Dunhuang: Buddhist Art at the Gateway of the Silk Road

April 19 - October 6, 2013

INTRODUCTION

Dunhuang, an oasis town strategically located in western Gansu province, was once an important hub of east-west trade and China’s gateway to the Silk Road. Established as a Chinese garrison in 111 BCE, it became a transit point for caravans of luxury goods, fine Central Asian horses, diplomatic missions, monks going east to spread the Buddhist doctrine, and pilgrims going west to bring back Buddhist scriptures. Over the course of time political control of the area would shift, and events elsewhere would bring different peoples to settle here. The religions, cultures, and intellectual ideas of several different civilizations met, mixed, and left their traces in Dunhuang’s sacred cave shrines.

The largest and most important of these cave shrines is the Mogao Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its 735 caves are cut into a cliff located just 25 kilometers southeast of the oasis town. Cave construction began here in 366 CE and continued for another thousand years. The 492 caves presently preserved in the southern section houses more than 2,000 painted sculptures, more than 45,000 square meters of murals, and the remains of wooden architecture. These works of art are major masterpieces of Buddhist art and provide an important resource for studying not only the evolution of artistic styles but also the religious practices, social history, and culture of the widely diverse ethnic groups in the region. In addition, the tens of thousands of manuscripts and relics hidden in the Library Cave, discovered in 1900, are considered a virtual “encyclopedia of the medieval period” in ancient China and Central Asia.

The Dunhuang caves and their contents, preserved until this day by their isolation and the dry climate of the Gobi Desert, are very fragile. Consequently, tourist access to this site is highly regulated, and the Dunhuang Academy has been developing various methods of exhibition that would safeguard and preserve its treasures. This exhibition combines replicas created by the Academy and authentic relics to re-create the experience of visiting two of the Mogao Grottoes’ important shrines—the sixth-century Cave 432 in one gallery and the eighth-century Cave 45 in another.

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    佛經寫本:《大般涅槃经》
    Hand-written Buddhist scripture: Mahaparinirvana Sutra

    Northern Dynasties (386–581)
    Paper; 27.5 x 165 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, D.0227

    The text is a transcription of “On the Nature of Tathagata,” chapter 12 of the Nirvana Sutra (or Mahaparinirvana Sutra), which was translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Dharmaksema (385–433). A very important sutra in Mahayana Buddhism, its main teachings center on the eternity of the Buddha, the meaning of nirvana, and the presence of the Buddha Nature in all beings. It also provides the theoretical basis for the precept of abstention from meat.

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    佛經寫本:《妙法莲华经》
    Hand-written Buddhist scripture: Lotus Sutra

    Northern Dynasties (386–581)
    Ink on paper; 24.8 x 166 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, D.0648

    Buddhists believe that copying a sutra has great merit and is also a way of meditation. This fragment from the Lotus Sutra (short for the “Lotus of the Wonderful Law”) transcribes the Parable of the Conjured City. The Lotus Sutra is a very important Mahayanist scripture which uses an abundance of metaphors to introduce metaphysical concepts and promotes various kinds of religious practices which would lead to the one path of enlightenment.

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    佛經寫本:《佛说大药善巧方便经》卷上
    Hand-written Buddhist scripture: Mahabhaisajya Upayakaushalya Sutra

    Tang dynasty (618–907)
    Ink on paper; 25.1 x 158 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, D.0704

    This fragment comes from volume one of a sutra that had not been known until this fragment was discovered in Dunhuang. Unfortunately, the other volume(s) have not been found. The transcription in this fragment contains two stories about a wise man called Mahabhaisajya (literally, “Great Medicine”) who solved a criminal case and saved a man’s life using deductive reasoning techniques.

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    《归义军衙府酒破历》
    Wine Transaction Journal

    Northern Song dynasty, 964
    Ink on paper; 30 x 105.1 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, D.0038 & D.0784

    The journal had been torn into three pieces. Part of a rectangular seal translated as “newly cast seal of the Guiyi [Insurrection] Army and Commissioner [of the Hexi area],” matches these fragments with the segment now in France. This document records the wine purchases made between April 9 and October 16, 964, by the military government. Among the 213 recorded purchases, 34 were for various Uighur and Khotanese envoys, illuminating the diplomatic activities of the local government.

  • 《番汉合时掌中珠》
    Tangut-Chinese Bilingual Dictionary

    Western Xia dynasty (1038–1227)
    Ink on paper; 15 x 21.8 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, B184:9

    This woodcut-printed document, excavated from Cave B184 in the Northern Area, is page 14 in the Tangut-Chinese Bilingual Dictionary. It is the only complete page of this dictionary extant in China, so it is valuable even though fragmentary. The displayed text belongs mainly to the category “Land Use” (the third and last chapter of the section on Earth).

  • 藏文残数学文书
    Fragment of a document on mathematics written in Tibetan

    Yuan dynasty (1271–1368)
    Ink on paper; 8.0 x 13.8 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, B59:10

    This document, written in a cursive Tibetan script, comes from Cave B59 in the Northern Area of the Mogao Grottoes and is rare among Dunhuang finds. The text on the front side of this fragment contains pithy multiplication formulae (such as, “three times one, one times three equals three” and “two times four, four times two equals eight”) regarded as an innovative improvement for the time. On the document’s reverse are some Tibetan words expressing numbers, as well as Tibetan-style and abbreviated numerals.

  • 立姿菩萨像
    Standing bodhisattva

    Northern Wei dynasty (386–534)
    Painted clay stucco; H. 38.5, W. 11.5 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, Z.0688

    This bodhisattva wears a high chignon. He holds a lotus bud in his left hand. His right hand hangs naturally just touching his robe.

  • 举莲菩萨像
    Bodhisattva holding aloft a lotus

    Northern Wei dynasty (386-534)
    Painted clay stucco; H. 34, W. 15.5 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, Z.0718

    The bodhisattva holds a lotus bud in his raised right hand and sits with his legs pendant. He wears a translucent blue robe with his right shoulder bared.

  • 持花菩萨像
    Bodhisattva holding up a lotus

    Northern Wei dynasty (386–534)
    Painted clay stucco; H. 34.5, W. 14 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, Z.0679

    The bodhisattva holds a lotus bud in his raised right hand. He is wearing a translucent light blue robe with his right shoulder bared and a matching headdress.

  • 跪姿双手合十菩萨像
    Kneeling bodhisattva with palms pressed together

    Northern Wei dynasty (386–534)
    Painted clay stucco; H. 35, W. 10 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, Z.0680

    This bodhisattva has an almond-shaped nimbus or halo. He kneels with his hands pressed together, indicating that he is listening respectfully or praying. The neck was damaged and has been restored.

  • 佛像
    Buddha

    Northern Wei dynasty (386–534)
    Painted clay stucco; H. 24, W. 15.5 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, Z.0702

    This Buddha has a red oval aureole. He wears a blue kasaya robe, very different from the more common form in burgundy red, and sits in the meditative lotus position.

  • 立佛像
    Standing Buddha

    Tang dynasty (618–907)
    Painted clay stucco; H. 9, W. 5.4 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, B142:2

    This image was molded in brown clay stucco. The Buddha holds a mala (prayer beads) in his left hand and a vase in his right hand, while standing barefooted on the double-lotus base. The rays of his halo and aureole are depicted by radiating raised lines. The parallel folds of his kasaya robe form a step-like pattern. Most of the pigments have fallen off, but some red (halo), blue (aureole), and white (Buddha’s face, robe, and lotus base) are still visible.

  • 许愿幡
    Prayer banner

    Tang dynasty, 725
    Silk; 162 x 15 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, Z.0003

    The purpose of this banner as an offering is stated in an inscription on its first panel:

    “On the 14th day of the 7th month in the 13th year of the Kaiyuan period [725], I, Upasika [female lay Buddhist] Kang [originally from Central Asia], am offering a banner because of my eye disease. If I recover, I will offer one more to thank Buddha for his compassion.”

  • 缀花绢幡
    Banner with floral appliqués

    Tang dynasty (618–907)
    Silk; 78 x 9.5 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, Z.0002

    The head of the banner is made of two layers of white thin silk. The body and tail are made of one whole piece of soft, thin silk which was folded twice and then stitched together. Eight eight-petaled silk flowers are attached to the deep blue silk of the banner.

  • 调色碗
    Color-mixing bowl

    Tang dynasty (618–907)
    Glazed pottery; H. 3, W. 10 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, Z.0900

    This bowl was used by artists to mix pigments for painting murals. It had been cracked and was restored with gypsum. However, some green pigment still remains.

  • 调色碗
    Color-mixing bowl

    Tang dynasty (618–907)
    Glazed pottery; H. 3, W. 8 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, Z.1407

    This bowl was used by artists for painting murals. It had been cracked and chipped and was restored with gypsum. Some red pigment remains visible.

  • 调色碗
    Color-mixing bowl

    Tang dynasty (618–907)
    Glazed pottery; H. 3, W. 8 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, Z.1408

    This bowl was used by artists for painting murals. It had been cracked and chipped and was restored with gypsum. Some yellow pigment can still be seen.

  • 油灯碗
    Oil lamp

    Five Dynasties (907–960)
    Clay; H. 2.7, W. 7.7 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, Z.0832

    This bowl-shaped oil lamp and the oil lamp on a stand (no. 22) were both used for illumination by the artists painting or working in the caves.

  • 油灯台
    Oil lamp

    Five Dynasties (907–960)
    Clay; H. 12, W. 12.5 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, Z.0876-3

    This oil lamp on a stand and the bowl-shaped oil lamp (no. 21) were both used for illumination by the artists painting or working in the caves.

  • 石榴纹砖
    Floor tile with pomegranate design (and rubbing)

    Tang dynasty (618–907)
    Clay; H. 33, W. 31, D. 5.5 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, Z.0069

    In the center of the tile is a flower in full blossom with curling petals, surrounded by four pomegranate designs at the corners.

  • 桃心十一卷瓣莲花纹砖
    Floor tile with eleven-petaled lotus (and rubbing)

    Tang dynasty (618–907)
    Clay; H. 36, W. 35, D. 6.5 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, Z.1134

    The design on this tile is a lotus flower with eleven curling lotus petals and a bud in the center formed by four heart-shaped motifs.

  • 莲花联珠纹砖
    Floor tile with lotus flower and linked-pearl design (and rubbing)

    Tang dynasty (618–907)
    Clay; H. 35, W. 35, D. 5.5 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, Z.1197

    At the center of this tile is a roundel of linked pearls surrounded by a double-layered, eight-petaled lotus flower. Many small dots are added to enhance the splendor of the design.

  • 如意卷草纹砖
    Floor tile with ruyi and scrolling vines (and rubbing)

    Tang dynasty (618–907)
    Clay; H. 35.5, W. 35, D. 6.5 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, Z.1363

    The design on this tile consists of a small eight-petaled lotus at the core and two surrounding layers of scrolls which take on the shapes of floral plants, clouds, or ruyi (an auspicious object).

  • 男胡俑
    Mortuary figure of male Westerner

    Tang dynasty (618–907)
    Wood and pigments; H. 14.8 cm
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, B86:11

    This partially damaged mortuary figure wears a pointed hat and has deep-set eyes, a chiseled nose, a wide mouth, and a protruding chin. Most of the original pigments have come off, leaving only a minute amount of white pigment in places.

  • 波斯银币
    Persian coin

    Sassanian, reign of Peroz I (457–484)
    Silver; Diam. 3.1 cm, Wt. 3.88 g
    Collection of the Dunhuang Academy, B222:1

    This Sassanid Persian coin was issued during the reign of King Peroz I (r. 457–484). On one side is a very worn bust portrait of the king in profile. The other side carries the image of a pillar-like fire altar flanked by two attendants dressed in kingly garb. The state religion of the Sassanid dynasty was Zoroastrianism, and the king was considered guardian of the sacred fire.

    Audio commentary by Dr. Annette L. Juliano, Exhibition Guest Scholar:

    Annette Juliano is Professor of Asian Art History at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

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    九色鹿本生故事
    Deer King Jataka

    Mogao Cave 257, Northern Wei dynasty (439–534)
    Replica in mineral pigments on paper by Chang Shuhong, 1955
    60 x 588 cm

    This is the earliest use of a horizontal, multi-scene narrative painting at Dunhuang. Two-thirds of the painting illustrates the Deer King Jataka, one of a series of tales about the Buddha in his previous incarnations. Here, he is a beautiful golden deer. The story moves chronologically from opposite ends of the composition and climaxes in the middle. Another tale, Lady Sumati invoking the Buddha, is told in the right section of the mural.

    [From Left to Right] (Click each description to view the scene)

    1. 1. The Deer King rescues a drowning man. In the next scene, the rescued man vows to keep the deer’s existence a secret.
    2. 2. At the climax of the story, the Deer King reveals his identity to the king and tells of the rescued man’s betrayal.
    3. 3. The local king and his entourage seek the deer.
    4. 4. In their palace, the local queen dreams of a golden deer and the king offers a reward for its capture. The rescued man claims the reward.
    5. 5. In the Story of Lady Sumati, a distraught bride (in the tower) invokes the Buddha to appear before her non-believer father-in-law and wedding guests in the room at the right.
    6. 6. A host of bodhisattvas and disciples arrive with Shakyamuni Buddha, who converts the guests.
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    天宫伎乐图
    Celestial Music

    Mogao Cave 288, Western Wei dynasty (535–556)
    Replica in mineral pigments on paper by Shi Weixiang, 1974
    52 x 522 cm

    This music performance represents a type of offering made by celestial deities to the Buddha. The lively yet elegant movements of the figures are deeply imbued with the style of Indian and Central Asian dance. Such scenes are usually depicted in the upper areas of a cave, symbolically denoting its performance in heaven. The painting dates to the same period as the stupa-pillar from Cave 432, re-created in this gallery, and a similar painting could well have been in the original cave before its murals were painted over.

    • Central Pillar in Cave 432

    • Back of Cave 432 from side of pillar

    • Wall Painting in Cave 432

    莫高第432窟
    MOGAO CAVE 432
    Central pillar

    Mogao Cave 432, Western Wei dynasty (535–556)
    Replica in paint and fiberglass by Du Yongwei and Zhang Li, 2008
    H. 365, W. 222, D. 215 cm

    The central stupa-pillar cave type is a distinctive cave plan used from the sixth to early seventh century at Dunhuang. It features a large four-sided pillar on the central axis of the chamber. This pillar probably served the same function as the ancient stupa (an Indian mortuary monument) in the religious ritual of circumambulation. The faithful would walk around a sacred monument in a clockwise direction as an act of veneration or as part of the practice of meditation or chanting.

    In Cave 432, the images on the pillar would have served as a focus for meditation. Each side houses a seated Buddha in a niche, flanked by two or four bodhisattvas. A host of small painted clay bodhisattva and Buddha images decorate the top of the pillar. Typical of the Western Wei period, the Buddha wears a Chinese-style robe and is sculpted with a Chinese sense of delicacy and linear elegance.

    Audio commentary by Dr. Annette L. Juliano, Exhibition Guest Scholar:

    Annette Juliano is Professor of Asian Art History at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

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    MOGAO CAVE 45
    High Tang period (705–781)

    Audio commentary by Dr. Annette L. Juliano, Exhibition Guest Scholar:

    NICHE
    主龛塑像
    Buddhist septad

    Replica in paint and fiberglass by Zhang Li and Li Lin, 2004
    Replica in exhibition, photos of original cave

    The focal point of the cave is a sculptural niche carved into the rear wall. The Buddhist septad in the niche consists of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha; two of his disciples, the youthful Ananda and the older care-worn Mahakashyapa; a pair of bodhisattvas; and a pair of ferocious guardians. Characteristic of the high Tang sculptural style, the Buddha is robustly modeled with softly draped, clinging robes. The fleshy bodhisattvas appear more human and this-worldly than ever before. The same vigorously modeled figure style is seen in the murals of the cave.

    Audio commentary by Dr. Annette L. Juliano:

    NICHE CEILING MURAL
    释迦多宝并座说法图说
    Meeting of the two Buddhas

    Replica in mineral pigments on paper by Guan Jingwen, 2004

    According to the Lotus Sutra, a stupa containing Prabhutaratna, a Buddha of the past, miraculously appeared in the sky when Shakyamuni preached the Dharma on Vulture Peak. Shakyamuni sat next to Prabhutaratna in his stupa and continued his sermon.

    Audio commentary by Dr. Annette L. Juliano:

    Annette Juliano is Professor of Asian Art History at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

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    观音经变图
    Avalokiteshvara Narrative (Guanyin jingbian)

    Mogao Cave 45, High Tang period (705–781)
    Replica in mineral pigments on paper by Zhao Junrong and Wang Hong’en, 2004
    290 x 472 cm

    The various perils of the age are depicted in small scenes on either side of a large figure of Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin), the bodhisattva who hears and rescues those in distress who call upon his name. His many manifestations as savior are described in the Lotus Sutra.

    Audio commentary by Dr. Annette L. Juliano, Exhibition Guest Scholar:

    Annette Juliano is Professor of Asian Art History at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

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    极乐世界(西方净土变)
    Sukhavati (Amitabha’s Pure Land)

    Mogao Cave 45, High Tang period (705–781)
    Replica in mineral pigments on paper by Wu Rongjian, Ma Yuhua, and Shen Shuping, 2004
    290 x 472 cm

    The Amitabha Buddha sits in the Western Pure Land, a paradise filled with celestial music, palaces, and jeweled trees. Here, the faithful who call upon his name will be reborn from lotus buds. The narrative panels on either side tell the story of Queen Vaidehi, her sufferings and eventual salvation through meditation.

    Audio commentary by Dr. Annette L. Juliano, Exhibition Guest Scholar:

    Annette Juliano is Professor of Asian Art History at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

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    Ceiling and zaojing

    Mogao Cave 45, High Tang period (705–781)

    The celling together with the zaojing is shaped like a square canopy symbolizing heaven and imparting a splendid and dignified aura. This design imparts a more spacious feel to the cave and disperses the stress that the ceiling places on the walls. It is also characteristic of Chinese cave shrines. The zaojing of this cave has a floral medallion in the center enclosed by layers of square and diamond shapes in various designs. A design of valances decorates the outermost border. The four slopes of the ceiling around the zaojing are covered with the thousand-Buddhas motif.

silktooil_page

Travel the deserts and mountain passes of Central Asia with From Silk to Oil: Cross-Cultural Connections Along the Silk Road. This book of global studies curriculum, funded by the U.S. Department of Education and produced by China Institute, begins in the second century BCE and ends in the contemporary period.

The twenty-three curriculum units consist of a lesson plan, written and visual documents, maps, tables, and even a Silk Roads board game. There is also a glossary; lists of additional resources; and a CD with the entire text and color images-including hotlinks to relevant websites-in PDF format.

From Silk to Oil is directed at teachers of high school world history, global studies, social studies, geography, literature, and art. Some units will also be suitable for advanced middle school, community college, and lower level university survey courses. To order a copy, please e-mail asupraner@chinainstitute.org.

The book can be downloaded in eight separate sections, accessed through the tabs above, below, or as a single pdf.

  1. Cover, prefatory material, and five introductory essays
  2. Maps
  3. 1. Geography Along The Silk Road (Units A-C)
  4. 2. Ethnic Relations And Political History Along The Silk Roads (Units D-I)
  5. 3. Exchange Of Goods And Ideas Along The Silk Roads (Units J-M)
  6. 4. Religions Along The Silk Roads (Units N-R)
  7. 5. Art Along The Silk Road (Units S-W)
  8. Supplementary Materials

Dunhuang: Buddhist Art at the Gateway of the Silk Road

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D. Digital Millennium Copyright Act Take-Down Procedure.

The China Institute follows a take-down procedure in accordance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ("DMCA") for any purported intellectual property infringement. If you are a copyright owner, or the agent of a copyright owner, and have a good faith belief that Content infringes upon your copyright, then you may submit a copyright infringement notification pursuant to the DMCA by providing the China Institute with the following information in writing:

  • (a) a description of the copyrighted work that you claim has been infringed, including its location, with sufficient detail so as to permit the China Institute to find and verify its existence;
  • (b) your contact information, including your name, address, telephone number, and email address;
  • (c) a statement that you have a good faith belief that the disputed use is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or by law;
  • (d) a statement, made under penalty of perjury, that the above information in your notice is accurate and that you are the copyright owner or are authorized to act on the copyright owner's behalf; and
  • (e) an electronic or physical signature of the copyright owner or the person authorized to act on behalf of the owner of the copyright interest.

Please consult your legal counsel for further details or see 17 U.S.C. §512(c)(3). Submissions of copyright infringement notifications may be sent to the China Institute at 125 E. 65th St., New York, NY 10065.

E. Termination of Access

The China Institute reserves the right to refuse, suspend, or terminate your access to and/or use of the Virtual Tour Website, or any portion thereof, without notice and for any reason or no reason. Suspending your access to the Virtual Tour Website does not limit the China Institute or its Licensors from exercising any other remedies against you for violations of these Terms of Use.

IF YOU VIOLATE ANY TERM OR CONDITION OF THESE TERMS OF USE, YOU AUTOMATICALLY AND IMMEDIATELY LOSE ALL RIGHTS TO ACCESS OR USE THE VIRTUAL TOUR WEBSITE, WITHOUT LIMITING THE RIGHTS OR REMEDIES OF THE CHINA INSTITUTE OR ITS LICENSORS OR PARTNERS.

F. Miscellaneous

The China Institute makes no claims regarding use of or access to the Virtual Tour Website outside of the United States. If you access or use the Virtual Tour Website outside the United States, you do so at your own risk and are responsible for compliance with the laws of your jurisdiction.

If any provision of these Terms of Use is found to be invalid, unlawful, void or unenforceable, then that provision shall be deemed severable from these Terms of Use, and the remaining provisions of these Terms of Use shall continue to be valid and enforceable.

These Terms of Use represent the entire agreement between you and the China Institute relating to your right to access and use the Virtual Tour Website, and supersede any and all prior or written or oral agreements between you and the China Institute with respect to such subject matter.

No waiver by the China Institute of any breach or default by you under these Terms of Use shall be effective unless made in writing executed by the China Institute, and no such written and executed waiver shall deemed to be a waiver of any preceding or subsequent breach or default.

These Terms of Use shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the state of New York, without regard to conflicts of laws principles (other than Section 5-1401 and Section 5-1402 of the General Obligations Law of the State of New York). By accessing the Virtual Tour Website, you agree to resolve all claims or disputes arising in connection with the Virtual Tour Website or these Terms of Use in the courts of the State of New York, and expressly submit to exclusive jurisdiction and venue in such courts.