Yungang Grottoes, Jan 26, 2010

Luoyang, China -- With a history of 1,500 years, the Yungang Grottoes represent the outstanding achievements of Buddhist cave art in China in the fifth and sixth centuries.

The Yungang Grottoes in north China are one of the three major Buddhist cave complexes in the country, with the other two being the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang in northwest China, and the Longmen Caves in Luoyang in central China.

With a history of 1,500 years, the Yungang Grottoes represent the outstanding achievements of Buddhist cave art in China in the fifth and sixth centuries.

With their strict unity of layout and design, the caves constitute a classical masterpiece of the highest degree of Chinese Buddhist art.

In today's "On the Road," we'll visit the Yungang Grottoes, a great work of art that vividly illustrates the power and endurance of Buddhist belief in China.

The Yungang Grottoes, one of the three major Buddhist cave clusters in China, punctuate the north cliff of Wuzhou Mountain in Datong City in north China's Shanxi Province.

The grottoes were built along the mountainside and extend one kilometer from east to west.

Wang Jia is a curator at the caves.

"The Yungang Grottoes are located 16 kilometers west of Datong City proper. They consist of 45 major caves and over 51,000 stone statues."

The construction of the caves was started under the auspices of the noted monk Tan Yao in the year 453 and took 50 years to complete. Some 40,000 people, including Buddhists from what is present-day India and Sri Lanka, contributed to the huge project.

The statues in the grottoes vary in size. The largest is 17 meters high, while the smallest is 2 centimeters high. Most of the statues have different clothes, and each bears a different facial expression. Some look grim and serene, while others appear vivid and vigorous.

The caves are divided into the east, middle, and west zones. Pagodas dominate the eastern parts. The west caves are small and mid-sized with niches. The caves in the middle have front and rear chambers with Buddha statues in the center. Embossments cover the walls and ceilings.

Grotto No. 20 is one of the monk Tan Yao's five earliest caves. It houses the sitting statute of Sakyamuni, which is 13.7 meters high. The statue has a full and round face with a majestic smile, slim lips and a high nose, ears that extend almost to the shoulders, radiant eyes and broad shoulders. The Sakyamuni statue is representative of Buddha sculptures at the Yungang Grottoes.

Wang Jia says many praise the caves and statues as wonders of Chinese fine art. They attract numerous tourists from all over the world each year.

"Looking from afar, this is an ordinary, unattractive hill. But when you go up to the caves, you will always be fascinated by the exquisite artwork of each statue. This is especially true for western tourists who had no idea of the caves before they came."

Xiao Ma is a tourist from northeast China and a first-time visitor.

"Here I'm marveled at the scene in front of me. I'm so impressed by the imposing statues. It is very significant to protect this Buddhist treasure."

Han Meilin, a noted Chinese artist toured the area recently. He says he regarded his trip as an art pilgrimage.

"I should have been here earlier. I have read many books about it since I was a child. But when I came, I was moved to tears. I'm overwhelmed by the sculpture, structure and colors of the statues."

Over the past 1,500 years since their completion, the Yungang Grottoes have been damaged by both wars and natural disasters. After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese government attached great importance to the preservation of the grottoes.

In recent years, especially in the past decade, the Datong municipal government has intensified its efforts to protect the caves. It has made huge investments to get rid of illegal construction and improve landscaping efforts at the site.

In December 2001, the 25th meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Helsinki, Finland, passed a decision to include the Yungang Grottoes on the list of World Cultural Heritage Sites.

It is easy to get to the Yungang Grottoes. Datong is only a four-hour drive from Beijing, while air routes provide non-stop flight services from several other large cities in China.

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