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The Buddhist tradition of religious cave art

The Buddhist tradition of religious cave art achieved its first major impact at Yungang, where it developed its own distinct character and artistic power. The Yungang cave art represents the successful fusion of Buddhist religious symbolic art from south and central Asia with Chinese cultural traditions, starting in the 5th century AD under imperial auspices. At the same time it vividly illustrates the power and endurance of Buddhist belief in China.

Buddhist tradition Yungang Grottoes
Continent: Asia
Country: China
Category: Cultural
Criterion: (I) (II) (III)(IV)
Date of Inscription: 2001

Yungang Grottoes in Datong, China

Datong, known as Pingcheng in ancient times, became the capital of the Northern Wei dynasty between 398 and 494, and thus the political, economic and cultural centre of their kingdom. It kept its importance until 523, when it was deserted following a revolt. The statues of the Yungang Grottoes were completed in sixty years (460-525); this period marks the peak of development in Buddhist cave art of the Northern Wei dynasty. When the first emperor assumed the throne, Buddhism flourished and in 460 the monk Tan Yao started the carving of the Five Caves; since then, these grottoes have become the centre of Buddhist art in North China.

By 525 the initial project, sponsored by the court, was mostly completed, but low ranking officials and monks continued to dig more caves and carve statues. During the Liao dynasty, wooden shelter structures were built in front of the caves, turning the grottoes into temple buildings, such as the Ten Famous Temples. In 1122 these temples were destroyed in a war.

Yungang Grottoes in Datong China
The Yungang cave art

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Wuzhoushan Grottoes

The Yungang Grottoes, known as Wuzhoushan Grottoes in ancient times, are located on the southern foot of the Wuzhou Mountains, in the Shi Li River valley, 16 km west of Datong City. They consist of 252 caves of various sizes housing more than 51,000 statues; the site extends much as 1 km east-west. Three main periods can be identified in the construction: the Early Period (460-65), the Middle Period (c 471-94) and the Late Period (494-525). Apart from the grottoes, the nominated core area includes the remains of a castle, a defence wall, and a beacon tower of the Ming dynasty on the plain above the grottoes.

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The grottoes of the early period (460-65) are composed of five main caves; these magnificent and simple caves were dug under the direction of the monk Tan Yao and are named after him. For the layout of the grottoes, large caves were dug to house the giant statues, 13-15m tall. They have a U-shaped plan and arched roofs, imitating the thatched sheds in ancient India. Each cave has a door and a window. The central images have tall bodies and occupy the major part of the caves, while on the outer walls 1,000 Buddhist statues are carved, a feature rarely seen in the tradition of Chinese history of grotto carving.

They form the essence of the Yungang Grottoes, consisting of large caves, including four groups of twin caves and one group of triple caves. In this period there was a rapid development of the Han style and many new subject matters and combinations of statues were introduced, shifting the attention to the creation of law-enforcing images and various kinds of adornment. These caves are square in plan, usually with chambers both in front and in the rear; carvings on the walls are divided into upper and lower bands and right and left sections. Level caisson ceilings are carved on the roofs in most cases. On both sides of the outer walls there are high double-floored attics, and monuments stand high in the centre of the courtyard.

The shelters in the style of wooden structures are supported by octagonal pillars, each carved with 1,000 Buddhas. The walls inside the caves are covered by long rolls of paintings divided into different layers and columns. All these reflect the layouts and traditional arrangements of halls in vogue in China during the Han dynasty.

The grottoes of the late period (494-525) are located in the west of the grotto area, in the Dragon King Temple Valley. In total, over 200 caves and niches were cut in this period. These caves are of medium and small size with varied and complicated irregular shapes. Decorations were also carved on the cliff around the door of the caves. There is a tendency towards simplification of the contents of the statuary and stylizing the forms, but with a new look of delicacy and gracefulness.

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