerous Tian Gong Ji Yue Tu murals in the Kucha Caves, this art form involves a pair of dancers that simultaneously play music and dance. This combination, rarely seen in murals outside of the Kucha Caves, is likely related to the popularity of paired dances in Kucha folk culture. Furthermore, these duets predominantly feature male-female pairings, with males often playing plucked or percussion instruments, while females play wind instruments. This suggests the dominant role of male musicians, as they were responsible for controlling the rhythm and beat of the songs.

Paired dance depicted in Cave 171 in the Kizil Grottoes
The Gandharva and his dependent depicted in Cave 80

Solo dances (dancers holding scarves and ribbons)

Dancer in Cave 118
A dancer holding a ribbon depicted in Cave 77
A dancer depicted in Cave 175
A dancer depicted in Cave 83
An apsara dancing with a ribbon depicted in Cave 8