Buddhist grottoes originated in India in the 3rd Century, and was well developed in China from the 5th to the 13th Century. China has the largest number of Buddhist grottoes preserved throughout history, and the grottoes provide an important basis for the research of ancient Chinese politics, economy, culture, architecture, painting, and dancing. Of all the Buddhist grottoes in China, the four most famous ones are Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, Yungang Grottoes in Datong, and Maijishan Grottoes in Tianshui.
The Longmen Grottoes are located on both sides along the Yi River in present day Luoyang, Henan province, which served as the capital of China for 13 dynasties.
There are 100,000 statues within the 2,345 caves, with the height ranging from 25 mm to 17 m. Most of the statues were caved from the end of the 5th century to the mid-8th century.
The grottoes were excavated and carved in four distinct phases: 1) excavation and carving starting from the Northern Wei Dynasty, 2) slow development during the Sui Dynasty and the early part of Tang Dynasty; 3) prosperity in the Tang Dynasty when Chinese Buddhism flourished and China became the richest region in the world; and 4) decline from the late Tang Dynasty to the Northern Song Dynasty.
Patrons and donors of the Longmen Grottoes included emperors, members of the royal family, other rich families, generals, and religious groups.
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The Yungang Grottoes are located at the southern foot of Mt. Wuzhou, 16 kilometers west to Datong, Shanxi province. Datong was called "Pingcheng" in ancient times, which was the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty established by an ethnic minority group named "Xianbei" in 398 AD.
The founding emperor of Northern Wei Dynasty established Buddhism as national religion and began to build Buddhist temples in a massive manner, with an aim to obtain tolerance and trust of Han people who were conquered. As north China then suffered from windstorms and was lack of solid timber, grotto temple became a good choice.
The Yungang Grottoes, with their 252 caves and 51,000 statues, represent the outstanding achievement of Buddhist cave art in China in the 5th and 6th centuries. The statues in Yungang Grottoes were made in three stages. Statues in the first stage feature large-size and solemn images. Statues in the second phase are notably smaller than those made in the first phase, but with more vivid images. Statues made in the third stage feature totally localized images and costumes.
Statues in Yungang Grottoes carried forward and further developed artistic traditions of the Qin and Han period and had far-reaching impacts on the development of art in the Sui and Tang dynasties. They play an important role in Buddhist cave art in China and East Asia.
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The Mogao Grottoes are located in Dunhuang, which was a gateway on the ancient Silk Road connecting China with the west world.
The Mogao Grottoes currently consist of 750 caves, 492 of them with mural paintings, on five levels hewn into an escarpment in the desert. In total, there are 45,000 square meters of murals and more than 2,000 painted clay figures. Buddha statues, paintings of paradise, and angels adorn the walls, as do images of the patrons or donors who commissioned the paintings.
The construction of the Mogao Caves began in the fourth century AD. Members of the ruling family of Northern Wei and Northern Zhou constructed many caves here, and it flourished in the short-lived Sui Dynasty. By the Tang Dynasty, the number of caves had reached over a thousand. During the Tang Dynasty, Dunhuang became the main hub of commerce of the Silk Road and a major religious centre. A large number of the caves were constructed at Mogao during this era, including the two large statues of Buddha at the site. After the Tang Dynasty, the site went into a gradual decline. As the Silk Road declined in importance and was finally abandoned during the Ming Dynasty, the Silk Road was finally officially abandoned, and Dunhuang slowly became depopulated and largely forgotten by the outside world.
The caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years，covering more than ten major genres, such as architecture, stucco sculpture, wall paintings, silk paintings, calligraphy, woodblock printing, embroidery, literature, music and dance, and popular entertainment. Mogao Grottoes are a singular and astonishing art repository, like none other in the Chinese Buddhist world.
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The Maijishan Grottoes are located at Tianshui (meaning celestial water), a main stop on the ancient Silk Road. Now 194 grottoes, 7200 sculptures and over 1000 square meters of mural paintings are preserved.
The establishment of the grottoes are believed to start during the rule of Later Qin (384-417 A.D.) The most vigorous and prolific period of architectural and artistic activity coincided with the reign of Northern Wei (385-534 A.D.), Western Wei (535-556 A.D.) and Northern Zhou (557-581 A.D ) dynasties. The complex continued under the rule of succeeding dynasties right up to the Qing (1644-1911 A.D.) when not only some of earlier caves were altered, reconditioned and embellished with figures and murals, but also new ones were added.
The earlier artistic works reflect mixed forms of Indian, Central Asian and Chinese styles. Gradually, the form evolved to reflect a more native Chinese style as the artists of Maijishan integrated their creativity and imagination with exotic art styles and produced sculptures and murals with a more indigenous flavor. So a transitional phase of Chinese Buddhist art can be seen here.
One of the most common types of caves found at both Dunhuang and Yungang—that of a cave with a central shaft—is not found at Maijishan. Also different from other famous grottoes which flourished in the Tang Dynasty, there are almost no records of Maijishan during the Tang, a period during which it was probably in part under the control of the Tibetans as a result of the An Lushan rebellion. Because both Dunhuang and Maijishan were under Tibetan occupation in 845 CE, the year of the great Buddhist persecutions, both were fortunately saved.
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