PINGYAO / DATONG
Yungang Caves (Datong)
Few places in the world match the incredible Buddhist cave art of Datong’s Yungang Caves. 51,000 Buddhist sculptures were carved out of rock by more than 40,000 sculptors at the outset of the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534). Datong was their first capital and the caves are one of the dynasty’s few lasting legacies.
As the spirited Mongolian Tuoba clan fought to establish their dominion in China as the “Northern Wei” dynasty, Buddhism - recently arrived from India - had grown exceedingly popular amongst the local Chinese. The Mongolians embraced it as their state religion to co-opt local support for their rule. Under Emperor Wencheng, the early caves (#16 – 20), were created as shrines to a series of massive Buddha which were associated with the first five Northern Wei emperors.
The second generation of caves (#5-13) were built between 471 and 494. Here images of holy monks, Buddhas, bodhisattvas, heavenly Indian mythology figures and popular scenes from Buddha legends are found in over 1,000 niches in 252 caves. The later caves built from 494 to 525 were mainly financed by private patronage as Imperial funds dried up, and as a result are smaller and less ostentatious.
Though the caves have suffered from natural erosion, most statues retain their original color scheme. Continuous repairs and restorations through the ages have retained the historical authenticity of the Yungang Caves, as demonstrated when they were recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.