Catherine PAGANI

The big statue of Buddha on the exterior of the Yungang caves. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The cave temples at Yungang date to the fifth and sixth centuries and are considered the earliest surviving Buddhist monuments in China. The forty-five extant caves that stretch nearly a kilometer were built between 460 and 524 CE. Work was sponsored by the Northern Wei ?? rulers and by local elites and officials. The largest Buddha at the site is nearly 56 feet in height.

The fifth and sixth century cave temples at Yungang are considered to be the earliest surviving Buddhist monuments in China. Located ten miles west of the present-day city of Datong (formerly the Northern Wei capital of Pingcheng), the cave temples were cut into a sandstone ridge that stretches nearly a kilometer along the Wuzhou River. The forty-five extant caves were built in three phases from 460 to 524 CE, and include both imperially-sponsored caves and those financed by local elites and court officials. The site contains thousands of carvings of Buddhist figures ranging in height from less than one inch to nearly fifty-six feet (2.5 centimeters to 17 meters).

Buddhism was adopted as the state religion by the non-Chinese Tuoba from Central Asia who ruled in north China as the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534). However, not all of the Northern Wei rulers were ardent followers of Buddhism. Taiwu Di (r. 424–452), the third emperor of the period, at first supported Buddhism, but on advice from Confucian and Daoist court bureaucrats who saw the religion as a threat, instituted a severe anti-Buddhist persecution that lasted from 446 until 452.

In 460, Tanyao, a monk and the head of the Buddhist church, petitioned the emperor. Wencheng Di, to cut five large caves from the stone cliff at Yungang as an act of expiation. These caves, known today as the Tanyao Caves and numbered 16 through 20, each contain a colossal Buddha said to honor—and perhaps represent—the first five Northern Wei emperors, with the Buddha in Cave 16 representing Wencheng Di himself. These caves were made between 460 and 465 or 467. The technique of carving cave temples into cliffs has earlier precedents in India and Central Asia. Indeed, these Buddha figures are an amalgam of foreign and native styles. The colossal Buddha of Cave 20, at 46 feet (14 meters) high, is considered to be the epitome of Northern Wei stone sculpture. These caves are simple and austere in their program of design.

A second phase of construction began around 470 and ended when emperor Xiaowu Di (reigned 471–499) moved the capital south to Luoyang. These imperially-sponsored caves are more Chinese in style. They are more elaborate, show more variation, and contain more inscriptions than the caves of phase I. The colossal Buddhas were replaced by numerous smaller figures. These included the paired caves 1 and 2, 5 and 6, 7 and 8, and 9 and 10, along with caves 11, 12, and 13. The paired caves may relate to the pairings of ruler and consort. Often the Buddha is dressed in the robes of a Chinese scholar. Xiaowen Di decreed in 486 that official court dress would be the traditional dress of the Chinese scholar class, and these Buddhas likely reflect court practice.

After the capital was moved, work continued at the site until 524. During this third phase, Caves 21 to 45 were constructed, along with a number of smaller caves and niches that stretched westward from the Tanyao Caves. With imperial patronage over, support came from local officials, and the work was done on a much smaller scale.

Over time, wind, rain, pollution, and the activities of looters have taken their toll. In 1988, researchers from the Getty Institute joined the Chinese in working to preserve the site. The cultural importance of the Buddhist Yungang caves has been recognized by UNESCO, which named Yungang a World Heritage Site in 2001.

Further Reading

Caswell, J. O. (1988). Written and unwritten: A new history of the Buddhist caves at Yungang. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Caswell, J. O. (1996 September-October). Buddhas of Cloud Hill. Archaeology (49)5, 60–65.

Harrington, S. P. (1996, September-October). An endangered sanctuary. Archaeology (49)5, 64–65.

Seiichi, M., & Nagashiro, T. (1952-1956). Yun-kang (Unkô-sekkutsu): The Buddhist cave-temples of the fifth century A.D. in North China; A detailed report of the archaeological survey carried out by the mission of the Tohobunka Kenkyosho 1938-45. Kyoto, Japan: Kyoto University.

Source: Pagani, Catherine. (2009). Yungang Caves. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2609–2610. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Statues of Buddha in niches on the exterior of the Yungang caves. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Yungang Caves (Yúng?ng Shík? ????)|Yúng?ng Shík? ???? (Yungang Caves)

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