Of all the Buddhist grottoes we’ve visited – Dunhuang, Matisi, Jintasi and Shikong – we’d have to say we had the most fun at Yungang Grottoes near Datong. Not that the works were as gorgeous and beautifully preserved as at Dunhuang; they weren’t. Nor were the grottoes set against a spectacular mountain backdrop like those at Matisi and Jintasi, or a private, intimate experience like we had at Shikong.
What was so enjoyable about Yungang, and what we hadn’t experienced before, was that we were able to wander about the caves more or less unrestricted. We weren’t required to hire a guide, we could linger as long as we liked, and we could take photographs wherever we wanted.
Despite being affected by air pollution from Datong, many of the colours remain extremely vivid
Construction on the caves started in 453 AD at a time when China was divided between the Northern Wei and Southern Qi dynasties. At that time, Datong was the capital city of the Northern Wei and the rulers, wanting to show how serious they were about respecting Buddhism, thought Datong would be just the place to build one of the largest collections of Buddhist art and sculptures. This was no remote trading centre like Dunhuang, this was the capital city, and the capital city deserved a good set of grottoes.
The statue at Cave 20, probably the most well-known image of Yungang
Statue sizes vary from less than an inch to nearly 20 metres high
The rulers, however, did have an ulterior motive. After declaring Buddhism the national religion, they commissioned monk Tan Yao to build five enormous Buddhist statues at Yungang in the likeness of five of the Northern Wei emperors. The message was clear – adopt Buddhism, but remember that the emperor is God. It’s hard to say how well that message went down with the loyal subjects – the dynasty only survived another 40 years or so after the completion of the caves.
Looking up at one of the statues of Buddha carved in the likeness of a Northern Wei emperor
Celestial musicians can be seen around this Buddha’s head
There are only 45 caves at Yungang, but there is an astonishing number of statues crowded into those caves – 51,000 to be precise (give or take a few). The whole complex might not be as extensive as Dunhuang, which has more than 700 caves, but you do get to see more – at Dunhuang you must join a tour that only visits 10 or so caves.
A wall of the Thousand Buddha Cave
There are only a couple of hundred here
While we had a lot of fun at Yungang, the truth is that we probably shouldn’t have had quite so much fun. Since the 1960s the caves have been protected in law by both the Chinese Government and the Datong Municipal government, and in 2001 the whole area was listed by UNESCO on the World Cultural Heritage List. But to us it seemed that on the ground the grottoes are seriously underprotected.
First of all, people are allowed to wander through the caves alone as opposed to being forced to join a guided tour, as is the case in Dunhuang. Despite the presence of security cameras, it seemed to us there was ample opportunity for vandalism, and while we didn’t see any, one idiot can do a lot of damage (as we’ve seen occasionally on the wall). And sure, it was fun to stroll around unsupervised, but when 1500-year-old treasures can be destroyed in an instant, maybe a little less freedom wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
The walls are covered in delicate little carvings like this one
The long ears and headdress are typical of the Indian Gandhara style of carving, for which Yungang is famous and quite unique
Secondly, restrictions against flash photography seem to be a dead letter. While there are signs that seem to forbid flashes, no one takes them seriously – some of the caves looked like Hollywood openings with all the flashbulbs going off. And going off in front of commercial tour guides. And guards. You’d think they could do better than that, but if they can’t, maybe they should just ban photography altogether.
Indian Gandhara style brought with it influences of Greek art into China
Finally, there is a threat to the caves coming from the outside, and that’s air pollution. Just across the road is Datong’s largest coal mine. Though the local and state governments are said to be taking steps to reduce the impact of air pollution from the mine and from traffic, we can’t find anything specific on what these steps actually are. But if they are as effective in implementing these “steps” as they are in managing the much simpler problems of access and photography, Yungang’s future could be seriously endangered.
As always, all our photos of indoor artifacts were taken without flash. It’s quite possible that taking such photos, even without flash, was technically against the rules, but whatever restrictions may exist in theory are completely unenforced. For what it’s worth, we specifically asked for and received permission from a guard to take photos without flash. Under these circumstances, we couldn’t really see the harm.