Visiting the Yungang Caves

  • imperial I
  • November 25, 2019

Time and time again after foreign invaders have founded a dynasty in China as part and parcel of imposing their rule the invaders have become so Sinicized as to become almost indistinct culturally from the local Chinese. So it was with the proto-Mongolian Tuoba clan when at the end of the Jin dynasty they battled with competing states to rule northern China as the Northern Wei dynasty (386 – 534) from their capital at Datong. As their rule proceeded, they jettisoned ancient clan practices and increasingly adopted Chinese customs and belief systems to co-opt the local population to accept their dominion. Buddhism was one such belief system. It was then a fashionable religion imported from northern India along trading routes into and through China. 

The Tuoba Emperors used Buddhism to solidify their hold over the population. The first Emperor Daowu (r.386 – 409) adopted this as the state religion and explicitly identified himself with the Buddha as a strategy for encouraging local compliance with his governance. Under the reign of the fifth Emperor Wencheng, a senior monk named Tao Yan from western Gansu province (where the earlier established Mogao Caves are located) requested Imperial sponsorship to create the first rock carved caves in China at a sandstone escarpment 16 kilometers west of Datong. So were the Yungang Caves born. These are the early caves no. 16 – 20. Shallower caves that function mainly as a shrine to a massive Buddha, they use Buddhist iconography to symbolize the first five Northern Wei emperors Daowu, Mingyuan, Taiwu, Jingmu and Wencheng. According to an early Wei history of this period, five of the senior sculptors for these early caves were Indian, explaining a synthesis of Persian, Byzantine and Greek styles within the more customary Chinese idiom. You will notice the evolution of the figures’ physiognomy at the Yungang Caves from the deeper-set features of early caves to the more typically Chinese depictions in later periods. 

However, it was not until the reign of Emperor Xiaowen in 471 that the Yungang Caves took on ‘Imperial’ proportions. Through this unequivocal support, more than 40,000 sculptors were employed to hammer out 51,000 images of holy monks, Buddhas, bodhisattvas, heavenly Indian mythology figures and popular scenes from Buddha legends over 1,000 niches in 252 caves. From the floating Apsaras to the gesticulating Gandharvas, each and every peacock, elephant and lotus blossom is sculpted in low relief to bring out the simple and vigorous appearance of the statues, and to impart the perpetuity of Buddhist law. This second generation of caves built between 471 and 494, namely caves no. 5 – 13, typically feature a rectangular floor plan with a central pagoda-like pillar that a visitor must circumnavigate. 

After the Northern Wei transferred their capital from Datong to Luoyang (where they financed the impressive Longmen Caves) in 494, Imperial funds dried up for projects at Yungang. As a result, the later caves built from the year 494 to 525 were mainly financed by private patronage and as a result are smaller and less ostentatious. 

Though the caves have suffered from natural erosions, most statues retain their original color scheme. Continuous repairs and restoration through the ages have retained the historical authenticity of the Yungang Caves, as demonstrated when they were recognized by the United Nations in 2001 with World Heritage status along with the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang and the Longmen Caves in Luoyang.