The main goal of this research is to examine, investigate and analyse the features and composition of the Three Hares motif in the Dunhuang 敦煌 Mogao Caves (Mogaoku 莫高窟), in order to explore the origin and development of the symbol. To date, scholarship on this motif tended to treat the three-hares as an independent element, while failing to consider other components of the image and the larger context of the cave in which the motif is painted. By contrast, my research examines hitherto neglected elements and puts the symbol into a wider background by conducting detailed case studies covering all periods of the appearance of the motif, in order to evaluate the influential cultural factors related to the respective caves and determine the features and transformation of the image in Dunhuang. This will provide a firm foundation for analysis of the meaning of the Three Hares motif. I will also conduct an exploratory evaluation of the potential connection between this motif and the image of the wheel of rebirth (Sanskrit: bhavacakra, Pali: bhavacakka) or “Wheel of Life” (originating in India and spreading throughout East Asia), which shows such structural and possibly also conceptual resemblances to the Three Hares motif. The methodology I will use in the research is a combination of iconographic, archaeological, and textual studies, with an emphasis on the visual art of the Mogao caves of Dunhuang.
The concrete research questions include the following: (1) What is the origin of the Three Hares motif in the Mogao Caves?; (2) Under what circumstances was this symbol created and how did it evolve; how was it integrated in the cave structures during different periods; (3) What meaning does the Three Hares motif at the Mogao Caves represent; (4) How did the motif spread, and are there direct relations to the motif appearing in other places along the Silk Road, and in later periods also in Europe?