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Historical profile on the rock-cut caves and grottoes of ancient China, Buddhist sanctuaries established along the early Silk Road that later spread throughout the country.

The tradition of hollowing out rock faces in which to construct temples, whether Buddhist, Hindu, or other faiths has a longstanding history in South and Central Asia. Such cave temples had existed around the Indian subcontinent for many centuries before reaching China. However, as the early Silk Road trade routes introduced Buddhism and Buddhist architecture to China during the Han dynasty, this practice of creating cave temples became localized with Chinese architectural styles.

Chinese cave temples and grottoes are religious shrines reflecting Chinese Buddhist beliefs and art. They were carved into rock cliffs for secluded practice, worship, and meditation. The interiors are decorated with Buddhist sculptures and wall paintings by pious monks and artisans seeking spiritual merit. 

These structures go back more than one and a half thousand years and represent a fascinating account of cultural exchange and architectural development on the back of the Buddhist religion sweeping in from south and central Asia. They are historical treasuries that have preoccupied the minds of historians, scientists, and other scholars for centuries, and their magnificence must be seen to be believed.

The original colors of the Dazu Rock Carvings in Chongqing
The original colors of the Dazu Rock Carvings in Chongqing

This article will examine these outstanding architectural achievements of ancient China. This includes who built these cave temples and grottoes, the styles and features that made them unique, and their lasting legacy through the centuries.

What Are the Cave Temples and Grottoes in China?

Chinese cave temples and grottoes grew out of the Buddhist religion as it spread to China from northern India, starting in the first century BC. Buddhist ideas were incorporated into Chinese culture, art, and architecture over the centuries, resulting in the creation of hundreds of cave temples and grottoes as places of Buddhist meditation and worship. These sanctuaries were carved out of cliff faces and hillsides in various provinces in China and decorated with Buddhist symbols, scriptures, and carvings.

The Mogao Grottoes as the originally appeared when rediscovered
The Mogao Grottoes as the originally appeared when rediscovered

They became sacred pilgrimage sites over the years, and many generations of Buddhists visited them to make offerings and prayers as they traveled the Silk Road, one of the world’s earliest trade routes. The Silk Road connecting east and west fostered many multicultural societies that thrived along its path. Their influences can be found in the styles of many caves and grottoes, which were richly painted in explosions of color made from precious materials traded along the Silk Road.

There are many cave temple complexes in China, including those at Dunhuang, Longmen, Maijishan, Xiangtangshan, Bingling, and Yungang. They were created as acts of piety following the Buddhist belief that spiritual merit through good deeds and thoughts accumulates into the next life and accelerates spiritual liberation.

The temples and caves are filled with sculptures ranging from a few feet tall to colossal figures of the Buddha, many meters high and wide. They also contain thousands of beautiful murals depicting their sponsors and scenes of Buddhist life. In some of them, Buddhist scriptures are also carved into the walls. In addition to heavenly beings, ordinary people such as merchants, Indian monks in white robes, and Chinese peasants working the fields are also depicted.

Merchants and traders used these holy sites as stopping points on the long and dangerous routes through central China.

The Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Tangut empires converged in the Dunhuang region in northern China, which was multicultural, multilingual, and populated by many ethnic groups. In the Mogao caves near Dunhuang, at the edge of the Gobi Desert, there are four hundred and ninety-two painted Buddhist cave temples that date from the 4th Century CE to the 14th Century CE. The 46,000 square meters of wall paintings are a thousand-year record of architecture, art, religion, and cultural exchange along the great Silk Road.

Who Built the Cave Temples and Grottoes in China?

The cave temples and grottoes found in China were created over many centuries beginning in the north under the Northern Wei Dynasty, followed by the short-lived Sui Dynasty, then the Northern Zhou, and the Tang Dynasty. People from all walks of life and many different cultures contributed to their creation. Construction on most of them began in the fifth and sixth centuries.

Since they were developed over hundreds of years, one can only speak of the dynasties in which their construction commenced. Even so, most of them were built across several different dynasties such that it is impossible to ascribe them to one in particular.

For around three hundred years, from the 200s CE until near the end of the 500s CE, no single dynasty ruled over the whole of China.

The Northern Wei Dynasty

The Northern Wei dynasty, one of the earliest, was founded by a non-Chinese family from Manchuria. This dynasty is responsible for the initiation of the cave temples and grottoes of Mogao in Dunhuang. Dunhuang is located along the Silk Road at the far western edge of China.

The Northern Wei Dynasty ruled northern China from 386 to 534 CE. It was the longest-lived and most powerful of the northern Chinese dynasties that existed before China’s reunification. The construction of the Magao complex is thought to have started in the fourth century under this dynasty.

The Mogao Grottoes are in the west of modern Gansu Province, southeast of the town center of Dunhuang. Patrons seeking protection from travel hazards, and others wanting to express gratitude, commissioned statutes in the grottoes and cave temples.

Much farther east, the carving of the Yungang Caves began under Emperor Wencheng of the Northern Wei, and his successors continued their support. Construction of the Yungang Caves started as a partnership between the Buddhist community and imperial sponsors. When royal funding came to an end, construction continued into the 6th century through private funding.

The Sui Dynasty

The Sui dynasty was a short-lived dynasty that unified the Northern and Southern Dynasties and reinstated that rule of ethnic Han throughout China. Under this dynasty, the Mogao caves became places of public worship and pilgrimage. Cave 302 in Mogao contains one of the oldest and most vivid scenes from the Sui Dynasty, showing a camel pulling a cart.

The Tang Dynasty

The Tang dynasty saw further significant construction of the caves of Mogao, including two gigantic statues of the Buddha. Caves 51 to 54 were carved during the Tang Dynasty. Most of the carvings at Longmen date from the 5th century to the middle of the 8th century, which saw the rule of the early Tang dynasty (618 to 907 CE). The Tang Dynasty emperor, Gaozong, commissioned the largest shrine at Longmen, the Fengxian Temple.

The Sui and Tang dynasties saw some restoration of the caves at Magao, and significant repairs were executed under the Liang dynasty in the 11th and 12th Centuries.

Design Elements of Chinese Cave Temples and Grottoes

The earliest caves at Yungang bear signs of pillar architecture and carvings similar to Indian chaityas, and some of the giant Buddha statues are made according to the northern Indian Gandharan style. However, Greco-Roman influence is also visible in the stone porticos that front some caves and in minor figures and decorative motifs. There are even signs of Iranian and Byzantine influence.

Central Pillars

A specific type of cave, known as the central-pillar cave, is a prominent type of early Buddhist rock-cut architecture in China. The pillar is a symbol of the stupa, a Buddhist commemorative monument housing sacred relics. The stupa monument is thought to originate from pre-Buddhist ceremonial burial mounds and is used to venerate Buddhist saints and relics.

Yungang’s Fifth-Century caves are characterized by two pagoda styles carved as central pillars or in relief. The pagodas are multi-storied with replicas of ceramic tile roof eaves on each story. Unlike the Longmen Caves, which came later, the Yungang Caves have few inscriptions, and their history is shrouded in mystery.

Some of the Xiangtangshan Caves also have central pillars, but others consist of a chamber with altars on three walls. The Xiangtangshan caves were designed as one or two stories with a domed roof that is a type of stupa, an identifying feature of Buddhist temples and monasteries.

Monumental statues of the Buddha are either incorporated into the central pillar or positioned on the back wall so that they are visible before entry. The stupa’s central location allows the circumambulation of the pillar within the cave in the same way that people walk around freestanding stupas. Sometimes Fifth-Century central pillar caves will have an ante-room with its own side-niches and ceiling. 

Chaitya Arches and Segmented Archways

Design features of the Longmen Caves of the Northern Wei period include segmented archways, the central ceiling lotus, and the absence of central pillars. In Longmen, the desire was apparently for open spaces from which worshippers could survey the imagery on the walls. Maijishan’s six oldest cave temples consist of a single squarish chamber with U-shaped altars and no central pillars.

Chaitya arches are often interspersed among the segmented archways. In Yungang Cave 6, the segmented arch is below a row of Chaitya-shaped arches. The word “Chaitya” has Sanskrit roots and means a pyre or pile of ashes. Chaitya arches, also known as ogee arches, were first used at cave temple entrances in India and cover the Yungang cave walls.

Carved Elements Representing Wood

Often, imitations of free-standing structures would be carved into the stone
Often, imitations of free-standing structures would be carved into the stone

The Longmen Caves contain imitation wood structures in their roofs. Many of the temple caves and grottoes feature this style of wooden frames reflected in stone. Although many of the Mogao Caves had real wooden fore-temples that protruded from the cliff face, most haven’t survived the ravages of time and weather. The Xiangtangshan Caves have exterior facades modeled on wooden architectural structures carved in stone with a domed roof in relief.

The exterior facades of Chinese temple caves and grottoes are thought to reflect the design features of the wooden buildings that existed at the time.

Pyramidal Ceilings Shaped Like a Ladle

The fudou type of cave has a truncated pyramidal ceiling shaped like the inverted ladle, after which it is named. Cave 127 at Maijishan has a fudou ceiling which is a popular form in Northern Wei Mogao Caves. It is framed by eight cylinders decorated with bands and lotus petals emerging from the ends. This is a common feature in China’s religious and secular architecture of the fifth and sixth centuries.

Origin and Purpose of Chinese Cave Temples and Grottoes

The Mati Si rock-cut temple contains many levels of carved tunnels inside the cliffs
The Mati Si rock-cut temple contains many levels of carved tunnels inside the cliffs

Worship, lectures, and meditation are three fundamental purposes of Chinese temple caves and grottoes. The Buddhist monk Tan Yao was tasked by the emperor in 460 AD to carve five caves at Yungang. Each cave contains an enormous Buddha statue associated with one of the Northern Wei emperors.

The Wei rulers and their families who commissioned colossal Buddhas and other deities for temple caves and grottoes believed themselves to be Buddhas, promising salvation to their subjects. The art within was a reminder to their subjects that they could provide safety and security and religious leadership.

Longmen Cave was constructed on the order of Xuanwudi, a Northern Wei emperor and devout Buddhist. Two caves were planned at first for Xuanwudi’s parents, but subsequently, a third cave for the emperor himself was initiated by a palace official. At Gongxian, five cave temples were constructed on the orders of Emperor Xiaowen and, unlike the Longmen caves, four of these have central pillars.

The Mogao Grottoes were places where Buddhist monks could cultivate themselves according to their religious doctrine. They did not serve as residences. Ancient inscriptions say that an early Buddhist monk, Le Zun, was inspired to build the first grotto as he stood at the foot of Sanwei mountain near Dunhuang.

He had a vision of a thousand Buddhas floating in the sky as the sunset over the mountains. As a result of this moving experience, he carved a grotto on the cliff opposite. As it was common to believe that deities appeared in visions to the faithful, Mogao became a pilgrimage site for artists, Buddhists, and officials.

The number of caves at Mogao increased over the next thousand years as Buddhist monks from the West stopped there to set up temples, translate Buddhist scriptures, and spread the religion. The practice of Buddhism demands a sanctuary for temples and monasteries, removed from secular life. The caves high up in the cliff face offered the required isolation, and the sedimentary rock was suitable for excavation.

The carved grottoes at Maijishan originated before the Tang Dynasty and are an important source of information on Chinese architecture of this period. It was originally a single rock face, but an earthquake in 734 AD divided it into western and eastern cliffs. The caves were carved at a height of some eighty meters above ground level.

Legacy of Chinese Cave Temples and Grottoes

Buddhsit grottoes all over China have been preserved as modern tourist sites
Buddhist grottoes all over China have been preserved as modern tourist sites

Despite the many Chinese tombs and imperial capitals of the fifth and sixth centuries, it has been said that the architectural legacy of the two hundred years of the Northern Wei and Sui dynasties is the Buddhist rock-carved worship caves.

The Mogao Grottoes exemplify transcontinental relations, the spread of Buddhism through Asia, and the exchange of many ideas as evidenced by the Uyghur, Sogdian, Tibetan, Hebrew, Khotan, and Chinese manuscripts found there. They provide an unparalleled historical record of trade, worship, and cultural practices over a thousand years.

The Yungang cave art shows the fusion of Buddhist religious symbolic art from central and south Asia with Chinese cultural traditions and is an important historical record of 5th to 6th-century Chinese culture and beliefs. The caves were built under Imperial auspices and so reflected the will of the State at that time. According to UNESCO, they are of outstanding universal value.

Notable Examples of the Chinese Cave Temples and Grottoes

Mogao Grottoes
Dunhuang, Gansu
GPS: 40.04226, 94.80909
The Mogao Grottoes are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and containing over 2000 painted sculptures, and some of the murals are masterpieces of Chinese art.  

Yungang Grottoes
Datong, Shanxi
GPS: 40.11231, 113.13283
The Yungang Grottoes are from the 5th and 6th centuries and contain fifty-three major caves and nearly 1100 minor caves.

Maijishan Grottoes
Tianshui, Gansu
GPS: 34.34813, 106.01004
The Maijishan Grottoes are carved an enormous monolithic mountain and require climbing dozens of meters along the cliffside to view.

Longmen Grottoes
Luoyang, Henan
GPS: 34.55972, 112.46785
The Longmen Grottoes are built into the cliff overlooking the Yi river and contain over 2,300 caves, 100,000 niches, and 2,800 inscriptions

Dazu Rock Carvings
Dazu, Chongqing
GPS: 29.75111, 105.79889
The Dazu Rock Carvings in were built in the Tang Dynasty and depict Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist imagery. Unlike most similar Buddhist grottoes, most of the carvings at Dazu retain their original coloring.

Glossary

Han dynasty 汉朝
The ruling dynasty of China from 202 BCE – 220 CE. Han doctrine was characterized by economic prosperity through outside trade via the Silk Road creating the earliest sense of a single Chinese “Han” identity.

Hexi Corridor 河西走廊
A narrow geographic region between the Gobi Desert and the Tibetan Plateau in western China that was an important path on the Chinese end of the Silk Road. The Han dynasty secured and fortified the Hexi Corridor, allowing trade caravans to become more common.

Mandate of Heaven 天命
The Chinese belief that the rulers are chosen by Heaven due to their righteousness. If a ruler becomes unworthy, Heaven would show signs through natural disasters and the rulers would be overthrown. 

Mongols
Nomadic ethnic group native to the steppe north of China

Qin dynasty 秦朝
Chinese dynasty established in 221 BCE by Qin Shi Huang after conquering and united all rival Chinese states. Modern China derives its name from this dynasty, which is significant for being the first unified Chinese state. The Qin dynasty lasted until 206 BCE and was soon succeeded by the Han dynasty.

Qin Shi Huang 秦始皇
The “First Emperor” of China who created the Qin dynasty by conquering all rival Chinese states and unifying China for the first time in 221 BCE.

Qin state
One of the Chinese Warring States that lasted from ~9th Century BCE to 221 BCE, when it conquered the rival states and was declared the Qin Empire.

Silk Road
A vast trade network connecting China to India, the Middle East, and Europe through Central Asia that was responsible for the intercultural spread of goods and ideas. Although trade began along these routes prior to the Qin dynasty, it began flourishing during the Han dynasty when they secured the Hexi Corridor.

steppe
The grassy flatland that makes up Central Asia to the north and west of China.

Terracotta Army
A buried army of ceramic soldiers, horses, and chariots excavated near the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang.

Xiongnu
Nomadic ethnic group originating from the steppes along the northwestern border of China, and presumed to be the ancestors of the Huns. The Xiongnu raided the Chinese borders and trade routes along the early Silk Soad.

Sources

Monteith F ‘Towards a landscape archaeology of Buddhist cave temples in China’ Antiquity, Volume 91 Issue 359, October 2017, Cambridge University Press https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/towards-a-landscape-archaeology-of-buddhist-cavetemples-in-china/B0E1F20E74AC484EFF47F4A2C3986947

‘Chinese Buddhist Cave Temple Sculpture’ Victoria and Albert Museum http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/c/chinese-buddhist-cave-temple-sculpture/

Steinhardt, N. (2011). The Sixth Century In East Asian Architecture. Ars Orientalis, 41, 27-71. Retrieved March 8, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23075959

Azaiez Mohammed Saifeddine  and Liu Xiao hu and ‘Literature Review of the Features of Chinese Architecture’, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, China

Khan Academy’ Chinese Buddhist Cave Shrines’ https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/imperial-china/tang-dynasty/v/chinese-buddhist-cave-shrines

Khan Academy’ Mogao Caves at Dunhuang’ https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/imperial-china/tang-dynasty/a/mogao-caves-at-dunhuang

‘Facts of the Mogao Caves’ https://www.chinadiscovery.com/gansu/dunhuang/mogao-caves/facts.html

‘The Mogao Caves of Dunhuang’ https://www.shenyunperformingarts.org/explore/view/article/e/zkEPlF7CSao/mogao-caves-dunhuang-chinese-stories-history

Xiangtangshan Caves Project https://xts.uchicago.edu

Chinese Architecture, Chapter 5 ‘Northern Dynasties, and Southern Dynasties’ Princeton University Press https://assets.press.princeton.edu/chapters/s13470.pdf

Robert D. Fiala, ‘Yungang Grottoes, Datong, China’ Concordia University Nebraska https://www.orientalarchitecture.com/sid/68/china/datong/yungang-grottoes

Daniel C Waugh’ The Yungung Caves’ https://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/exhibit/religion/buddhism/monumental/yungang/yungang.html

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

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