World Heritage / Longmen Grottoes


World Heritage in China: Longmen Grottoes

Longmen Grottos in Luoyang were listed as a world cultural heritage site by UNESCO in November 2000.

The world-famous Longmen Grottoes are located 12 kilometers south of Luoyang. Here two mountains, namely, East Hill (Mt. Xiangshan) and West Hill (Mt. Longmen), confront each other with the Yi River traversing northward between them, just like a pair of Chinese gate towers. So during the Zhou and Qin dynasties, it was called ‘Yi Que’ (Gate of the Yi River). Later, when the Sui established its capital city in Luoyang, the palace gate was just facing Yi Que, hence the name “Longmen” which means “Dragon Gate”. Just as Bai Juyi, one of the great poets of Tang Dynasty had put it, the scenery in Longmen is the best of all in Luoyang.

The Longmen Grottoes were first sculptured and chiseled around 493 AD when the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) was moved from Datong to Luoyang. The entire construction of Longmen Grottoes lasted more than 400 years through the Northern Dynasties, Sui Dynasty, Tang Dynasty and up to the Song Dynasty. Today, there are still 2,345 caves and niches, 3.600 inscriptions, 100,000 Buddhist images ranging in size from 2 centimeters to 17.14 meters, more than 2,800 inscribed tablets and 50 Buddhist pagodas remaining in both East Hill and West Hill. Altogether 30% date from the Northern Wei Dynasty, 60% from Tang Dynasty and the rest 10% from other periods. All of these show the high aesthetic achievements ancient Chinese had attained.

Stretching along the precipitous cliff of the southern side of West Hill, Fengxian Temple, also named Grand Vairocana Buddha Niche, is the largest cave in Longmen. Measuring 35 meters in width and 39 meters in length, this cave was carved over 1,300 years ago (from 672 AD to 675 AD) during the Tang Dynasty. When it was first constructed, the entire grotto was covered with a roof and enclosed from the natural elements. Today the roof is missing and the sculptures stand out in the open air. The most extraordinary statue in Fengxian Temple is the Grand Vairocana Buddha, which is 17.14 meters tall with his head 4 meters long and his ear 1.9 meters wide. Sitting in the middle of the niche, this colossal Buddha shows a perfect combination of moral integrity, delicate emotions, broad mind and elegant semblance. Her lips are slightly upturned and her head a little bit lowered, a slight smile makes her look like a sagacious and benign middle-aged woman whom you would respect but not fear. It Is said that the statue was modeled after the face of Empress Wu Zetian, so people also call it Empress Wu Zetian’s Statue. Furthermore, due to the gentler facial expression, this statue is reputed as the ‘Easter Mona Lisa’, ‘the Eastern Venus’, and the ‘Mother of China’. On each side, the Buddha is flanked by an Ananda, a Bodhisattva, a Heavenly King and a Vajra. Of the two disciples (Ananda), one looks prudent and experienced and the other compliant and pious. Both Bodhisattvas are dressed up with splendid attire and a dignified appearance. Beside them is the Heavenly King holding the Divine Pagoda while the Vajras look unruly and ferocious.

The sculpture of heavenly guardian is even more vivid than the Vajra. Discovered in 1953 when the earth was removed in Jinan Cave, this sculpture was left behind after being stolen because of transportation failure, The glaring guardian clinches his fists, causing bulged muscles on the breast, arms and legs. The sculpture appears unruly and mighty as a whole.

Another famous cave here is Binyang Cave. Taking 24 years to be built, the cave boasts for the longest building history. Among 11 buddhas in the cave, the most important one is the dignified and serene Sakyamuni accompanied by disciples and bodhisattvas. Other Buddhas and bodhisattvas are heavily Persian styled for their slim appearance, big eyes, flat necks and detailed garment textures. The ceiling is decorated with ethereal Feitians, which are masterpieces of stone carving in the middle Northern Wei Dynasty. Originally there were two large embossments about imperial life in the cave, namely The Pilgrimage of the Emperor and The Pilgrimage of the Queen, centered on emperor Xiaowen and queen Wenming respectively. The embossments are endowed with high aesthetic value for the grand occasion and the exquisite carvings. Unfortunately, they were smuggled to the U.S by profiteers and are collected in Kansas and New York museums respectively. The calligraphic inscriptions by Chu Suiliang, the renowned minister and calligrapher of Tang Dynasty, at the entrance is worth seeing.

In the south of Binyang Cave sits Wangfo Cave, in which there are 1.500 lesser Buddhist sculptures ranging from one inch to several centimeters in height. In the front wall, the bodhisattva sits on an octagonal lotus, which is supported by four vajras. The back wall is decorated by 54 lotus carvings, and every lotus is topped by the bodhisattva or the patron. In addition, a graceful and vivid musician in relief is available on the ceiling, and an elegant Kwan-yin statue with a tiny vase lights up the southern wall near the entrance.

Guyang Cave is another famous cave here. Based on a natural limestone cave, this cave is the most important cave in the series and represents the highest skill of carving, rock painting and architecture of the Northern Wei. Using the style which prevailed in Northern Wei, the chief Buddha is sitting in his meditation on an altar with two lions at his feet. which appears delicate and lifelike. Of the “twenty calligraphies” at Longmen, the majority is found in this cave. The contents of the grotto are of great value in the study of sculpture, painting and architecture of the Northern Wei period.

There is also a Yaofang (prescription) Cave with 140 carved prescriptions, reflecting the achievement of ancient Chinese medicine. It is an important way to pass down the ancient medical experiences by inscribing the prescriptions on the tablets or in the caves.

Longmen Grottos is not only reputed for exquisite Buddhist carvings, but also for calligraphies. Of the 3,600 calligraphic works in a myriad of caves, the “twenty calligraphies” at Longmen are the most outstanding symbols of the fine cultural heritage of China and the most influential in the academic and calligraphic world at home and abroad. Moreover, 19 of the “twenty calligraphies” are in Guyang Cave, and the other one is in Cixiang niche on the cliff of Laolong Cave in the mid-south of the west hill. Guyang Cave, sculpted between 495 AD and 575 AD, is regarded as the earliest of the Longmen Grottoes. It is also well-known for an abundance of tiny niches and detailed carvings.

Maintaining a great deal of material evidences for religion, fine art, calligraphy, music, apparel. medicine, architecture and exchange activities, Longmen Grottos is deemed as a large museum for the art of stone carving. Thus it is praised alongside with Mogao Grottos in Dunhuang and Yungang Grottos in Datong as one of the three major treasure houses of stone carving in China.

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