Yungang Grottoes — Localization and Secularization of Buddhist Cave Art

Yungang Grottoes in Datong of Shanxi Province

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

 

What Are the Yungang Grottoes?

 

Yungang Grottoes or Yungang Caves, 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.

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

 

Why Were the Yungang Caves Built and Stopped?

 

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

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

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, its construction reached a 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.

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

In the year 493, Emperor Xiaowen migrated his capital southward to Luoyang to consolidate his reign, enlarge territory, and prepare for annexing 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, after the royals left the city, more caves were constructed under the support 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.

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

The grottoes' construction in Yungang 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) ended. 

Afterward, Yungang Grottoes suffered destruction and have been restored several times, until it was put under 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

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

 

Important Data of Yungang Grottoes.

 

  • It is located in Datong of Shanxi Province;

 

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

 

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

 

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

Smiling Buddha of Yungang Grottoes

Smiling Buddha of Yungang Grottoes

 

What Cultural Aspects Do 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.

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

Dancing and Costumes in the Yungang Grottoes.

Dances and Costumes

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

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

Costume and Artistic Decorations in Yungang Grottoes

Costumes and Artistic Decorations, Photo by Dongmaiying.

 

Destructions and Protection

 

Besides natural weathering, human activity also caused destruction 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.

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