Yungang Grottoes: 1,560-year-old Buddhist art

By WANG NAN / 07-22-2020 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)
The seated Buddha in Cave 20 at Yungang Grottoes Photo: 699PIC

The massive Yungang Grottoes complex extends approximately 1 km from east to west, comprising more than 200 caves and niches and 50,000 statues. Its earliest cave was cut around the year 460. In 2020, the Yungang Grottoes complex is 1,560 years old. 

In September 1933, Liang Sicheng, Lin Huiyin, Liu Dunzhen and Mo Zongjiang, the core members of the Society for the Study of Chinese Architecture (China’s first academic institution of historical architecture), conducted field research in Datong in Shanxi Province. They were deeply impressed by the Yungang Grottoes as they discovered the construction of these grottoes involved not only the wooden architectures of the Northern Wei era but also various foreign architectural elements. 
For common people, a grotto is just a cave with some Buddha statues in it. In fact, the grottoes of the Yungang style are formally known as cave temples, an important type of ancient architecture in China, and most of the cave temples are Buddhist temples. Early cave temples were introduced from India to the Western Regions (a historical name specified in the Chinese chronicles that referred to the regions west of Yumen Pass, most often Central Asia), then the Mogao Grottoes and Liangzhou (in present-day Wuwei, Gansu Province). The Liangzhou Grottoes were the most profound influence on the Yungang Grottoes. This architectural style finally arrived at Pingcheng (in present-day Datong, Shanxi Province), the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386—534), and instigated the construction of the Yungang Grottoes, a hallmark in the history of China’s ancient cave temples. Soon, China saw the far-reaching effect of the Yungang Grottoes, which reached Luoyang (in present-day Henan Province) in the south, Liaoning Province in the northeast, Shandong Province in the east and in turn the Liangzhou Grottoes and Mogao Grottoes. 
Adaption to Chinese culture 
Cave 39 of Yungang illustrates the origin of cave temples. It is a rectangular cave with a central pillar in imitation of a Buddhist pagoda with five finely engraved stories, modeled after Northern-Wei-Dynasty wooden monasteries. The cave temple, which was used for meditation, traces its origins to ancient India. Early Buddhist art did not contain the Buddha’s anthropomorphic images, so the stūpa (a mound-like Buddhist building originating from India) became a symbol of Buddha. In ancient India, the rock-cut caves of early times with a stūpa inside were called caitya caves or tamiao ku in Chinese. Cave 39 is a typical caitya cave adapted to Chinese traditions. 
The Great Stūpa at Sanchi, the oldest existing stūpa in India, signified the Buddha’s burial mound or the house of his ashes through its form. The central structure consists of a hemispherical dome (anda) on a base; the dome is surmounted by a squared railing, where a central pillar (yashti) is erected to symbolize the cosmic axis, supporting a triple umbrella structure (chattra). However, this style of stūpa was not popular in ancient China. The Chinese transformed it into a pagoda loved by the masses: a jin pan (known as sōrin, a mini-stūpa) tops a chong lou, which is a multistory tower-like structure common to China. This transformation can be found in Cave 39, where a structure comprises a sōrin topping a three-tiered tower-like building. 
There are over 120 Buddhist pagodas made of stone in the Yungang Grottoes complex, the highest of which has nine stories. And the highest pagoda of the Northern Wei era was located at Yongning Monastery in Luoyang. This wooden pagoda was about 133 meters high, built within three years and burning down after 15 years. 
In ancient China, the Buddha image also evolved to adapt to Chinese culture. The arts of Gandhara and Gupta played a crucial role in the evolution of the Buddha image at Yungang. Gandhara art was developed in what is now northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan between the 1st century BCE and the 7th century CE. The style, due to the conquests of Alexander The Great, drew upon the anthropomorphic traditions of Greco-Romanart and represented the Buddha with an Apollo-like face and Greek curly hair, dressed in garments resembling those seen on Roman imperial statues. The Gupta depiction of Buddha, of Gupta-Dynasty (the classical age of India) origin, featured an Indian face, snail-like curly hair, and a robe clinging to the Buddha’s body as a piece of wet cloth. The set of Buddha figures that were similarly sculpted came to be known as ‘Wet Buddhas.’ 
The seated Buddha of Cave 20 shares elements of Gandhara art, such as characteristically sunken eyes, a sharp nose, an exotic moustache and an elaborately carved robe wrapped to cover the left shoulder and leave the right arm bare. The statue in Cave 19 is a typical Wet Buddha under the Gupta style. 
After Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei (467—499) enforced the adoption of Chinese language and other aspects of Chinese culture, statues were dressed in garments resembling what the scholar-officials of the Southern Dynasties (420—589) often wore, featuring loose robes, wide sleeves and broad belts. Buddha statues were finally transformed into what we usually see today in China. 
Flying Apsaras are common Buddhist images. They became slender gradually after being introduced to China. The Flying Apsaras inspired by Gandhara art were portrayed as chubby angels. They became a pair of hovering winged figures in Kizil Caves in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Similar figures are found in the halo behind the seated Buddha of Cave 20 at Yungang, portrayed fully grown and barefoot. This is a typical image of Flying Apsaras in the early phase represented in the Yungang Grottoes. The image of Flying Apsaras in later phases took the form of slim beauties with floating dresses and ribbons. 
Cultural influence 
Yungang Grottoes are often associated with Itō Chūta (1867—1954), a Japanese architect and well-known architectural historian, a scholar whose research presented the value of Yungang Grottoes to the world. Before his expedition to Yungang, Itō researched the oldest extant wooden building in Japan, the Horyu-ji Temple in Nara Prefecture. He found some Greek-style decorations within the temple. At that time, Japan wanted to become an ally of the European powers, so Itō deduced that the style of Japan’s oldest building was inspired by Greek culture. Soon after his visit, however, Itō suggested that the Horyu-ji style had been directly influenced by the architectural style of China’s Southern and Northern Dynasties (420—589). 
There are some unique elements in the structure of Horyu-ji Temple—cloud-shaped wooden blocks (dou) and short beam-arms (gong), which are rare in China’s extant wooden architecture. However, Liang Sicheng and his colleagues discovered similar structural elements in the stone pagodas at Yungang. They also drew sketches to analyze the connection between the Yungang Grottoes and Horyu-ji Temple. 
Liang Sicheng and his colleagues wrote in their paper that the Yungang Grottoes had proved that Chinese architectural culture maintained its unique characteristics independent from other cultures, despite having absorbed a large amount of foreign influences as Buddhist art swept across ancient China. 
This article was edited and translated from Guangming Daily. Wang Nan is the deputy curator of the Memorial Museum for the Society for the Study of Chinese Architecture at the School of Architecture at Tsinghua University. 
​edited by REN GUANHONG
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