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Longmen and Dazu Rock Art Caves

CHINA | Monday, 4 November 2013 | Views [2802] | Comments [1]

Chinese Rock Art: Longmen & Dazu Caves

 There are four main rock art sites in China, Dunhuang in the desert along the old Silk Road, Yungang in the North East, Longmen near the ancient Tang capital Luoyang, and the Dazu Caves scattered throughout Chongqing prefecture. I really wanted to get to Dunhuang, but the cost of the flight was simply prohibitive.  I did make it to the latter two, however, and they were both fabulous.  They were very different in styles, which fits with the different periods of construction and their contemporary religious belief.

 The earlier of the two are the Longmen Caves.  I had specifically wanted to see these stone statues as Empress Wu Zetian’s face was constructed on the largest of the Vairocana Buddhas. This Empress was instrumental in providing government support for the creation of Buddhist iconography in the early Tang period, and was the only Chinese Empress who ruled in her own right.

 In the Longmen Grotto there are said to be well over 100,000 statues within over 1,000 caves, although the majority of the larger ones are along one strip of hill beside the Yi River. The area used to be called “Dragon’s Gate Grotto” because there are two hills that seem to form a southern gate to the former capital city of Luoyang.  Most of the caves were dug out of the side of the cliff, but there are at least three fairly large ones that were naturally occurring.  The statues, for the most part were done as huge reliefs from the side of the hill rather than having been constructed elsewhere.  The oldest of the statues came from the Northern Wei period, approximately 493 CE, with the newest from the Song Dynasty ca. 1127.  There were at least four phases of excavation and carving, during the Northern Wei (late 5th – early 6th C), Sui and early Tang (ca. 7th C), later Tang (7th – 8th C) and the late Tang to early Northern Song in the (11-early 12th C). The caves were created to honor imperial ancestors as well as for honoring the Buddhist deities. Empress Wu Zetian also used them as a political tool, much the way Queen Hatshepsut in Ancient Egypt used pharonic imagery to promote the legitimacy of her reign. Her image is most prominent in the Fengxian Cave as the face of Vairocana, the primordial Buddha of Pure Emptiness; the date given at the base is 676. This figure with its rounded peaceful face is typical of Tang style sculpture as has been considered “the Chinese Mona Lisa.”

 The caves are really quite remarkable and everywhere one looks there is another image that is most outstanding than the next.  They range in size from just a couple of inches to over 17m in height.  There are still some traces of paint on a few of them, but for the most part the color is gone and only the natural stone is apparent.  This creates a more uniform appearance than would have been the case during the construction periods, but it would be interesting to see digital recreations of what the site must have looked like in the early 12th C before being repeatedly looted and sometimes destroyed over the intervening centuries. 


The Dazu Caves are about 163 km. NW of Chongqing up in the hills. The caves are scattered throughout the entire county with over 70 different sites that contain more than 50,000 statues and 100,000 inscriptions.  The majority of the statues were constructed during the Tang and Song dynasties, although they range in time from 650, from the Early Tang to the late Qing in the late 19th C.  There are two main sections the Beishan, and Baodingshan, which is much more ornate and tantric in nature than the softer rounder Song figures in Beishan.

The Baodingshan carvings were made from the end of the 12th to the beginning of the 13th C. under the direction of Zhao Zhifeng, a student of Lui Benzin, the tantric master of Sichuan, and a monk who spent 70 years overseeing the development of the site. He was active between 1174-1252, when he oversaw the construction of over 10,000 Tantric Buddhist statues. This site is especially fascinating as it combines Buddhist, both Pure Land and Vajrayana, Taoist and Confucian iconography.

There was a hiatus in the carvings between 963 -1077 due to political turmoil in the region, but it was restarted after 1078, when until 1173 there was a great deal of activity. There was a second period when nothing was constructed between the end of the Song Dynasty to the Yongle period of the Ming sometime in the first decades of the 15th C. The construction after the Song D. consists of only about 20% of the carvings and inscriptions.

The Dofowan Rock Carvings in Baodingshan were made between 1174-1252. The Parinirvana of the Buddha was done sometime between 1127-1279, but no one knows for sure. In Dawofan there is a large wall section with the “10 Cultivating Steps of Liu Benzun,” who was Zhao Zhifeng’s master.

 Different from Longmen, where there is no color, there are many traces of pigmentation at Baodingshan.  The site has been renovated and is a huge tourist attraction for the domestic and foreign markets, although most tour groups only go to the horseshoe Baodingshan site and not to Beishan, where there are fewer traces of color and more historical destruction of the images. There is a difference if feeling among the two sites, the Baodingshan is clearly tantric and synthesized imagery, whereas Beishan is more Pure Land, with some Tantric imagery.  As a rule the images are kinder and mellower than the intensity of the Zhao Zhifeng figures. 

 Across from Beishan on a neighboring hill is a pagoda that is under reconstruction.  I was curious about it, so we went to investigate, and I’m glad we did.  The site looks scruffly and flat with just a couple of old, fairly falling apart buildings near the entrance, but in the first of the dilapidated structures are three beautifully carved large (at least 7 m) Buddhas, then under the green cloth and scaffolding on the at least 9 roofed pagoda are lots of smaller figures.  There is a stairwell that goes down the hill from the pagoda which leads to a large platform facing back toward the excavated hill underneath the pagoda with two absolutely huge stone Buddhas. They dwarfed the Longmen Vairocana. I could find out nothing about this site as there was no literature anywhere, even in Chinese and no one at the site could tell my guide anything about it.   I put a photo of my guide, who is my height (5’7”) next to the Buddhas in the photo gallery.  She is barely visible.

 Both the Longmen and Dazu Caves are very impressive.  Some of these statues are as impressive as any in the Louvre, British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art etc., and are even more amazing than those there as they are in the “natural habitat.”  There is something special about seeing sacred art in its particular location.  The worship site has as much to do with the artistry of the piece as does the carving itself.  The site and its images contain the wishes, prayers and thoughts of the people who visit them over generations.  They are living history and provide a way to understand a common humanity.










The best times to view the Longmen Grottoes are either early morning or in the evening near sunset. In early morning there are few tourists, and everything is tranquil and peaceful. You can view or even pray all by yourself.

  AccessChinaTravel May 7, 2014 1:08 PM

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