Photo Gallery

Longmen Grottoes (carved 480s-900 onward)

The Longmen Grottoes (L�ngm�n Sh�ku, Dragon Gate Grottoes, or Caves) are among China�s most significant sculptured groups. The name �Dragon Gate� is derived from the natural appearance of the twin cliffs on both sides of the Yi River that remind one of Chinese gate towers. They served as the southern �gates� to the city of Luoyang, a city of the dragon, or emperor, when it served as the dynastic capital. Actually the Sui and Tang city lined up north-south with the Longmen cliffs. Together with China�s two other two major grottoes (the Yungang in Datong, Shanxi Province, and the Mogao in Dunhuang, Gansu Province), the Longmen complex reflects important elements of both of Chinese architectural and artistic style. It also well illustrates the close relationship between imperial and religious elements of the Chinese community.

The Longmen Grottoes were carved from limestone hills over many centuries, beginning with the reign of the pious Xiaowen emperor (471-499) of the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534) and continuing through the Tang dynasty in 10th century (although some items date from as late as the Qing dynasty). About a third of the carvings are from the Northern Wei period, over half are from the Tang and the rest are from other periods. The grottoes honeycomb the hills for over a kilometer on the west bank of the Yi River (Yihe or Yishui), a northward-flowing tributary of the Luo River. They are about 7.5 mi (13 km) south of Luoyang, one of China�s historic capitals. In addition to the carvings on the west side of the river, there are some grottoes on a lesser scale on the eastern bank with architectural monasteries that served more as the working and living areas for the sizable Buddhist community of monks from various sects. The Northern Wei had created the marvelous Yungang grotto sculptures near their earlier capital at Datong. When they decided to move to Luoyang in the late 5th century, it was perhaps logical that they would continue the genre of creating grottoes. Not only was Luoyang one of China�s historic political capitals (it hosted thirteen dynasties altogether) and therefore had a important symbolic value, it was also one of the earliest centers of Chinese Buddhism. The nearby rocky hills provided a veritable canvas for their creation of imaginative new worship and devotional centers. Doubtless some of the same artisans who labored at Yungang even continued to ply their skills at the new capital.

The grottoes are a gallery of Chinese art that provides significant information about most areas of Chinese culture including its political and economic structure, theology, medicine and clothing, as well as the fine arts, including architecture, painting, music, calligraphy and sculpture. There are, of course, numerous depictions of the life of the Buddha. In addition, the grotto carvings include disciples, bodhisattvas, guardians, apsaras and other creatures that reflect the changing elements of the Buddhist faith in China over hundred of years and numerous dynasties. The Longmen sculptures reflect the styles of earlier Indian and Yungang grotto art, though the figures often are clad in roomier Han-style gowns and reflect a dignified refinement and elegant grace that was to influence much of China�s later Buddhist sculpture. The earlier Northern Wei statues mostly are of Shakyamuni and Maitreya Bodhisattva; later statues are more attached to the Maitreya Buddha of the Future and the Amitabha and Guanyin, the compassionate Bodhisattva who reflected concern for personal salvation.

The total count of carved sculptures and other important creations in the grottoes varies from source to source. Perhaps some of the variations in the numbers do not include the objects on the east bank. There are numerous (2,345) grotto niches that include 1352 caves and over 2,800 inscriptions on the walls of the caves and cliff faces, many pagodas (40, 43 or 70?) and about 100,000 sculptured figures ranging from the great 57 ft (17.14 meter) Vairocana Buddha belonging the Fengxian Temple to miniscule 1 inch (2 cm) carvings. There have also been recent additions to the total because of archeological digs, including the 1999 discovery of four previously unknown grottoes and several other stone carvings. Discoveries have come because of the recent reconstruction of roads designed to protect the grottoes and facilitate the tourist traffic. It was announced in May 2003 that several new caves and niches, which include ten Buddha figures from the Tang period, had recently been uncovered. It is fair to say that Longmen is a monument that is somewhat still in the stage of recovery.

Longmen served as an important pilgrimage destination for over five hundred years, and during that period it received numerous foreign and domestic visitors and dignitaries. Renowned poets such as Du Fu and Bai Juyi (the latter is buried just north of Longmen) visited the grottos and left literary tributes. Foreign pilgrims made donations toward its upkeep or to underwrite the cost of additional shrines. Other donations came from local lay or religious people to attain merit. The complex contains the names of many of these sponsors. Most of the larger sculptures had either the sanction or the direct support of the rulers and other members of the extended royal family. A number of the carvings reflect the earthly rule of the Buddha emperor, thus solidifying the relationship between the state and the religion. The donations of noble patrons, including monarchs and other members of the extended royal family, are particularly valuable as their donor tablets and dedications contain some of the richest historic sources of Chinese classical calligraphy.

The carvings have suffered much damage from erosion and other natural forces. But the destructive human elements long were hard at work as well. A number of the figures were originally richly colored and decorated with gold. The colors have mostly faded, and the gold has long disappeared. Locals hacked off many pieces during the disorder of the 1920s and 1930s and sold them to art dealers in Beijing. Many of these pieces now lie in museums throughout the world. Other treasure hunters, grotto climbers, acid rain, the rumble of trucks and automobiles, and the encroachment of shopping stalls and other commercial enterprises in the immediate area, including a fun park, all contributed to the damage of this magnificent treasure.

But the situation is improving. UNESCO declared the Longmen Grottoes a World Cultural Heritage Site in 2000. In preparation for that the government in the previous year dynamited the large dragon in the adjoining fun park�an event that was locally telecast. Major steps are now being taking to preserve the grottoes from further destruction. In March 2002 authorities created a scenery zone to facilitate the tourist trade, removed some of the stalls of vendors and launched a concerted effort to help preserve the carvings.

It is difficult in a quick survey of this fascinating construct to provide any more than the briefest description of the specific elements of the complex. A few of the items photographed are described with some detail. Other names remain unknown to the author of this brief essay. Assistance in identification from the reading public would be greatly appreciated.

The largest and most familiar element of the grotto complex is the central Fengxian (Ancestor-worshipping) Image Shrine completed during the Tang Dynasty. It belonged to the Fengxian Temple which was located just south of the western cliffs. The shrine area is approximately 127� x 115� (39m x 35m), and its massive 57 ft (17.14 meter) Vairocana Buddha dwarfs all of the other Longmen statues. A small inscription at its base gives its date of construction as 676 AD. It also lists the names of the artisans and the name of the emperor donor, Gaozong (r. 649-683). It also honors the emperor�s wife, Wu Zetian, for her gifts in the form of �twenty-thousand strings of her rouge and powder money� that aided in its completion. The face of the Vairocana Buddha is even reputed to be modeled after the Empress herself and sometimes has been heralded as a Chinese Mona Lisa, Venus or as the Mother of China. The beam holes at the rear of the shrine were cut into the cliff around the 11th century to hold a wooden roof, which was not part of the original construct; the wooden roof has long disappeared. The surrounding statues, as well as the Great Vairocana itself, though many are damaged, retain wonderful detail, character and animation. Flanking the great statue are two major disciples (Kasyapa and Ananda) and two Bodhisattvas with crowns. There are lokapalas (guardians or heavenly kings), dvarapalas (temple guards), flying divas as well as numerous other figures.

The Laolong (Old Dragon Cave) dates from the Tang Dynasty. The name is derived from the Old Dragon Palace. It includes a number of niches, many dating from the period of the Emperor Gaozong, but it does not appear to have as well-organized as some of the other caves The Guyang (Old Sun) Cave, is the oldest of the caves at Longmen, and it is one of the most important in demonstrating the skill of the Northern Wei style of carving. The cave had its beginnings as a natural limestone cave and was perhaps carved between 495 and 575 AD. One historian of the Longmen Grottos, Liu Jinglong, has recently suggested that the earliest Longmen carvings in this cave were around 478, thus pre-dating the movement of the capital by the Xiaowen emperor. If they were that early, it could show that the transfer of capitals was long in the planning. There are rows of niches with excellently-crafted Buddhist statues along the walls and rich architectural design. The Guyang is also significant because of the variety of its fine calligraphy. Among its approximately 600 inscriptions are the finest examples of the Northern Wei style of writing.

The Wanfo (Ten thousand Buddha) Cave was carved in a relatively short period of time and was formally dedicated in 680. Its major patrons were the Palace Chapel nun Zhiyun and Yao Shenbiao, a woman in the palace services. The beneficiaries of the merit were the Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu Zetian and their children. �Wanfo� more accurately should be translated as �innumerable,� rather than �Ten Thousand,� as the cave demonstrates. There are actually 15,000 small Buddha statues carved on the northern and southern walls in a most ordered way, while numerous lotus flowers with Bodhisattvas appear on the rear wall. Since there is a large amount of open floor space (approx. 120� sq, 36m) the enclosure doubtless provided space for larger worship ceremonies. Although the major carvings had elite patronage, many of the other patrons were not members of that traditional elite. It is estimated that an unusually high percent of the images, perhaps a quarter of them, were the result of the patronage of nuns. The skilled carvings donated by both the elite and the non-elite, interestingly, were being done simultaneously.

The Lianhua (Lotus Flower) Grotto, finished by 521, is another of the significant sites from the Northern Wei period. It is characterized by a large lotus flower carved in high relief on its ceiling and numerous small statues carved into the south wall. There are intrusive shrines on the north and south wall. The Binyang Grotto, is a grotto of three caves. The Central Binyang has bas-reliefs carvings of the emperor and empress. Locals looted the imperial processions of the in the 1930s; the emperor procession may be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, while the empress procession is at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. The Grotto of Prescriptions has over 140 herbal recipes carved on its walls, making it rich source for the study of ancient medicine. These and numerous other caves with their rich carvings, religious and imperial motifs and information about daily life make the Longmen Grottoes one of China�s richest architectural treasures.

This writer wishes to express his sincere personal appreciation to Professor Amy McNair of the Kress Foundation of Art History at the University of Kansas for her most helpful comments and additions to the above essay. Whatever shortcomings that remain are this writer�s alone. Professor McNair�s book on the Buddhist Sculpture Grottoes at Longmen is scheduled for publication by the University of Hawaii Press in 2004.

Text by Professor Robert D. Fiala, Concordia University, Nebraska

Note: Compare these grottoes to the later Seokguram Grotto in Gyeongju, Korea, which it helped inspire.


All images copyright 1988, 2003 by Robert D. Fiala of Concordia University, Nebraska, USA

Liou, Caroline, et al. Lonely Planet: China. 7th ed.
  Lonely Planet Publications, 2000. Melbourne

McNair, Amy. "Early Tang Patronage at Longmen,"
  ARS ORIENTALES 24, 1994. pp. 65-81

McNair, Amy. "Tang-dynasty Patronage of Nuns at the Wanfu Grotto, Longmen.�
  ARTIBUS ASIAE, LIX, 3/4. pp. 161-188

Wood, Frances with Neil Taylor. 2nd d. China Blue Guide
  A. C. Black, 2001. London

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Luoyang China Travel Information posted on Tue May 06, 2014 10:13 pm:

These stone sculptures are really amazing to see and we are so glad that we decided to visit the place from Xi'an by high speed train. Every buddha is different in size, faces...