The Yungang Caves

From the third until nearly the end of the sixth century, no single dynasty ruled over the whole of China. Among the important claimants to imperial power in the north was the dynasty of the Northern Wei (439-534), founded by a non-Chinese family from Manchuria. As would often prove to be the case under subsequent foreign dynasties, the Northern Wei emperors and their families were important patrons of the arts, and, with the exception of a brief period, supporters of Buddhism. Since the Northern Wei controlled Gansu and the route to the west, their patronage is evident at Dunhuang, and the Buddhist art that they sponsored in the central part of their state reflected the influence of Indian models that filtered through Central Asia.

This can be seen in the important cave complex of Yungang, near the Northern Wei capital of Datong in Shanxi province. The carving of the caves was undertaken at the advice of a monk from western Gansu, Tan Yao, in the early 460s. They were to commemorate the earlier members of the dynasty and to atone for the fact that in his last years the previous Wei emperor, Tai Wudi, had persecuted Buddhism. The construction of the caves continued into the first decade of the sixth century, although much of the work had been completed by 494, when the Northern Wei moved their capital to Luoyang.

Indian influence at Yungang can be seen in the pillar architecture of some of the cave façades. In a number of cases cave interiors contain central pillars, similar to what we find in early caves at Dunhuang. Undoubtedly, the model was Indian chaityas, or caves containing stupas. However, the architecture of the pillars here is that of square multistoried pagodas with Chinese gable roofs, unlike pillars in the Indian examples, which tend to be round. The evolution of this stupa shape can be traced through Buddhist sites in Central Asia.

Virtually every surface of the Yungang caves is carved, and much of the carving is or was painted. Cave no. 8, built by the mid-470s, has unique sculpted images of multi-headed and multi-armed Vishnu and Siva, each above an image of Indra. Such images would be found half a century later in the wall paintings of Cave 285 at Dunhuang. The several giant Buddha statues at Yungang adhere quite closely to the standard Buddhist images that had evolved in Gandhara. Furthermore, many of the decorative motifs and some of the minor figures at Yungang suggest influences ultimately from the Roman East, also filtered through the art of northern India. Figures carved during the later period of the work at Yungang seem to suggest Chinese influence likely coming from the Liu Song state in the south.

In the highly critical assessment of Osvald Sirén, in contrast to the sculptures reflecting Chinese influence, the quality of the Yungang sculpture most closely connected to Indian models is not very high. It may be that those models were not always clearly understood by the sculptors. Sirén notes that the style of the Yungang sculpture is often similar to that of the Buddhist sculpture discovered in Central Asian oases such as Turfan and Kucha on the Northern Silk Road, which were among the earliest centers for the transmission of Buddhism into China.

-- Daniel C. Waugh


William Watson, The Arts of China to AD 900 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), Ch. 14.

Alexander C. Soper, "Imperial Cave-Chapels of the Northern Dynasties: Donors, Beneficiaries, Dates," Artibus Asiae, XXVIII (1961): 241-270.

Osvald Sirén, Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, Vol. I (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1970 [reprint of 1925 ed.]): xl-xlv.