The Longmen Grottoes and the largest collection of ancient art

The Longmen Grottoes (Dragon Gate Grottoes), which are situated near present day Luoyang, in Henan Province, are one of the three most famous grottoes in China, the other two being the Yungang Caves near Datong in Shanxi Province and the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang in Gansu Province. These grottoes comprise of over 2,300 caves and niches carved into a stretch steep limestone cliffs that is over 1km in length. Incredibly, these caves and niches contain almost 110,000 Buddhist stone statues, over 60 stupas (mound-like structures containing Buddhist relics) and 2,800 inscriptions carved on steles.

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Work on the Longmen Grottoes began during the Northern Wei dynasty in A.D. 493, when the Emperor Xiowen moved his capital from Datong to Luoyang. By the way, the Northern Wei dynasty was also responsible for carving the grottoes at the Yungang Caves. The work at the Longmen Grottoes was undertaken over a period of several centuries, as seen in the change in artistic styles. In fact, the work at the Longmen Grottoes may be divided into four distinct phases.

The Lushena Buddha at the Longmen Grottoes . Photo source: Wikimedia.

The first phase of work at the Longmen Grottoes was between A.D. 493 and A.D.534, beginning with the Guyandong, or Shiku Temple. Although this was a time of intense activity and work, it was followed by a decline in the period between A.D. 524 and A.D. 626. During this phase, very few caves were cut, and those that were cut were relatively small. This lack of activity at the Longmen Grottoes may be attributed to the civil strife that took place in China during the Sui dynasty (A.D. 581 – A.D. 618) and the beginning of the Tang dynasty (early 7 th century A.D.). After consolidating their position, however, the Tang dynasty ushered in a new period of prosperity, during which Chinese Buddhism experienced a Renaissance. As a result of this revival, the Longmen Grottoes witnessed another period of intense activity. This was especially true during the reigns of the Emperor Gaozong and the Empress Wuzetian in the latter half of the 7 th century A.D. The artistic style of this era is said to be most fully represented in the group of giant statues in the Fengxiansi Cave, and has been generally acknowledged as one of the world’s great sculptural masterpieces. The final phase took place during the latter part of the Tang dynasty through to the Northern Song dynasty (between A.D. 755 and A.D. 1127), which saw a sharp decline in the work on the grottoes. Although the capture of Luoyang by a rebellion in the middle of the 8 th century A.D. devastated the area, it was the outbreak of warfare between the subsequent Jin and Yuan dynasties that brought the grotto carvings to an end.

Longmen Grottoes carvings. Photo source .

It was during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties that the artistic achievement and significance of the Longmen Grottoes gradually received national and, subsequently, international recognition. In addition, they were also the subject of much scholarly study. Although some of the carvings were stolen and sold abroad in the 1940s, they have been protected and conserved since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Furthermore, in 2000, the Longmen Grottoes were inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

One of the things that I noticed about the grottoes is the fact that the carvings are mostly in situ , rather than in museums, more specifically, Western museums. This is rather obvious, though I think it is an important point to make. It is true that many Western museums today house artefacts from former colonies. The British Museum, for instance, is home to numerous artefacts from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The fact that China was not fully colonised by the West meant that sites such as the Longmen Grottoes were safe from the hands of Western scholars, and remained in China (apart from the sculptures that were stolen). This may be seen as a fortunate event in history, as retaining the statues in their original environment is far more significant than observing them through perspex barriers.