The three main sites in China that are famous for their stone sculpture are Dunhuang, Longmen and Yungang. Among these, the Yungang grottoes are considered first among equals, for their tremendous size, their ancient history, and their relatively complete state of preservation. In 1961, the State Council of China declared this a National Key Cultural Relics Protected Unit, and in 2001 the site was listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site.
The grottoes are located 16 kilometers to the west of Datong City in Shanxi Province, on the southern ridge of Wu Zhou Mountain. They were carved into the mountain and extend for a kilometer in length. Their carving began in the first year of the Northern Wei dynasty, or 460 AD, and most of the work was finished before the Northern Wei moved its capital to Luoyang in 494 AD although some work continued to the reign of Zheng Guang, 520-525 AD. This is the only complete set of Northern Wei stone carving groups in China.
Fifty-three grottoes remain at Yungang today, with some 51,000 statues. The tallest among these is 17 meters high, the smallest is only a few centimeters. Carving techniques build on and further develop the traditional arts of the Qin and Han dynasties, but also absorb and merge into these the artistic traditions of both India and western regions. The grottoes are divided into three distinct sections, east, central and west, and brief descriptions of those follow.
Grottoes #5 and #6 are closely linked and are on a very grand scale: the central seated Buddha in #5 stands seventeen meters high, the tallest of any statue at the Yungang Grottoes. In the #6 grotto stands a 16-meter-high stupa, carved with Buddha statues on all sides. The carvin in these two grottoes is very practiced and is considered to represent the pinnacle of the art at Yungang.
To the west of the #20 grotto are relatively small caves, some of which have not yet been given numbers. Right now they number #21 to #53. The dating of these is relatively late, most being works after the 19″‘ year of Emperor Tai He of Northern Wei (495). The carving styles and techniques are more developed than in the eastern and central sections, the Buddha figures are thinner and so on. This is a more Sinified style of Buddhist art, which begins to approach the style of Longmen after the capital of the Northern Wei moved to Luoyang.
The Yungang Grottoes are an open-air museum that attracts the attention of thousands of scholars from around the world every year. The historic and artistic value of the art here is of the highest level.