Enrolled as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 2001, Yungang Grottoes represent the excellent achievement of Buddhist sculptural art of ancient China, and it is the largest among the four most famous ancient grotto complexes in China. See ancient grottoes in China.
Yungang Grottoes with 252 caves and 51,000 Buddhist statues are the classical masterpieces of of Chinese Buddhist art in the 5th and 6th centuries. They were first carved out of the sandstone cliffs on Wuzhou Mountain in 453 AD, during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-533). The main construction spanned for about forty years, and it was roughly completed in 525.
The whole grotto complex is magnificent with delicate carvings. All the statues are precious and vivid, representing the development of art, architecture, music and religion at that time. Yungang Grottoes extend about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) long from east to west, and are divided into east, middle and west parts.
Caves in the east part are mainly built in with pagodas. Caves in the middle part usually have front and back rooms, with the main Buddhist statue in the center, while the walls and the ceilings are carved with sculptures. Caves in the west part are medium and small caves and niches.
Caves No.5 and 6 in the middle part of the Yungang Grottoes are the most impressive. Inside the 5th cave is a 17-meter tall Buddhist statue, which is the largest one of Yungang Grottoes. Inside the 6th cave, besides large Buddhist statues, there are precious sculptures telling the story of Sakyamuni.
The sculptures inside the caves are all magnificent and multi-colored with excellent workmanship. At the other extreme, the 14-meter-high seated Buddha of Sakyamuni outside Grotto No.20 commands respect not only for its size, but also for the face of the figure, which is characterized by soft lines and a pair of eyes that radiate intellectual and spiritual vigor.
There are two free daily performances played on the square from September to October in 2012. These two performances focus on the folk and the Buddhist culture of the Northern Wei Dynasty.
This performance shows some Chinese folk artistries, such as the aerobatics, ethnic dances and tea art. Actors get together on Tanyao square to sing the praises of Tanyao, an eminent monk who originally excavated the grottoes.
This is a large scale parade performances retrospecting to the scene that the royal family members worshipped the buddha in the Northern Wei Dynasty. The actors dress up as the emperor, queen, ministers, maids and other characters of ancient China.
At the time of the interior adornment of the Magao and Yungang Grottoes, Buddhism was in ascendance in China. The unique beauty of the Yungang Grottoes was recognized almost immediately upon their completion.
The most culturally significant figures in the Yungang Grottoes, after the Buddha figures, is perhaps the statues of the five Chinese emperors. These important works of art are among the few historical relics to survive the Northern Wei Dynasty.
The emergence of the art of the Yungang Grottoes (and the same applies even more emphatically to the Magao Grottoes) is intimately linked to the Silk Road that connected China to the outside world from the 1st century BC to the 16th century AD. The Silk Road was of course primarily a trade route, but it was also a communications route in the broadest sense, i.e., ideas traversed from east to west and vice-versa. One such idea that travelled from east to west during the era of the Silk Road was Buddhism. Indeed, the Magao Grottoes lie directly on the original, northern Silk Road route.