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Special Edition 02/20/2015 World Heritage China Part 18- Yungang Grottoes


02-21-2015 03:33 BJT

Assessment of the World Heritage Committee

Locating in Datong City, Shanxi Province, the Yungang Grottoes has 252 shrines and over 51,000 statues, representing outstanding Buddhist grotto art in China between the 5th century AD and 6th century AD. Among these caves, the "Tan Yao Five Caves" has a strict and unified layout and is the classic masterpiece in the first noontide of the Chinese Buddhist art.

Chinese name: Yun Gang Shi Ku

English name: Yungang Grottoes

Yungang Grottoes

Yungang Grottoes

According to cultural and natural heritage selection criteria C(I)(II)(III)(IV), the Yungang Grottoes was included in the World Heritage List in December 2001.

The Yungang Grottoes is located in the foot of the Wuzhou Mountain in the south, 16 kilometers west of Datong City in Shanxi Province in northern China. It is home to a large number of Buddhist sculptures. The Yungang Grottoes was dug for the first time in the Second Xing'an Year of the Northern Wei Dynasty in 453 AD under Tan Yao's direction, who was a Buddhist eminent monk at the time. It was basically completed before the Northern Wei Dynasty moved its capital to Luoyang in 494 AD while the statues engraving project had been continued to the Zhengguang Year period between 520 AD and 525 AD. The grotto was dug at the hillside and is about one kilometer from east to west. There are 45 major caves, 252 shrines and over 51,000 stone statues, broken or unbroken, with the largest standing 17 meters tall and the smallest only a few centimeters tall. The Yungang Grottoes plus the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang and the Longmen Grottoes in Henan are known as "three major stone grottoes in China" and also one of the world-famous stone carving art collections. The statues in the Yungang Grottoes are imposing and rich in content and can be called the best among Chinese stone carvings in the 5th century AD.

It is also known as the treasure house of ancient Chinese sculpture art. It can be divided into the early, middle and late periods according to the digging time and the carving style in every period was also different. The early "Tan Yao Five Caves" is magnificent and has simple and rustic western styles. The grottoes in the middle period are world-famous for their refined carvings and gorgeous decorations, showing the complex and grand artistic style of the Northern Wei Dynasty. The grottoes in the late period are small but the statues are thin and pretty and have moderate proportions. It is the example of grotto art in northern China and the origin of the "thin and pretty statues" style. In addition, the statues are in a state of dancing accompanied by music and acrobatics carvings also reflect the fashionable idea of Buddhism at the time as well as the social life in the Northern Wei Dynasty. Li Daoyuan, a famous geographer in the Northern Wei Dynasty, had described the spectacular scene in his geography work "Shui Jing Zhu."

The Yungang Grottoes is divided into three parts, with the eastern part having four caves, the middle part having nine caves and the western part having 40 caves. In addition, there are also are many small caves. Among them, there are some distinctive caves and the third cave is the largest among the Yungang Grottoes, with the front bluff being 25 meters high and having 12 square holes in upper center part. The third cave has two rooms, the front room and back room. The back room has one Buddha statue and two Bodhisattvas with smooth cheeks, looking plump and natural. Judging from the carving technique, they were engraved in the Sui and Tang dynasties. The fifth and sixth caves are a group of two caves, with the fifth cave established in the Eighth Shunzhi Year of the Qing Dynasty in 1651 AD. A Buddha, the largest statue in the Yungang Grottoes sits in the center of the fifth cave, and is 17 meters tall and can accommodate 120 people standing on its knee and 12 people standing on its foot. Many small Buddhas surround the largest one, creating a magnificent view.

A 15-meter-high two-layer tower-shaped pylon is in the center of the sixth cave, with statues on each side and figures of Buddha, Bodhisattvas, Arhat and Apsaras around it. There are 33 statues of Buddha and their mounts on the top of the cave, and the preaching stories of Sakyamuni are carved on the walls and pylon. The sixth cave is the most representative cave of the Yungang Grottoes. The wooden three-layer eaves were established in front of the seventh cave, which is divided into two rooms, the front and back rooms. A Bodhisattva sits in back room. Shrines and statues are carved on east, west and south walls, with six life-like Bodhisattvas enshrined on the arch of the south gate. The lively and vivid relief carvings around lotuses are on the top of the cave. Kumura statues having five heads and six arms and riding on a peacock stand on either side of the eighth cave, with another statue having three heads and eight arms and riding on a cow standing on east side. This is extremely rare. The 12th cave has musicians from the heaven who have instruments in their hands, all looking different and vivid. The classical instruments such as panpipes and Konghou in their hands are very valuable and are important for studying China's music.

The 13th cave has a cross-foot Maitreya Buddha in the center, which is around 12 meters tall, and a Hercules statue standing behind the Maitreya Buddha's left arm. This is the only one of its kind in the Yungang Grottoes. The 15th cave has over 10,000 small seated Buddha statues, called the "Ten Thousand Buddha Cave." The 16th cave and the other four caves are called the "Tan Yao Five Caves" which were carved in the earliest period. The 16th cave is oval-shaped, with the main Buddha standing on a lotus and a thousand Buddha and shrines on the surrounding walls.

The 17th cave has a cross-footed Maitreya Buddha sitting on the Xu Mizuo seat, with seated statues on both sides. The 18th cave features the theme of "Buddhas of the past, present and future" and has Sakyamuni representing the Buddhas of the present in the center and Buddhas of the past and future on both sides. A Bodhisattva statue is between Sakyamuni and the other two Buddhas and five disciples of Sakyamuni are above the Bodhisattva. The heads of these disciples are separated with the wall and the bodies and legs gradually disappeared in the wall, which was influenced by the Gandhara art style in India and is rarely seen in the Yungang Grottoes. The 19th cave has a huge seated statue in the center. The 20th cave is in the open and its main Buddha is well-preserved above its chest with plump face, shoulder-length ears and bright eyes. It is amiable, energetic and powerful and is one of the most representative works in the Yungang Grottoes.

Cultural heritage value

The Yungang Grottoes, as a grand Buddhist sculpture group, highlights the characteristics of Buddhist sculpture craft during the Northern Wei Dynasty and vividly records the history of Buddhist arts in India and Central Asia such as Gandhara arts developing into Chinese Buddhist arts. It also reflects the process of Buddhist sculptures gradually becoming unreligious and national in China. Various Buddhist sculpture styles achieved unprecedented integration in the Yungang Grottoes and it has become the turning point of Chinese Buddhist sculpture art development. The Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes and the sculptures of the Northern Wei Dynasty in the Longmen Grottoes were all affected by the Yungang Grottoes to varying degrees.

Therefore, the Yungang Grottoes possess typical Buddhist connotations and prominent artistic value in ancient times, and also meets the requirement of authenticity in cultural heritage. In addition, the Yungang Grottoes, as a holistic sculpture group, prominently displays the various styles and features of Buddhist culture during the Northern Wei Dynasty. As the Yungang Grottoes is in a good state of preservation without damage, it is able to fully reflect its geographical features and characteristics of the times. It also fully reflects the flourishing conditions of Buddhist culture during the Northern Wei Dynasty and possesses a kind of cultural integrity. Therefore, it meets the requirements of integrity as a cultural heritage.

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