This Sleeping Buddha is found among the rock carvings at Dazu, in Sichuan Province. PHOTO BY PAUL AND BERNICE NOLL.

The forty-one sites in Dazu County in Sichuan Province contain over fifty thousand religious and secular sculptures that were carved into cliffs and caves over a 250-year period from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries.

A United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site since 1999, the rock carvings of Dazu consist of sculpted imageries and inscriptions on cliff faces widely dispersed at hillsides in Dazu County in the Chongqing area of Sichuan Province. The majority of more than fifty thousand sculptures were created by Buddhist clergy and devotees over the course of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), the Five Dynasties era (907–960 CE), and the Song dynasty (960–1279). They mainly pertain to Buddhist themes, although some additionally synthesize Daoist metaphysics and Confucian moralities. These carvings are noted for unique artistic temperament and rich diversity of subject matter integral to understanding the eclectic nature of visual art and the belief system of ancient Sichuan.

Of all the masterpieces of Dazu, the decorated grottos and niches at Beishan (North Hill) and Baodingshan (Treasure-Summit Hill) complexes are the most important. Artistically and iconographically, the combined works at these two locales delineate the successive phases of a blossoming religious art.

The greatest concentration of the earlier group (Tang and Five Dynasties) is located at the Fowan (Buddha Bend) site of Beishan complex, seen at cave numbers 1–98 and numbers 213–285. They constitute part of the total of 290 sets of carvings on rocky outcroppings stretching across nearly 300 meters, representing a pantheon of awe-inspiring deities and vivacious flying apsaras (celestials) familiar in pre-Tang and Tang Buddhist art. Among the visual interpretations of Tantric and Pure Land spirituality at Beishan, caves numbers 5, 9, and 10 are believed to have been pioneering works engineered around 892, at the time when a fortress was set up in the Beishan area in response to regional insurgence that had become rampant in a declining empire.

Additional specimens in the middle sections of the Fowan cliffs are the more evolved and secularized carvings of the later Song era. The finest includes an assembly of gracefully jeweled bodhisattvas, realistic portraitures of saints, donors, and wrathful guardian kings in cave number 136 (dated 1142–1146). These naturalistic representations were contemporaneous with thirty-one sets of monumental works at the Dafowan (Great Buddha Bend) site of the Baodingshan complex. The Dafowan tableaux of gilded and painted imageries are set on a horseshoe-shaped rock formation 280 meters long, conceived as a life-long project of a Tantric monk named Zhao Zhifeng (b. 1159). They convey messages of esoteric learning interwoven with Huanyan, Pure Land, and Ch’an doctrines. Among the images are reminders of karmic retributions, including a diagram explaining the reincarnation process for sentient beings, along with vivid and at times grotesque scenes of sinners’ torments in hell.

Many of the carvings demonstrate unique innovation in organizing carved designs over flat surfaces or in three-dimensional forms. For example, the genre scenes at cave number 19 are juxtaposed with inscribed texts to underscore the instructive overtone in the narratives. The elongated, oversized figures at cave number 5 are deliberately tilted to maximize perception from below. The half-busts at cave number 11 are used as substitutes for full figures in a kind of artistic cost-effectiveness. And above all, the idiosyncratic natural rock formations at cave number 29 are structurally and iconographically integrated into the sculpted designs to resolve drainage and lighting issues in a deeply cut grotto.

The rock carvings of Dazu County are an expansive and superlative display of the artistic devotion, interpretive skills, and technical ingenuity of the Buddhists of ancient Sichuan.

Further Reading

Dazuxian Wenwu Baoguansuo. (1980). Dazu Beishan he Baodingshan Moyan Zaoxiang [Cave art at Baishan and Baodingshan of Dazu]. Wenwu, 1, 90–93.

Dazuxian Wenwu Baoguansuo. (Ed.). (1984). Dazu Shiku [The Grottoes at Dazu]. Beijing: Wenwu Press.

Howard. A. F. (1998). The development of Buddhist sculpture in Sichuan: The making of an indigenous art. In J. Baker (Ed.), The flowering of a foreign faith: New studies in Chinese Buddhist art (pp. 118–133). Mumbai, India: Marg Publications.

Howard, A. F. (2001). Summit of treasures: Buddhist cave art of Dazu, China. Trumbull, CT: Weatherhill.

Liu, Changjiu et al. (Eds.). (1985). Dazu Shike Yanjiu [Studies of the rock carvings from Dazu]. Chengdu, China: Publishing house of the Science Academy of Sichuan Province.

Source: Chiou-Peng, TzeHuey. (2009). Dazu Rock Carvings. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 588–589. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Dazu Rock Carvings (Dàzú Shíkè ????)|Dàzú Shíkè ???? (Dazu Rock Carvings)

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