The Fifth Century A.D. Buddhist Cave Temples At Yün-Kang, North China

A Look at Their Western Connections

By: Elfriede Regina Knauer

Originally Published in 1983

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The Yün-kang caves belong to a string of early Buddhist cave temples that stretches across northern China from Kansu in the far west to Manchuria in the east (Fig. 1). The caves lie above the Wu-chou River, about 15 km. west of the modern industrial city of Ta-t’ung, in the north of Shansi province, and right next to a pass leading into Inner Mongolia (Fig. 2). Since about the 5th century B.C. this city had been of some strategic importance. In Han times (202 B.C.—A.D. 220) it was known by the name of P’ing-ch’eng, and it sits between two stretches of the Great Wall.

This area being remote until fairly recently, these caves were less well known than others, like Tun-huang in western Kansu or those of Lo-yang, further south in Honan. Japanese scholars worked at Yün-kang between 1938 and 1945 to document what was to be seen then. We owe to them a most thorough photographic record and description (Mizuno and Nagahiro). In the last decade, an extensive program of excavation and restoration has been in operation. Though not yet com­plete, the results are impressive.

Truncated mud-brick pyramids, the remains of watchtowers to guard the important pass, appear on the hillcrest before the amber colored cliffs of Mount Wu-chou, honeycombed with dark orifices, come into sight. A screen of old trees keeps the industrial horrors out of view. The entrance is guarded by the obligatory pair of bronze lions, the male with an orb, the dam with a cub (Fig. 3). They and the brightly tiled and painted wooden struc­tures—the gate, the multistoried courtyard of monastic buildings glued, as it were, to the perpendicular cliffs—are of the Ch’ing Dynasty (17th century) (Fig. 4). The remains of the mud-brick fortress tower overhead. It was constructed against a Tatar chief in the mid 16th century.

Historical Background

Before moving into the caves let us briefly remember a few facts. After the first unification of China under Ch’in-shi­huang-ti in 221 B.C. there followed the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.—A.D. 220). Ch’in-shi-huang-ti was the emperor who burned Confucian books and whose tomb is guarded by those famous and uncom­fortably life-like terracotta warriors. In the arts a lively, imaginative and fairly homogeneous style prevailed during the 400 years of the Han Dynasty. Han civiliza­tion was dominated by a resurgent and somewhat syncretistic Confucianism, a moral system based on filial devotion, social duties toward one’s fellow men, and ancestor worship. The art which has come down to us is mainly funerary in character.

By the 1st century A.D. Buddhism reached China from India and central Asia (present-day Sinkiang) along the so-called Silk Routes. While it co-existed with Con­fucianism and Taoism as a creed, Buddhism brought radically new elements into the iconography of Chinese art. The Yün-kang caves are the earliest comprehensive and grandiose document of the new religion in China to have been preserved.

Something should be said about the patrons and creators of the caves. It is fortunate that the Chinese have been obsessed with recording and bookkeeping of every kind from very early on. Thus we have not only a number of dated inscrip­tions in the caves themselves but, most important, fairly detailed reports on the historical period in which they came into being: for instance the Wei-shu—the Northern Wei Annals—chapter 114 (excerpted in Mizuno and Nagahiro). This covers the last four decades of the 5th and the first quarter of the 6th centuries A.D., of which the earlier part is by far the more important for us here.

Early in the 4th century A.D. the Toba Tatars, a branch of the Hsien-pi tribes, had asserted themselves as masters of groups who had earlier belonged to the Hsiung-nu federation, occupying large territories north of the Yellow River. Like those other nomad peoples the Toba had previously come from lands west of the upper Amur River and then roamed the Mongolian steppe. They first began to settle, in the middle of the 3rd century A.D., near Ho-lin-ko-erh in Inner Mongolia and finally in China as the powerful Northern Wei Dynasty, which lasted from A.D. 386 to 535.

This pattern has repeated itself through­out China’s history: nomads, attracted by the wealth of a highly developed sedentary civilization, came in as conquerors and were assimilated within a short time. Adapted to the local ways of life, they quickly lost their national identity and were absorbed into the mainstream, or swept away by another dynasty, whether native (‘Han’) or intrusive like themselves. One remembers the Yüan (Mongol) and the Ch’ing (Manchu) Dynasties. And yet they have all enormously enriched China’s racial and cultural heritage. It has been shown that this recurrent process has less to do with any alleged inferiority of those ‘barbarians’ than with the very different social and economic structure of such nomad tribes. The wealth of their warrior nobility consisted of enormous herds of horses and other livestock which they not only raised themselves but replenished by continuous warfare and raids. Once settled in a primarily agricultural society with a highly developed administration, the nomad nobility, cut off from the sources of their customary revenue, were unable to com­pete for lucrative high administrative posts, even if they were qualified. Rather, these positions would be occupied by the native Han (Chinese) gentry, educated landown­ers with a stable income. Since the invaders could not rule China without an efficient administrative system, foreign dynasties rose and fell rapidly.

In A.D. 398 Toba Kuei (Emperor T’ai­tsu/Tao-wu) moved the Northern Wei capital from Inner Mongolia to P’ing ch’eng/Ta-t’ung. But since not all of the rivals of the Toba had yet been eliminated, no concentrated palace building activity started there before about A.D. 440. How­ever, a monastery was soon constructed.

Yün-kang, the ‘Cloud Ridge,’ is the highest elevation of the sandstone range of Mount Wu-chou on the north bank of the river of the same name. We learn that early in the 5th century the Wei rulers went there to pray for rain to the gods of heaven and earth. The location must have been considered a sacred spot and thus have appealed to the architects of the caves. The Northern Wei were shamanists like most of the Turcic or Mongolian tribes. That went together with a certain religious tolerance, an attitude well attested from the later Mongolian empires in western Asia.

The Northern Wei Annals provide us with much information about this period. The first Northern Wei emperors respected and furthered Buddhism, and the increase of the monastic population of the realm rapidly became such that an edict of A.D. 438 forbade people below the age of fifty to don the monk’s garb. Social and fiscal problems had arisen from the depletion of the workforce in favor of a life in the ever richer and more powerful monasteries. A distinction must be made, however, between the ‘state church’—Buddhism as an instrument of the ruling, house—and ‘free’ communities of Buddhist monks. The latter frequently headed local revolts of impoverished peasants. The Administrator of Monks, or head of the ‘church,’ had already, before 416, declared the first Wei emperor Tao-wu a Buddha of the present, a reincarnated Tathagata, because of his ardent belief in and great support of Buddhism. Emperor Shi-tsu/T’ai-wu who, by 439, had finally defeated the remaining rival powers in north China, had also shown great reverence for Buddhism. But through the influence of his minister he was later led to favor Taoism. Following a revolt which he blamed on the ever more licentious Buddhist ‘church’ he ordered the destruction of statues, temples and monas­teries, and the persecution of the believers, an ordeal which lasted from 446 to 452.

Rewards for devotion, the type of Buddhism taught by the monk T’an-yao, the Spiritus rector of the cave project as we shall see, appealed as much to the nobility of the warlike nomads as the physical splendor of temples, pagodas and images. When Emperor T’ai-wu was murdered in 452, apparently repentant of his cruel persecution, his grandson and successor, Emperor Wen-ch’eng (452-466), a devout believer, restored Buddhism in 454. He had the excavation started at Yün-kang as an act of expiation. Five caves were opened with gigantic Buddha statues, likenesses of the five Northern Wei emperors, for the greater glory of the dynasty and as proof of the regained authority of their religion (caves 16-20 on the plan, Fig. 5). There is wide but not complete agreement among scholars as to the apportioning of the names to the colossi.

It was the head of the ‘state church,’ the Overseer of the Monks T’an-yao, who directed the work from about 460 onwards to his death around 485. Work was con­tinued until Emperor Kao-tsu/Hsiao-wen ordered the move of the capital south to Lo-yang, the old residence of the Eastern Chou, the Han and the Chin Dynasties, in 494. The emperor himself was deeply sinicized. He attempted to revive the city’s glorious past, claiming the legitimate inheritance of a hopefully soon-to-be reunited China. The hardships to the peo­ple were of as little matter to him as the alienation of his nobility who had their roots and grazing grounds in the North.

Yet the move had its logic since Lo-yang was infinitely better suited to the vital needs of the empire. Unlike the barren and inhospitable north, it lay in a rich agricul­tural region connected through canals with south China. The splendor was to be short-lived. Forty years later Lo-yang lay in ruins, the victim of the wrath of yet another northern barbarian.

The Northern Wei emperors adopted and perfected the administrative structure as developed under the Han Dynasty and offered the country some peace and stabil­ity after more than a century and a half of political turmoil and deprivation. The insecurity of the age seems to have favored a religion of personal redemption. Mahäyana Buddhism, a strong new creed, provided just that and the Wei conquerors made effective use of it against the tradi­tional systems, Confucianism and Taoism. Buddhism had been made the state religion and, as mentioned before, the emperor as the living Buddha was honored accordingly.

This will account for the remarkable fact, noted above, that the five grand Buddhas in the earliest group of the Yün-kang caves bear the likenesses of five successive Wei emperors. Their features are far more ‘European’ than Chinese (Fig. 6). Paying reverence to the Buddha for one’s personal salvation thus coincided with paying reverence to the deceased and living monarchs. The spiritual satisfaction provided by Buddhism was successfully grafted onto the deep-rooted Chinese tra­ dition of ancestor worship. The inscrip­tions at Yün-kang show that it was not only the imperial family—foremost the ruthless empress dowager Feng (died A.D. 490)—and high court officials who paid for the excavation of the subsequent caves, but also commoners and simple monks and nuns. The latter enumerate all those they wished (besides themselves) to benefit from the rewards of such pious donations —mostly either deceased or still living family members.

Which were the models the architects of the caves followed, since there is nothing remotely comparable to be found in the artistic heritage of pre-Buddhist China? Here again the Annals of the Wei Dynasty provide the answer. Among the last of the rival states that the emperor T’ai-wu defeated in 439—as we heard—was that of the Northern Liang in north Kansu west of the Yellow River. In this border region with Chinese Turkestan, present-day Sinkiang, lie the famous Tun-huang grottoes. Some of these Buddhist cave temples slightly antedate the ones in Yün-kang. They are, however, much smaller, and the earliest Tun-huang grottoes, which are known to have been constructed in the mid 4th century A.D., have never been identified. They were probably destroyed. Preserved are many splendid ones from the later Tang period. The ravages of time are more obvious in Tun-huang since the caves had to be excavated in the con­glomerate cliffs of the semi-desert. The sculpture is made of clay over cores or frameworks of sticks and straw, and is thus very friable.

Tun-huang was an important entrepôt on the Silk Road, that system of caravan routes first opened up in a more permanent way during the 2nd century B.C. between China and the West, at that time represented by the Parthian Empire (see Fig. 1). This quite regular exchange of goods had developed from tributes, gift-giving, and other status-enhancing practices among the central Asiatic tribes and their sedentary neighbors (Klimburg-Salter). ‘International’ trade peaked through the Roman Imperial Period and again during the early Middle Ages. It continued, with fluctuations, through succeeding centuries, and declined only after the Portuguese opened the sea-routes to the Far East in the early 16th century. Goods and ideas travelled in both directions and it was the inroad for Buddhism. Indian monks wandered to China, Chinese monks to India, either as members of official embassies or as hardy individuals, to learn Sanskrit, to bring back the treasured sütra rolls, portable altars, banners, and small images.

Monastic communities sprang up at the fringes of the oases along the Silk Roads, both north and south of the Tarim basin. These monasteries served as hostels, ware­houses, and banks, and were patronized by wealthy merchants. Religious settlements earlier than those at Tun-huang and Yün-kang have been found in the latter region.

Of the northern foundations, for instance, the slightly later ruins of the 6th-7th cen­tury A.D. city of Yarkhoto, just west of Turf an, are at present open to tourists (Fig. 7). Perched on a cliff between two arms of a river it consisted almost exclu­sively of mud-brick stupas and monas­teries. Today they are sadly reduced to dusty stumps with an occasional image preserved. Open to visitors, too, are the caves at Bezeklik, northeast of Turfan, famous for their wall paintings but also much ravaged because of the ephemeral quality of the material and the activity of the iconophobic Muslim population (Fig. 8). Both places have yielded a wealth of mate­rial during excavations early in this cen­tury, The 1982 exhibition at The Metro­politan Museum of Art in New York came from the rich collection of the West-Berlin State Museums, gathered at those sites. This show has already stimulated fresh discussion about the dates of the various settlements, in view of more recent research and copious finds. None of the sites in Chinese Turkestan, however, can compete with the sheer size of the sand­stone caves at Yün-kang.

The Wei Annals tell us that Emperor T’ai-wu, after his victory over the Liang in A.D. 439, transplanted, in the fashion of those days, three thousand captive monks with their religious equipment and thirty thousand families from Kansu to P’ing­ch’eng/Ta-t’ung. Devout Buddhists and skilled artisans they were. Their technical expertise was invaluable to the monk Tan-yao—also a ‘westerner’—who super­vised the work from a building above the cliff, the remains of which have recently been excavated. The iconographic program of the caves was apparently based on translations of certain sutras done by T’an-yao himself as well as on other writ­ings of his. The dhyãna type of Buddhism which he advocated seeks to attain perfec­tion through silent meditation. There was to be room for thousands of monks in the caves. Their imagery is thus deeply imbued with Central Asiatic concepts.

When, in A.D. 494, Emperor Hsiao-wen moved the capital to Lo-yang, the vigorous style and the slightly gauche grace of the earliest sculpture had already given way to the somewhat dry elegance and sophistica­tion of the later. This change had been brought about through contacts, both peaceful and warlike, with the highly civilized southern court at Nanking. The late Yün-kang art is truly sinicized. At the time of the move to Lo-yang the court banned the use of the ‘rough’ Hsien-pi language—apparently a member of the Altaic language family—in favor of Chinese. The nobility had already been discouraged from wearing the ancestral garb, the age-old costume of the mounted nomad: girt coat, trousers and boots. It is faithfully pictured in the donor reliefs of the caves. The dress of the females, the same sleeved and piped coat, closed at the left, over a full-length striped skirt (Fig. 9) (which finds parallels in the wall paintings of Chinese Turkestan) would cause a fashion fad some time later in Japan. But in 494 an imperial edict banned the wearing of Hsien-pi costumes in general. China had once again won her way.

Before the downfall of the dynasty in 535, the Northern Wei court had com­ missioned the excavation of the Lung-men caves, near the new capital of Lo-yang: here there is barely a sign of the old mood. The delicate art of Lung-men is well on its way to the later marvels of Sui and T’ang. The Metropolitan and the Kansas City Museums each owns one of the finest reliefs from Lung-men, depicting the emperor and empress respectively, with attendants (Pin-yang cave, about A.D. 522). The move to Lo-yang caused most of the monks to follow their patrons south, though—as we heard—modest cave excavations at Yün-kang continued for about three more decades.

It seems as if, with few exceptions, the Yun-kang caves had been deliberately left to public oblivion, especially after Con­fucianism asserted itself again. In our case this was certainly furthered by the remote position. Characteristically it was the Liao, another ‘barbaric’ dynasty (of Khitai nomads) from the north, who embraced Buddhism and saw to the repair of the wooden structures in front of the caves and the careful reconstruction of damaged images. This was in the 11th and 12th centuries. Nearby Ta-t’ung still harbors jewels of Liao architecture and sculpture. The cult lingered on in Yün-kang, as proven by later repairs and the 17th century monastic buildings of the Ch’ing Dynasty.

It remained for the authorities of the People’s Republic of China to restore the complex as best they could. Though they naturally analyze it as the product of a society of feudal exploiters they are cer­tainly not impervious to its aesthetic appeal. We must be grateful to them.

The Caves

Let us now turn to the caves themselves. The cliff had first to be prepared, to be made perpendicular, and a terrace created (Fig. 10). Work began at the highest eleva­tion of the hill for the five big caves, 16 to 20. An unsuitable streak of crumbly sand­stone in that location made it necessary to work from the west toward the east. The numbers on the plan (Fig. 5) run east-west, and have nothing to do with the sequence in which the caves were created. Caves 1 to 4 are not yet restored and are inacces­sible for the time being. Caves 21 to 42—west of the main group—are much smaller. They are the latest in the sequence and had to be excavated from a higher ground-level in order to avoid the faulty stratum. These caves are mostly ex votos of simpler people and were made only after the court had moved to Lo-yang at the end of the 5th century.

The plan shows that the caves of the earliest group (16 to 20) are of irregular elliptical design as compared to caves 5 to 13 which are more ‘architectural’ in appearance. These latter caves, moreover, are often paired and have antechambers, partly with pillars in front; they seem to have been destined for the cult of imperial couples. The present aspect of the moun­tainside is utterly misleading, for two rea­sons. First, the whole front was originally covered with multistoried buildings like the ones preserved in front of caves 5 and 6 near the present entrance to the complex (Figs. 3, 4, 10)—a fact proven by the many square holes in the cliff designed to anchor wooden beams. Second, the 14 meter high seated Buddha of cave 20, meditating in the dhyana position, gives an inaccurate impression, for the image was never meant to be seen in this way: the front wall of the chamber has come down and thus exposed it (Fig. 6).

This Buddha is assumed to represent the son of the persecutor T’ai-wu. This son, devout and peace-loving, died of a broken heart, unable to prevent his father’s atroci­ties, and was posthumously accorded the title of emperor (King-mu huang-ti) (Fig. 11). The detail shows his non-Chinese fea­tures and the inlaid pupils (replaced at a later period). The inlaid spotlike urna—a hairy wart between the brows, one of the thirty-two distinguishing marks of the Buddha—is missing. A carved mustache is faintly visible. The Wei Annals report that a life-size Buddha statue was made in 452 (i.e. before work on the caves was started), which miraculously grew black moles exactly at those spots where the ruling emperor Wen-ch’eng had them. This was taken to be a sign of the monarch’s out­standing piety. It rather seems to reflect the attempts of the ‘church’ to rationalize and make acceptable the then apparently still unusual step of endowing an image with the features of a ruler, those of the ‘Living Buddha.’ Later East Asian art provided many such examples.

The largest cave is 19, to the right of 20. The main image is flanked by two Buddhas seated in the ‘European posture’ (i.e. on a stool) in two smaller side caves. The front walls of the caves are largely intact, with entrances and windows. Through these the pilgrims could worship the images from the wooden galleries in front. The Buddha of side-cave 19B (on the left) was only completed about 25 years later, just before the move to Lo-yang in 494. Already he wears Chinese robes as does the main Buddha of cave 16 (Fig. 12). The awe-inspiring main statue of cave 19, a seated Buddha, is over 16 meters high and is sup­posed to be a portrait of T’ai-wu, the persecutor (Fig. 13). He may have been shown intentionally in the abhaya mudra, the `no fear’ gesture, to abate painful memories.


Though we hear of a wooden Maitreya image, about 27 meters high, at Darel in Kashmir about A.D. 400, the only extant parallels to such ambitious enterprises in the realm of Buddhist art are the two stand­ing Buddhas (38 and 53 meters high) in rock niches at Bamiyan in Afghanistan (Fig. 14). They have as often been acclaimed as dis­claimed as the models for Yün-kang. The date of the Bamiyan Buddhas is still being debated. They may be roughly contempo­rary with and a little later respectively than Yün-kang. What is different, however, is that they were meant to be seen from afar —there was never a wall (i.e. screen of remaining rock) in front. Yet I believe that both the Bamiyan and the Yün-kang Buddhas share a common heritage, and I suggest that the sudden urge to `go big’ can be traced back to those sanctuaries at the fringe of the classical world where local Hellenistic dynasts, like for instance Antiochus I of Commagene in the 1st century B.C., tried to reconcile both worlds (Fig. 15).

Antiochus I built himself a tomb in the Taurus mountains in eastern Anatolia near the great bend of the Euphrates, and had himself represented together with the main gods revered in his realm. Gigantic statues sit on terraces at two sides of the tumulus, and reliefs near altars for the cult of his ancestors—partly Persian and Parthian, partly Greek—show the king shaking hands with the gods. His eastern ancestors wear nomad dress. The notion of ancestor wor­ship and deification of the ruler thus seems to be prefigured here. For example, I would like to see one of the missing links between this monument in eastern Turkey and Yün-kang in the terraced dynastic sanc­tuary of the Kushans at Surkh Kotal in northern Afghanistan, built by their great­est king, Kanishka—probably about A.D. 100 (Figs. 16, 17). Of nomad stock, he created an empire from the ruins of the Graeco-Bactrian and Graeco-Indian king­doms—the politically short-lived but, in cultural terms, enormously consequential heritage of Alexander’s campaigns. The Kushan empire lasted from about the 1st to the second half of the 3rd century A.D. It was one of the four world empires coexist­ing at that time, the others being the Roman in the far west, the Parthian (replaced by the Sasanian in the mid 3rd century A.D.) in the Middle East and the Chinese in the Far East. Soon the Gupta empire in India would assert itself as another one in the chorus (A.D. 320-535). Kanishka was a great propagator of Buddhism, and within his realm there took shape what is known today as Gandhara art. Its influence on the early Buddhist art of China, via the trade routes, has long been recognized.

Returning to the ancestral sanctuary­cum-tomb of Antiochus I of Commagene as a well-preserved 1st century B.C. specimen of its kind: that ruler of a petty kingdom may have looked to Egypt for models as colossal in size, as well as for the cognate tradition to deify rulers. The syncretic mood of the late Hellenistic world favored such developments, for Alexander the Great’s successors did not hesitate to assume the surname Theos (God). But Antiochus I of Commagene also stressed his eastern (i.e. nomad) heritage. And it is within the realm of such hellenized peo­ples as the Parthians that we find ancestral sanctuaries featuring far more than life-size clay or stucco statues, even earlier than the Kushan dynastic shrine of Kanishka at Surkh Kotal referred to already. Sites like Nysa, the first Parthian capital near Ashkabad in Turkmenistan, Khalchayan in southern Uzbekistan, and Toprak-kale in Khorezm, among others have become known through the intensive archaeological exploration of Soviet Cen­ tral Asia over the last three decades. Here we find again more than life-size ancestral portraits in tribal dress. The salient feature is the blend of Hellenistic artistic traditions with the nomad heritage. This mixture is scarcely surprising in view of the fact that those nomad empires of the Parthians, the Sakas and the Kushans were formed between the 3rd century B.C. and the 2nd century A.D. on territory hellenized by the campaigns of Alexander and his successors. It comprised all the lands from eastern Iran to Soviet Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India.

Only recently has the first truly Hellen­istic city south of the Oxus emerged: at AY Khanum in northern Afghanistan, 2nd century B.C. remains of more than life-size clay statuary were found in the administrative quarters. They or their like may still have been visible in the 2nd century A.D. when, nearby, Kanishka built his dynastic sanctuary at Surkh Kotal with its clay and stone ances­tral portraits in nomad garb and its gigantic Buddha statue (Schlumberger). The crea­tion of images of clay in regions devoid of stone, so familiar from the later Gandhära period in Afghanistan, from Pakistan and from the Buddhist sites along the Silk Roads as far east as Tun-huang, seems to have its roots in the Hellenistic art of western Central Asia.

But let us return to Yün-kang. There remains yet another unexplained feature. We have traced the deification of rulers, living and deceased, and their monumental portraiture to late Hellenistic western Asia. Why, then, did not the artists at Yün-kang carve their Buddha-like emperors out of the cliff like the colossal images at Bamiyan—visible from far away? Why were they hidden in caves, dimly lit, reveal­ing their awe-inspiring presence through rock-cut windows accessible only from wooden galleries? One answer may lie in the fact that—like Buddhism itself—the Buddhist cave-sanctuary was taken over from India. Yet this tradition seems to have merged with another, indigenous to the Turcic tribes to which the Toba belonged, namely the excavation of rock-cut sanc­tuaries for their predynastic rulers (see Widengren: 62). One may recall in this context the report of Al-Biruni, the 11th century Central Asian historian, on the first pre-Islamic Turcic ruler of Kabul, Vrahitigin/Barhatakin (late 7th century A.D.), who is reported to have emerged from a cave near Kabul where he had hid­ den, to reveal himself to the populace as of superhuman descent and as their future king (Sachau: 10). “He wore Turkish dress, a short tunic open in front, a high hat, boots and arms.” This is clearly still the same traditional nomad costume we encounter on the donor reliefs at Yün-kang two centuries earlier.

I wish to make one more point in this connection. The dynasty of the Great Kushans was apparently supplanted by Sasanian viceroys after the victory of the Sasanian King of Kings Shapur I over the Kushan realm about the middle of the 3rd century A.D. Sasanian art, itself a ‘non-Mediterranean descendant’ of Hellenistic art like that of its predecessors the Parthians, left its mark on the later phase of Gandharan art in the Kushan realm and beyond. It is interesting in our context to note that a colossal portrait statue eight meters high—apparently carved from a stalactite—of Shapur I was found in a natural cave near Bishapur in the Persia. The cave may have served as the king’s tomb. The Yün-kang artists with their western connections could well have been aware of such traditions.

The tall Buddha from cave 18 has count­less meditating Buddhas embroidered, as it were, on his mantle (Fig. 18). Badly weathered but stunningly expressive are perched on scaffolds, worked in rows from top to bottom, each at two adjacent niches at a time, which they could just reach easily.

Cave 13 belongs to the group created in the 480s. The image has suffered and was obviously restored later. All the sculpture was painted—some of the original color­ing is preserved—but in the majority of cases colors have been ‘freshened up’ sev­ symbolic functions. These types seem to have been adopted for the Buddhist cult structure in China. With its splendid tradi­tion in carpentry, resulting from a formerly rich supply of timber, China retained the shape till modern times. It is interesting to follow the intermediary steps in Gandhara art which may have given the Chinese the idea of transforming the Indian mound into a tower. In one of the many western versions, the 5th-6th century of stupa of Guldara in Afghanistan [Fig. 21], the mound shape, but it is still recognizable by the dome. A small schist relief from a stupa in Peshawar [Pakistan}, and typical of Gandhara art, show scenes from the Buddha’s life framed by attendants in storied niches between classical pilasters [Fig. 22]. Objects like this one must have traveled east along the Silk Routes. In Yun-kang such models were transformed into multistoried edges of square core of pillar in the center of the cave chamber [Fig. 23]. That kind of core occurs in many of the coupled caves (5 and 6, 9 to 11, 39,51). This central pillar of cave 11. for example, assumes as a whole the shape of the pagoda with a storied image-niches on its four sides. In some of the very latest caves the core finally becomes an absolutely regular pagoda [Fig.24]. There was no structural necessity for them; their raisond’erte was purely cultic. they formed the heart, so to speak, of ambulatories. The pilgrims had to walk around the clockwise in contemplation of the scenes from the life of Prince Siddhartha, the historic Buddha, depicted in the low relief on the walls of some of the chambers. The scenes follow one another as if on a scroll. Here we see the prince leaving his palace on horseback [Fig. 25]. A servant protects him with an umbrella—the sign of royalty—but cannot protect him from setting eyes, for the first time in his life, on human suffering. This is his encounter with an ailing man, one of the crucial events which would make him renounce the world.
An interesting feature is the angular shape of the big niche above this scene [Fig. 26]. It is clearly prefigured in the realm of western Buddhism, in this case in Afghanistan; the so-called trabeated niche. A Gandhara relief from Shotorak depicts the Buddha of the Future, Maitreya teaching [Fig. 27]. The niche is tripartite. Maitreya sits cross-legged, flanked by pensive bodhisattvas. The architrave is curiously raised and bent as if in a primative perspective. Even further removed from the correct portrayal of built arcitecture are examples from cave paintings at Kizil on the northern part of the Silk Road in Sinkiang [Fig. 28]. Many other Yun-kang examples are enriched with draped curtains. We find similar “distortions” in late antique and early Christian ivories of about the same period

Cite This Article

Knauer, Elfriede Regina. "The Fifth Century A.D. Buddhist Cave Temples At Yün-Kang, North China." Expedition Magazine 25, no. 4 (August, 1983): -. Accessed February 21, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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