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The Yun'gang cave sanctuaries are located sixteen kilometers west of Datong in Shanxi province in China. Begun around 460 c.e. as an attempt to atone the Buddhist persecution of 444, Yun'gang was associated with the imperial patronage of Buddhism of the Northern Wei dynasty, a nomadic empire that ruled China from 386 to 534. The colossal buddha images of caves 16 to 20 are said to commemorate the founder rulers of the Northern Wei, while members of the imperial family built many cave chapels until 494, when the capital was moved from Datong to Luoyang in central China. Thereafter local Buddhists continued to dedicate small chapels until about 520. Carved into the sandstone cliffs are niches that contain statues of buddhas such as Śākyamuni and Maitreya, as well as carvings of other Buddhist motifs. Passageways behind large statues or the construction of central pillars allow for ritual circumambulation. In sculptural style and iconography, strong Indian and Central Asian influences commingled with local elements to create a unique Yun'gang idiom, characterized by a robust figural form and an archaic smile. This idiom gradually gave way to a more elongated sinicized style that was associated with the sinification policies of the Northern Wei.

See also:China, Buddhist Art in; Monastic Architecture


Mizuno Seiichi, and Nagahiro Toshio. Unkō sekkutsu (Yun'gang Cave-Temples), 16 vols. Kyoto: Kyoto daigaku jimbun kagaku kenkyūsho, 1951–1956.

Su Bai. Zhongguo shikusi yanjiu (A Study of the History of Chinese Cave-Temples). Beijing: Wenwu Press, 1996.

Yungang Cave-Temples Cultural Relics Institute. Yungang shiku (Yun'gang Cave-Temples), 2 vols. Beijing: Wenwu Press, 1991.

Dorothy Wong