Yungang grottoes

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Yungang grottoes
UNESCO world heritage UNESCO World Heritage Emblem

Yungang caves.jpg
Grotto entrances
National territory: China People's RepublicPeople's Republic of China People's Republic of China
Type: Culture
Criteria : i, ii, iii, iv
Reference No .: 1039
UNESCO region : Asia and Pacific
History of enrollment
Enrollment: 2001  (session 25)

The Yúngāng Grottoes ( Chinese  雲岡 石窟  /  云冈 石窟 , Pinyin yúngāng shíkū  - "Cloud Ridge Rock Caves"), formerly Wuzhoushan Grottoes, are early Buddhist cave temples in the Chinese province of Shanxi . The caves are located in the greater community Yungang (云冈镇) of the municipality Nanjiao the city Datong , about 16 km west of the center in the valley of the Shi Li river at the base of the Wuzhou Shan. Most were carved from the sandstone between AD 460 and 525 during the Northern Wei Dynasty . The entire complex consists of 252 grottos and niches. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001 .


With the fall of the Jin Dynasty, the Northern Wei dynasty established itself in the northern part of China, which also includes the area around Datong . She made Datong, then still under the name Pingcheng, your capital. Although Buddhism was initially a foreign religion for the new dynasty, it promoted it considerably, especially since in the Buddhist school of that time a ruler who was well-disposed towards Buddhism was equated with the living Buddha. By the time construction began in 460, Buddhism was already largely established as the state religion in the Wei Dynasty. The work on the Yungang grottoes spanned a total of 65 years from AD 460-525, although there were repeated interruptions. The construction can be divided into three phases (see also the description of the caves below). First of all, the early phase from 460-465, which was carried out under the monk Tan Yao and is characterized by five monumental caves. Six years after the end of the early phase, the middle phase begins which extends from 471-494. This phase is characterized by funding from the ruling house and, with the numerous twin and triple caves, forms the core area of ​​the entire complex. The last main section is the late phase from 494-525, which was guaranteed by private patronage and therefore mainly produced small caves and niches. The transition from the second to the third phase of construction was triggered by the fact that the capital of the Wei dynasty was relocated to Luoyang in 494 and the ruling house's interest in the progress of the work ended. After Datong was shaken by riots in 523, the city temporarily depopulated, so that work finally came to a standstill in 525.

Since the end of the work, the grottoes and statues have been heavily exposed to weathering because they are made of sandstone. Therefore, in the following centuries there were repeated efforts to maintain or restore the condition of the caves. Already during the Liao dynasty , in the years 1049-1060, many already damaged statues were restored and the so-called "10 temples of Yungang" were built in front of the grottoes, which were destroyed by a fire a little later, in 1122 . In 1621, during the Qing Dynasty , the wooden protective buildings that are still preserved today were erected in front of two of the monumental caves to prevent the caves from being further destroyed by the weather. During the entire period that followed, restoration work was carried out on statues and caves and some of the statues were repainted. Efforts have been made by the Chinese government since 1950 to maintain the condition of the grottoes and statues through safety measures. Attempts were made both to limit the natural erosion caused by penetrating water by grouting and sealing cracks and to limit the damage caused by sandstorms by planting trees. In addition, attempts were made to reduce the pollution of the grottoes from the surrounding coal mines.

The grottoes have been on the list of monuments of the People's Republic of China in Shanxi (1-34) since 1961 . They were proposed for UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the late 1990s and added in 2001.

The grottoes

Main statue (right) and figures on the side wall of Grotto 11

The facility extends over a length of about one kilometer along a sandstone wall at the foot of the Wuzhou Shan. The grottos follow the course of the river valley in an east-west direction. The complex consists of 42 grottos and another 210 niches with a total of over 51,000 statues of Buddha. Since the grottoes were worked in the sandstone that is common there and they were constantly exposed to the weather, the outside areas in particular are partly heavily weathered.

The caves can be stylistically divided into three different construction phases. The early phase from 460-465, the middle from 471-494 and the late from 494-525 AD. From the earliest construction phase come five huge U-shaped main caves (nos. 16-20) at the western end of the central part the plant. They were dug under the direction of the monk Tan Yao and house monumental statues up to 15 m high.

The five large statues show various representations of the Buddha; a seated Shakyamuni in no.16 , a seated Maitreya in no.17, a standing Shakyamuni dressed in a robe decorated with many small bodhisattva figures in no.18, another seated Shakyamuni (with a height of almost 17 m the second largest in Yungang) , who is surrounded by meditating Bodhisattvas, in No. 19 and a 14 m high seated Buddha in grotto No. 20, which probably collapsed in the 10th century. The statues are also representations of the reigning Wei Emperor Wen Cheng (No. 16), Prince Jing Mu (No. 17), Emperor Tai Wu (No. 18), Emperor Ming Yuan (No. 19) and Emperor Dao Wu (No. 20), who were seen as personifications of the Buddha. The figures are designed with intricately folded robes and rich decorations. Rectangular holes can be seen on some of the monumental statues, which are likely from a later era when the statues were covered with layers of clay and redesigned. After the clay was later removed, the holes in the beams used to support the clay layer remained. On the walls of the caves there are thousands of smaller statues, some of which represent the various mythical forms of Buddha as Buddha of the past, present and future, some show scenes from the life of Siddharta, and some depict images of their donors. The elaboration of the clothes and the jewelry of the figures shows that the style of the statues from the early phase is still strongly Indian. Cave No. 20 is no longer recognizable as such, as the roof of the cave has collapsed over the centuries and the statues contained in the cave are now in the open.

In the second phase, a number of twin grottos (nos. 1-2, 5-6, 7-8, 9-10) and a triple grotto (nos. 11-13) were created. The grottos from the middle phase represent the most important part of the overall system, both in terms of their number and the richness of their equipment. The grottoes of the middle phase have a square floor plan and partly a stupa as a column in the middle of the room. The style of the decorations and figures has now developed into a typical Chinese style, which shows kinship to the linear, geometric style of the representations from the Han period .

The grottoes of the late phase (especially nos. 21-45, 3, 4, 14 and 15 but also more than 200 other small grottos and niches) are smaller and much more heterogeneous than the grottoes of the early and middle phase. While grotto no.3 has a monumental ensemble of the three Buddhas of the past, present and future, grotto no.15 is known as the Thousand Buddha Cave ( Chinese  千佛洞 , Pinyin qiān fó dòng ), with more on the wall than a thousand small Buddha and Bodhisattva statuettes a few centimeters in size are gathered together. As a rule, however, the ornamentation of the statues is less detailed in the late phase.

The Yungang Grottoes, along with the Mogao Grottoes near Dunhuang and the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang, are the most important examples of Buddhist stone carving in China.

Plant plan. The grottos are numbered from east to west in ascending order. The smaller niches are not listed.


  • James O. Caswell: Written and Unwritten: A New History of the Buddhist Caves at Yungang , University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver 1988, ISBN 0-7748-0300-2
  • Seichi Mizuno, Toshio Nagahiro: Yun-kang (Unko sekkutsu) [Yun-kang; The Buddhist cave temples of the fifth century AD in North China, 16 vols.]. Kyoto University, Kyoto 1952-1956. In Japanese.
  • Alexander C. Soper: Imperial Cave-Chapels of the Northern Dynasties: Donors, Beneficiaries, Dates . Artibus Asiae, XXVIII, (4) 1966, pages 241-270.
  • Su Bai: yungang shiku fenqi shilun [A Discussion of the Periodization of the Yungang Caves]. Kaogu xuebao, 1978, No. 1, pages 25-38. In Chinese.
  • Report of the UNESCO Assessment Committee ( PDF )

Web links

Commons : Yungang Grottoes  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Coordinates: 40 ° 6 ′ 35 ″  N , 113 ° 7 ′ 20 ″  E