Yungang Grottoes Travel Guide
The Yungang Grottoes, located at the southern foot of Wuzhou Mountain fifteen kilometers west of Datong, with their 53 grottoes and 1,100 niches, with about 51,000 statues, represent the outstanding achievement of Buddhist cave art in China in the 5th and 6th centuries.
The Five Caves created by Tan Yao, with their strict unity of layout and design, constitute a classical masterpiece of the first peak of Chinese Buddhist art.Legend says that in A.D. 446 during the Northern Wei Dynasty, Emperor Tai Wu suddenly renounced Buddhism and ordered that it be eradicated: monks and nuns were forced to resume secular life, and Buddhist monasteries and pagodas were burned down.
Soon after he had launched this first "campaign to eradicate Buddhism" in Chinese history, Emperor Tai Wu fell ill and died. His grandson, Emperor Wen Cheng, took his sudden death as a sign of retribution. Wen Cheng therefore did his best to reinstitution Buddhism.
Monk Yun Yao, who was then in charge of Buddhist affairs in China, was entrusted with the project of building grottoes at the foot of Wu Zhou Mountain. He conscripted a labor force of 10,000 men, and five grottoes were shown in five years to commemorate the five emperors who had reigned since the founding of the Northern Wei Dynasty.
The project was discontinued when Emperor Xiao Wen moved the capital from Datong to Luoyang. It is believed that the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang were a continuation of the Yungang Grottoes project. On entering the grottoes, the visitor sees an astonishing number of Buddhist statues and decorative frescoes.
One seventeen-meter Buddha with down-cast eyes seems to gaze with penetrating insight into the human heart as it wavers between good and evil. One series of carvings depicts scenes from the life of Sakyamuni from birth until his attainment of nirvana. Many of the carvings combine traditional Chinese art forms with foreign influences to create a unique style that occupies an important position in the history of Chinese art.
An Early Masterpiece of Chinese Cave Arts
An early masterpiece of Chinese cave art, the Yungang Grottoes are an important component of cave art not only for China but for the world. They belong to the period between the mid 5th and early 6th centuries(the early years of the reign of Emperor Heping and the era of Emperor Zhengguang of the Northern Wei Dynasty).
The cutting of the grottoes started in 460 CE; it was intensively carried out till 490, and lasted until 520 CE. The exquisite carvings cover a large surface area and deal with a rich variety of themes. The statues are made in a typical Imperial style. The Yungang grottoes are different from other grottoes cut earlier in China and are characterized by their integration in the distinctive processes of nationalization across China, developing a style of their own in Chinese cave art.
The large number of images and written records in the Yungang Grottoes are key elements in showing the development and changes of style in Chinese cave art and the religious beliefs in northern China during the mid 5th early 6th centuries CE, and made major contributions to the innovation and development of Chinese cave art. They have a historical, artistic, scientific, and appreciative value irreplaceable by any other grottoes cut earlier in China.
Great Treasure Houses of Ancient Statuary
The Yungang Grottoes are one of the great treasure houses of ancient statuary in the world. The site has 252 caves and niches, containing over 51,000 statues, the over 18,000 square meters of carved surface extending for 1km. The grottoes are the most important testimony of the highest quality of artistic achievement of Chinese Buddhist carving art in second half of the 5th century CE. Various caves contain majestic statues or have decorations that are world-famous in their bright colors and in their important and even rare themes.
Make Great Contributions to Reform and Development of Cave Arts.
The Yungang Grottoes have made important contributions to the reform and development of cave art, regarding laws of aesthetics in religious art in the language of carving. They are an excellent example of the development and transition of the Buddhist art of India and Central Asia(the gandhara and Mathura art of ancient India) into Buddhist art of China in the short time-span of thirty years.
Take Bus No.4 at the railway station and then By Bus No.3.
Recommended time for a visit: two and half hours.