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China glories in these giant rock cut Buddhas. Here is one of the largest at the Yungang grottoes.


The Buddhist statues in China


On our trip we saw lots of buddhas – lots and lots of them. Indeed, the cry among the weary travellers would go up, “Not another buddha!” There are indeed a lot of Buddhist statues  in China on the tourist route: but did I just gather the impression that the Chinese are rather keen on their buddhas? Is this something about modern Chinese psyche? I developed a theory on the intellectual/spiritual beliefs of the modern Chinese intellectuals. I suspect they are one third Maoist – after all, Mao did a lot for China – he broke up the caste system (something that India desperately needs). The next third is modern capitalism, which they believe in rather more fervently than we do in the West. But the final third is Buddhism, and I suspect that of the three, Buddhism seems to make the better sense.

Buddhism is a strange religion. It began with Buddha, an inspired teacher who lived in India between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. In the 3rd century BC it was taken up by Asoka, the first great king to unite India under the banner of Buddhism. But Buddhism declined in India, though it expanded with great success in the East, particularly into Thailand and Cambodia, and indeed into China. Today, Buddhism forms less than one percent of Indian religions, whereas in Thailand, and Cambodia, and Saigon, it is the dominant religion, and it is making rapid inroads into China: after all, Buddhism is a much nicer religion than Christianity or Islam.

It arrived in China from the north, brought by merchants travelling the Silk Road. But at first its progress was slow. Under the Han Dynasty (210BC – AD220: the equivalents of the Romans), Confucianism was the main religion. However, Confucianism is a very scholarly religion with the implication that if you look after the state, the state will look after you. This is fine as long as the state is strong and successful, but when, after AD 220, the Han Dynasty collapsed, so did Confucianism. There followed a ‘dark age’, a jumble of invasions, and in this, Buddhism flourished. Buddhism has an emphasis on the personal; through your own karma, you will  either go up or down in the ladder of existence. It also encouraged monasteries, which provided a haven of calm from the chaotic, political world. And some of the greatest Buddhist monuments come in this ‘dark age’, notably with the Northern Wei, who came from Mongolia to the north.


 The Yungang grottoes

Yungang grottoes China giant buddha
The giant Buddha was carved out between 450 around 480 A.D. He sits cross-legged with a serene expression. Note the way the folds of his dress fall over his upper arm – art historians  argue as to how far this is Indian influence.  And note the standing companion figure to the right.

The greatest of their monuments are in the Yungang Grottoes, near Datong – a long day’s train journey west from Beijing (think of it as being the top left hand corner of the Chinese heartlands). The Northern Wei did not just put their buddhas in temples, instead, they found a fine cliff-face and carved out caves, leaving buddhas as statues in the middle of the grotto. Some of these buddhas are very big, and some are very little, indeed, various attempts to count them all come out at around the 10,000 mark. The biggest of them is a good example of the early type, sitting cross-legged, hands folded, with long ears and a half smile. It shows something of the influence of India, modified by the desert nomads through whom Buddhism mainly reached China. The roof of the cave has mostly collapsed but note the companion standing to the right.

Yungang China general view of grottoes and Buddhas
View along the cliff side, showing the many grottoes that were carved out. The giant Buddha is in the recess at the end of the wooden viewing platform

But the whole cliff is pockmarked with numerous caves of varying sizes and there are literally thousands of carvings, many of them very small as shown in this frieze.



 The Hanging temple

The visit to the Yungang caves is usually combined with a visit to the most spectacular of all the ancient Chinese sites, the ‘Hanging Temple’, 40 miles south east of Datong.

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The first awesome view of the Hanging Monastery. Note the four-storied  Temple at the centre and the two buildings on either side

It is a most spectacular and scary site, consisting of some 40 rooms clinging to the hillside, precariously supported by long poles, each room joined the other by a narrow passageways. I found it very scary indeed – I am not as young as I once was, but I was pulled through somehow by my fellow travellers.

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A close-up of the hanging Temple showing the poles on which precariously it is supported.

It lies in the shade of Heng Shan, which is one of the five holy mountains of China and it is unique in housing all three of the main religions of China, the Confucians, the Daoists and the Buddhists – can you imagine Christianity sharing a monastery with two other religions? It consists of three parts, a Temple and a South Building and a North building. It was originally conceived in AD 491 but it has been rebuilt many times since. It once stood above the river which has now mostly vanished thanks to the huge dam which lies just round the corner.

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Inside the Hanging Temple with the crowds waiting to get in

When I visited it was very crowded – and I was glad to get down!











 Longmen grottoes

However, Datong and the Yungang caves are rather far north, on the border between of the Chinese heartlands and the barbarian Mongols, and so in AD 493 the capital was moved 1,000 miles south-east to Luoyang.

The Longmen grottoes seen from the river. We  glided down the river on an electric boat which was eerily silent but very majestic!

And here, they built a very similar monument to the Yungang Grottoes, at the Longmen Grottoes, and here, over the next couple of centuries buddhas of all sizes were carved into the side of a hill, which offer the whole range of styles from the starkness of the Wei down the exuberance of the later Tang sculptures.


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The Longmen grottoes show a range of artistic styles. This is one of the earliest Buddhas, in the Pinyang cave, a good example of the early austere style, carved between AD 500 and 523.  It is the supreme example of the archaic  image

Two caves in particular display the difference between the two styles. The first is a group of three caves known as the Pinyang caves, which, according to a later inscription were built by the Emperor Xuan Wun using 800,000 workers and built between AD 500 and 523. At the centre is a smiling Buddha ‘the supreme example of the archaic Buddha image’ (Pelican History of Art) with an almost rectangular face and an archaic half smile. His overlarge hands give the characteristic mudras (i.e. gestures) of the Abhaya mudra with the hand facing up representing benevolence, while the left hand points downward in the vastrada mudra, meaning compassion, or salvation from greed.


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This statue was carved nearly 150 years later between 672 to 673 . The face is rounder and it is altogether more sensuous.


Further along is the largest Buddha of all in the Fengxian cave. This was carved between 672-673 and is thus a century and a half later, and by this time fresh spiritual impulses had been brought to China from India and this is a representation of what had now become the supreme Buddha, the Vairocana Buddha, who was the epitome of the wisdom of emptiness – whatever that means. This was all paid for by the Empress Wu Zeitian, who according to the Blue Guide took an amorous interest in monks and paid for the work with 2000 strings of cash from her cosmetic budget – Chinese money had holes at the centre and was strung together to form large strings. The Buddha is 17 m high and the head is full and round –different from the earlier squareness. But note the rings of flesh round the neck – you can date Buddhas by their necks – the early ones are austere, almost scrawny, the later ones are fat and fleshy. But there are sensuous lips: it has been suggested that it may have been a portrait of the empress and has been called the ‘Chinese Mona Lisa’.

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The difference between the earlier and later styles is best seen in these two Guardian figures that accompany the large Buddha. They are  very typical of the art of the Tang Dynasty – lively and fluid.

Even more interesting however are the guards to one side, which are masterpieces of Tang sculpture. Here the static images of the Wei dynasty are replaced by lively naturalistic poses: one has one hand on his hip, his foot stamping on a devil and the other hand holding a miniature pagoda. The Longman cave shows the whole evolution from the austere Wei to the animated Tang.


On to:  Shaolin – monastery and temples


18th January 2015