Yungang Grottoes and Visit Guide, World Heritage Site

Nora Zheng
1805 Words/8 Minutes, By Nora Zheng, Updated February 16, 2023

Where is the Yungang Grottoes

Located in the city of Datong, Shanxi province, Yungang Grottoes are home to 252 shrines and over 51,000 statues, representing China’s most brilliant Buddhist grotto art deriving from 5-6 AD. Among them, the Tanyao Five Grottoes are classical masterpieces from the first golden age of China’s Buddhist arts.

History of the Yungang Grottoes

Yungang Grottoes are located at the south foot of Wuzhou Mountain 16 kilometers to the west of Datong, Shanxi Province in Northern china. The grottoes were originally excavated in the second year of Xing’an Period of the Northern Wei Dynasty (453 AD). Most of them were completed before the emperor relocated the capital to Luoyang in 494 AD. The process of making statues lasted to the Zhengguang Period (520-525 AD). The grottoes were excavated according to popular topography, stretching some 1 kilometer from east to west. Today, there are 45 major grottoes alotgether, 252 grottoes of various sizes and over 51,000 stone statues. Amongst all the statues, the largest reaches 17 meters in height while the smallest is only several centimeters high. In the grottoes, statues of Bodhisattva, Heracles and flying goddesses are lifelike and carvings on the pillars are exquisite. These artistic works carry the very artistic quintessence of modernism of the Qin and Han Dynasties (around 221-220 AD) and mark the beginning of romanticism of the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-907 AD). They have a reputation as one of “China’s three largest and finest grottoes” along with Dunuhang Mogao Grottoes in Gansu and Longmen Grottoes in Henan. It is also considered one of the world’s most famous grottoes with stone carving art.

With magnificent statues, the Yungang Grottoes are crowned as a treasure house of ancient Chinese carving arts. The stone carvings in the grottoes are well known as China’s finest stone carving works made in 500 AD. The grottoes are arranged chronologically into early, middle and late stages, characterized by various styles from each stage. The Tanyao Grottoes excavated in the early stage are all majestic with a simple exotic, western style. The grottoes excavated in the middle stage are splendid, representing diverse and sophisticated artistic styles of the Northern Wei Dynasty. The statues depicting the scenes of performing dances and acrobatics are a vivid reflection of the culture in the past and the social lifestyle of the Northern Wei Dynasty.

Yungang Grottoes vividly record the development track of Buddhism ever since it was introduced from India and Central Asia to China, as well as its gradual process of localization and nationalization in China. The statues of various styles finally coexist in an unprecedented combination of the “Yungang artistic style” that serves as a turning point for Buddhist arts’ higher development. The statues in Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes and Longmen Grottoes are influenced by the artistic styles created in the Yungang Grottoes.

The Importance of the Yungang Grottoes

Yungang Grottoes mark the beginning of Chinese localization of grotto arts. The carving styles represented in the palaces of the middle stage and their later-developed Chinese Buddhist shrines are widely adopted in the construction of grottoes and temples. The layout and decorations in the late-excavated grottoes show the styles of Chinese architecture, decoration, and Buddhist arts’ localization in China.

No.1 and No. 2 grottoes: Located in the eastern region of the grotto complex, they were excavated at the same time with a similar layout inside.

No.3 grotto: It’s the largest grotto in Yungang. It’s excavated in a 25-meter-high cliff with 12 rectangular holes in the first half of its body. Two rooms constitute the grotto. A Buddhist statue and two Bodhisattva statues are carved into the walls of the backroom. The statues are plump in shape, round and rosy in cheeks, natural in style and graceful in dressing. Judging from the carving style, these statues are likely to be made in the Sui and Tang Dynasties.

No. 4 grotto: Its plane layout is rectangle in shape. Its middle stands a rectangular pillar. The statue of Buddha Maitreya at the corner of the right wall is well-preserved.

No. 5 grotto: In front of the grotto stand five four-story wooden mansions, which were built in the 8th year during the reign of Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing Dynasty (1651 AD). In the middle of the grotto stands a 17-meter-high Buddhist statue, which is the largest statue in Yungang Grottoes. It can accommodate 120 people and its foot alone can accommodate 12. This giant Buddhist statue is surrounded by a myriad of small Buddhist statues. They are indeed complementary to each other.

No. 6 grotto: In the middle of the grotto stands a two-story (up to 15-meter-heigh) tower pillar that connects to the ceiling of the grotto. Each story is carved with statues on its four sides. Its surrounding walls are carved with the statues of Buddha, Bodhisattva, disciples and flying goddesses. There are 33 heavenly gods and various sacred riding animals on its top. Sakyamuni’s preaching story is carved into the walls and the tower pillar. This grotto is the most representative amongst all grottoes in Yungang.

No. 7 grotto: Three layers of eaves are built in front of the grotto. Two rooms in the front and back constitute the grotto. The main wall of the back room is carved with a statue of Bodhisattva sitting on a lion. Its east, west and south walls are carved with shrines and statues. There are 6 lifelike statues of Bodhisattva altogether for the people to worship and offer sacrifices. There are lifelike relief sculptures of flying goddesses carved in the ceiling. They dance around a lotus, glamorous and attractive.

No. 8 grotto: On the right and left side of the grotto stand a statue of a god with 5 heads and 6 arms sitting on a peacock. The east side is carved with a statue of a god with 3 heads and 8 arms sitting on an ox. These statues are rarely seen in Yungang.

No. 9 grotto: Two rooms constitute the grotto. The two arches over the door of the front room are octagonal in shape. There are Buddhist shrines as well as lifelike statues of singing and dancing girls carved in the walls of the grotto.

No. 10 grotto: Excavated together with No. 9 grotto, it has two rooms in its front and back. There are lifelike statues of flying goddesses in its front room that are elegant and proportionate. On the first half of the windows carve sophisticated stone statues. They are exquisite and visually appealing.

No. 11 grotto: There is a rectangular shaped pillar that connects to the ceiling of the grotto. Buddhist statues are carved into each wall of the room. The statue of Bodhisattva in the front wall is well-preserved. On each side of the grotto carves Buddhist statues and figurines.

No. 12 grotto: In its front wall carves lifelike statues of singing girls with orchestral musical instruments in their hands. The pan pipes and Kung-hous (23-stringed instrument) in their hands are rare. They serve as precious materials for the study of the ancient music in China.

No. 13 grotto: In the middle of the grotto sits a statue of Buddha Maitreya that crosses his legs. It’s over 12 meters high with a statue of Hercules between his left arm and leg. This kind of statue cannot be found anywhere else in the Yungang grottoes. There are seven exquisite and elegant Buddhist statues on the door arch in the south wall.

No. 14 grotto: The statues in the grotto vary in style. On the west wall is a small portion of the statues and on the east wall stand rectangle Buddhist pillars.

No. 15 grotto: There are over 10,000 small statues of sitting Buddhas carved in the grotto. It’s thus called “grotto of thousands of Buddhas.”

No. 16 grotto: Known as the “Tanyao five grottoes,” it is the oldest grotto in Yungang, together with the No. 17, No. 18 and No. 19 grottoes. It’s oval in shape with a Buddha sitting on a locus in its middle. There are thousands of Buddhist statues and shrines carved into its walls.

No. 17 grotto: In its middle stands a statue of Buddha Maitreya who crosses over his legs on a throne. There are Buddhist shrines on its east and west walls.

No. 18: The statue standing in the middle of the grotto reaches 15 meters in height with his right arm naked. The lifelike statue resembles a god wearing a Buddhist rope.

No. 19 grotto: There is a giant statue of a sitting Buddha in the middle.

No. 20 grotto: The statues are exposed in the open air. The first half of the statue of the main Buddha is well-preserved. His face is round and rosy; his ear lobes are long enough to reach his shoulders; his eyes sparkle with brilliance; he looks so kind and strong in shape. So, it’s the most representative work among all statues in the Yungang Grottoes.

Overlooking the Buddhist statues, you will find that the stone statues stretching 1 kilometer are so magnificent and spectacular. Some of them are as tall as over ten meters; while the small are several centimeters tall. These grottoes are all scattered with lifelike statues: some sit in the middle, striking the bells or beating the drums; some hold short flutes in their hands, singing or dancing; some hold lutes in their bosoms whilst facing the visitors. The dresses and decorations of the Buddhist statues and flying goddesses reflect the toils and wisdoms of laboring people of ancient China. These Buddhist statues and singing girls stone statues are combined with Persian artistic styles, serving as historical evidence that China was engaging in cultural exchange with its neighbors in the past. On the foundation of traditional carving arts, Yungang Grottoes absorb and internalize the tradition of Indian and Persian artistic styles. They are the very crystallization of ancient people’s creational activities.

Nora Zheng

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