Photographed by Liu Yujun
Located at the southern foot of Wuzhou Mountain, 16 kilometers west of Datong City, Yungang Grottoes were carved into the mountain and extend about one kilometer from east to west. The 45 caves in Yungang Grottoes include some 254 niches with about 51,000 statues. Yugang Grottoes constitute a classical masterpiece of the first peak of Chinese Buddhist art. In March 1961, Yungang Grottoes was proclaimed as one of the first batch of Key Cultural Relics under the protection of Chinese State Council. In December 2001, Yungang Grottoes was included as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In May 2007, Yungang Grottoes was proclaimed as a National AAAAA-grade Tourism Attraction of China. The expansion project in 2010 made Yungang Grottoes a world famous tourist sightseeing destination with its combination of a royal ancient Buddhist cave temple, royal garden and the complex of ancient architecture. Yungang Grottoes, with their complexity, their rich variety and vigorous features constitute a classical masterpiece as one of the three most famous Buddhist cave temples in China. The Yungang cave art represents the successful fusion of Buddhist religions symbolic art from the Buddhist Art of Gandhara (a style of Buddhist visual art that developed in what is now northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan between 1st century BC and the 7th century CE.) with Chinese cultural traditions of the Qin and Han Dynasties. The Buddhist tradition of religious cave art achieved its first major impact at Yungang, where it developed its own distinct character and artistic power. Three main periods of Yungang Grottoes can be identified in the construction: the Early Period (460-465), the Middle Period (471-494) and the Late Period (494-524).
The grottoes of the early period are composed of five main caves from Cave 16-20；these magnificent and simple caves were dug under the direction of the monk Tanyao and were named after him. Tan Yao Five Caves were constructed between 460-465CE. The layout of these five caves are similar with a U-shaped plan and arched roofs, imitating the thatched sheds in ancient India while on the outer walls thousand of small Buddhist statues are carved. The main images are three generation Buddha (Buddha of Past, Present and Future). The Buddha statues in the early period are giant statues with serene face, big nose and deep eyes taking on an exotic appearance which shows both vigour and simplicity.
The grottoes of the middle period were constructed between 471-494 CE. The caves in this period include four groups of twin caves, namely Cave 1 and 2, Cave 5 and 6, Cave 7 and 8, Cave 9 and 10 and one group of triple caves, namely Cave 11, 12, 13 and Cave 3 which was unfinished according to the original plan. There caves are mostly square in plan, usually with chambers both in front and in the rear, some caves have a pillar in the center; carvings on the walls are divided into upper and lower bands and right and left sections. Level caisson ceilings are caved on the roofs in most caves. In this period there was a rapid development of the Han Chinese style and many new subject matters and combinations of statues were introduced, shifting the attention to the creation of Devas images and various kinds of adornment.
The grottoes of the late period were constructed after the transference of the capital from Datong to Luoyang in 494 CE, the project continued until 524 CE. The caves in this period are mainly located to the west of Cave 20 and small niches of Cave 4, 14, 15 and 11. 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. These is a tendency towards simplification of the contents of the statuary and stylizing the forms, but with a new look of delicacy and gracefulness which reflect the main characteristics of Buddhist visual art of the later period of the Northern Wei Dynasty.
Chinese Edited and English Translated by Datong Foreign and Overseas Chinese Affairs Office
English Revised By Adrian Frost (UK)