Yungang Grottoes — Localization and Secularization of Buddhist Cave Art

Yungang Grottoes in Datong of Shanxi Province, Photo by Zhang Wei.

What are the Yungang Grottoes?


Yungang Grottoes, built from 460 to 524, are exceptional Buddhist caves that present the localization and secularization of Buddhist arts in China.


As a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage, statues, reliefs, murals, buildings, and other artistic elements of the Yungang Grottoes hold great religious, aesthetic, historic, and cultural values.


Buddhist Statues and Reliefs in Cave of the Yungang Grottoes, Photo by Dongmaiying.

Why were the Yungang Grottoes built and stopped?


In 452, Emperor Wencheng of the Northern Wei Dynasty ascended the throne and revived Buddhism that suffered havoc from his grandfather the Emperor Taiwu's Persecution of Buddhism. 


A respected monk named Tan Yao proposed that the emperors were incarnations of Buddhas in the secular world, which gained Emperor Wencheng's support to construct Buddhist Grottoes in Datong, the capital city of the Northern Wei Dynasty. 


From 460 to 465, Tan Yao built five caves, whose five giant Buddhas represent five emperors of the Northern Wei.


One of the Five Caves Constructed by Tan Yao, Now the 20th Cave of Yungang Grottoes.

After Emperor Wencheng passed away in 465, his queen Empress Dowager Feng and his grandson Emperor Xiaowen reigned the empire in succession. 

As royal supported caves, Yungang Grottoes reflect the history of the empire and the wills of the sovereigns. 


Hence, constructions of the Yungang Grottoes reached the peak during Feng and Xiaowen's ruling period and Sinicized because of their Sinicization reforms.  

Exquisite Tower Column of the 6th Cave Built During this Period, Photo from Official Site of Yungang Grottoes.

In the year 493, Emperor Xiaowen migrated his capital southward to Luoyang to consolidate his reign to enlarged territory and to prepare for annex wars against southern kingdoms. 


In the same year, the emperor started to construct imperial Buddhist caves in Luoyang city, where he commanded to build the first cave of the Longmen Grottoes to pray for departed Empress Dowager Feng.  


As for Yungang Grottoes, after the royals left the city, more caves were constructed under the supports of lower-ranked nobles, officials, and civilians, which are way smaller. 

Smaller Statues of the 39th Cave Built During the Late Period, Photo from the Official Site of Yungang Grottoes.

The construction of Yungang Grottoes stopped in 524 when a large-scale rebellion outburst around this area and caused huge chaos, and ten years later, the Northern Wei Dynasty (386  —534) was ended. 


Afterward, Yungang Grottoes suffered destructions and have been restored several times, until it put on national protection in 1952 and listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage in 2001.

Protective Buildings Constructed in 1651 in front of in Caves 5, 6, and 7 of the Yungang Grottoes, Photo by Aries.

Important Data of Yungang Grottoes.


  • Yungang Grottoes is located in Datong of Shanxi Province;


  • It includes 252 caves and niches, with over 18,000 square meters carved areas;


  • There are over 51,000 Buddhist statues, vary from17 meters to 2 centimeters' tall;


  • From over half a century's construction, the Buddhist arts of Yungang Grottoes show clear transitions from Western to Chinese Han culture style.


Smiling Buddha of Yungang Grottoes

What cultural aspects that the Yungang Grottoes show?

As an exceptional Buddhist wonder constructed under the support of royals of Northern Wei, the artworks of the Yungang Caves show many cultural aspects of the empire in the 5th and 6th centuries.


Musical Instruments in the 12th Cave, Photo from Official Site of Yungang Grottoes.

Dancing and Costumes in the Yungang Grottoes.

Architectural Pillars of the Wuhua Cave, Photo from Official Site of Yungang Grottoes.

Costume and Artistic Decorations in Yungang Grottoes, Photo by Dongmaiying.

Destructions and protection to the Yungang Grottoes.


Besides natural weathering, human activity also had caused destructions to the grottoes, including stolen in the early 20th century. 


Nowadays, more modern technologies are used to preserve, restore, and display the Yungang Grottoes, including copied caves, digital websites, movies, theaters, performances, videos, etc.


Buddha Statue in the 5th Cave, Photo from Official Site of Yungang Grottoes.

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