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The Yungang Grottoes - 1,500-Year-Old Buddhist Art

The Yungang Grottoes - 1,500-Year-Old Buddhist Art

Written by Candice SongUpdated Aug. 23, 2021

The Yungang Grottoes (Yungang Caves) are located at the southern foot of Wuzhou Mountain, about 16 kilometers (10 miles) west of Datong City, Shanxi Province, China. Dating back 1,500 years, the Yungang Grottoes represent China's superb Buddhist artistic achievements from the 5th to the 6th century.

Together with Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang and Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, the Yungang Grottoes site is one of the three leading grottoes locations in China. The Yungang Grottoes were enrolled as World Heritage by UNESCO in 2011.

Recommended tour: 4-Day Datong Yungang Grottoes and Pingyao Tour

Datong Yungang Grottoes Datong Yungang Grottoes

Highlights of the Yungang Grottoes

The Yungang Grottoes extend about 1 km (0.6 miles) across with 45 major caves, 209 secondary caves, and a total carving area of more than 1.8 ha (4.4 acres).

There are about 1,100 niches, as well as 51,000 statues: the biggest is 17 meters (56 feet) tall, and the smallest just 2 cm (0.8"). Here are some caves that you should not miss during a Yungang Grottoes trip:

Caves 5 and 6

Caves 5 and 6, in the middle part of the Yungang Grottoes, are adjoining caves excavated between 465 and 494 A.D. and the most impressive among the grottoes.

Inside Cave 5 is a 17-meter-tall Buddhist statue, the largest statue in the Yungang Grottoes.

Inside Cave 6, besides large Buddhist statues, there are 33 relief sculptures depicting Sakyamuni's biography from his birth to Buddhahood. There are more than 120 stone pagodas in Yungang. The highest pagoda with nine floors is also located in Cave 6. Cave 6 is one of the most representative of the Yungang Grottoes, with its grand scale, richness of carvings, and refined techniques displayed.

Yungang Grottoes Yungang Grottoes

Caves 7 and 8

Caves 7 and 8, carved in the 471–494 A.D. period, are also among the earliest adjoining caves in Yungang.

In Cave 7, there is a group of sculptures that are particularly eye-catching: six quiet and elegant Westerners, as bright and beautiful as saints, are known as the Yungang Six Beauties. They are masterpieces of carving, integrating oriental elements into Western region statues. Cave 7's roof is reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel, though it predates it by exactly a millennium.

Caves 9 to 13

Caves 9 to 13 are together known as the 'Five Magnificent Caves' (Wu Hua Dong 五华洞). You can see the only colored sculptures of the Yungang Grottoes in the 'Five Magnificent Caves'.

The inscriptions on the statues in Cave 11, with a total of 337 words (characters), are the earliest and most wordy written inscriptions in the Yungang Grottoes.

Cave 12 is commonly known as the 'Music Cave'. The shapes of the musical instrument and performer sculptures in the cave, as well as the composition of the groups, embodies the style and social music system of the court of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534). They are precious materials for studying the history of ancient Chinese music.

The 'Five Magnificent Caves' are beautifully carved and colorful. They are a precious resource for studying the history, art, music, dance, calligraphy, and architecture of the Northern Wei Dynasty and one of the most important parts of the Yungang Grottoes.

Yungang Caves Yungang Caves

Caves 16 to 20

Created in the years 460–470, Caves 16–20 were the first group of caves to be cut out in Yungang. They are called the 'Tanyao Five Caves' because they were formed under the management of the famous monk Tanyao. The center of each cave was endowed with a huge carved Buddha statue, symbolizing five of the emperors of the Northern Wei Dynasty.

The Giant Buddha in Cave 20 is the symbol of the Yungang Grottoes.

The 'Tanyao Five Caves' were the first crowning achievement in the history of Chinese Buddhist art, with their strict layout and harmonious style.

The Giant Buddha in Cave 20The Giant Buddha in Cave 20

Features of Grottoes Formed at Different Times

The Yungang Grottoes were first carved out of the sandstone cliffs of Wuzhou Mountain in 460 AD during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534). The main construction spanned about 60 years, and they were mostly complete in 524 AD.

  • The "early grottoes" are the five caves created by Tanyao from 460 AD, numbered 16–20. They were carved during the arrival of Buddhism in China. The caves were mainly built with pagodas.
  • The "middle grottoes"were carved from 471 to 494 AD, "the golden age of Yungang Grottoes carving". These caves are numbered 1–13 excluding 4 and 11. They usually have front and back rooms with the main Buddhist statue in the center and walls and ceilings carved with sculptures.
  • The "late grottoes" are caves 4, 11, 14, and 15 carved from 494 to 524. These caves and niches are medium and small in size, due to the decline in carving at that time.
Yungang Grottoes Yungang Grottoes

How to Visit the Yungang Grottoes

There are many amazing caves in the Yungang Grottoes. It is not possible for you to explore all of them in a day trip. Usually, a visitor's time in the caves is about half a day. Make sure you do not miss the highlights of the Yungang Grottoes in the limited time. Tour with us and your private guide will suggest the best travel route for you according to your interests.

The Layout of the Yungang Grottoes

  • Caves in the east partare mainly built with pagodas.
  • Caves in the middle partusually have front and back rooms, with the main Buddhist statue in the center, and the walls and ceilings carved with sculptures.
  • Cavesin the west part are medium and small caves and niches.

Yungang Tickets and Opening Times

Tickets: April 1st – October 31st — ¥120; November 1st – March 31st — ¥100

Open: 9am to 5pm all year around. Ticket sales stop at 4:30pm.

The Yungang Grottoes are almost always visited together with other attractions in Datong, such as the Hanging Monastery and Nine-Dragon Screen WallContact us and we will customize a Datong tour including the Yungang Grottoes for you.

Recommended tour: 4-Day Datong Yungang Grottoes and Pingyao Tour

The Yungang Grottoes The Yungang Grottoes

Best Times to Visit the Yungang Grottoes and Datong

The Yungang Grottoes could be visited all year around, but normally from April to October is the best period to see the grottoes and visit other attractions around Datong.

Datong has a temperate continental monsoon climate with distinct seasons, low rainfall, a short summer, and a long freezing winter.

Datong's summer (June–August) weather is mild, the average temperature range is 17-28°C (62–82°F), and rainfall is concentrated in the summer. Datong's summer is relatively cool and comfortable, so Datong is a good summer destination.

In spring/autumn, (April–May/September–October), the temperature rapidly rises/drops and changes often, the average temperature range is 3–23°C (37–73°F), and it is often clear and sunny.

Winter (November to March) is long and cold. The average temperature range is -12–2°C (10–36°F).

Whenever you want to travel, just contact us and we will tailor a trip for you.

Datong Yungang Caves Datong Yungang Caves

Yungang Grottoes Travel Tips

The Yungang Caves are a holy land for Buddhists, so please be respectful and do not make any loud noises during the trip. Smoking is forbidden in the Yungang Grottoes area, as is UAV (drone) flying. 

Yungang is in the loess plateau area, so it experiences big winds and silt-storms, especially from March to June. It is recommended to bring a hat and scarf that's appropriate to the season.

Yungang is dry in summer and the sun's ultraviolet rays are strong. Please drink more water and prepare sunscreen.

In addition, there is a big temperature difference between morning and night in Datong. Please prepare a jacket etc. appropriate to the temperatures above even if you travel in summer time.

There are many cultural creations on sale in Yungang Grottoes Scenic Area and you can buy some souvenirs if you wish.

The Yungang Caves The Yungang Caves

How to Get to the Yungang Grottoes

The Yungang Grottoes are about 50 minutes' driving west of Datong city center. If you want to get to the Yungang Grottoes, you have to get to Datong first. You can take a flight to Datong Yungang Airport from 25 China cities including Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Chongqing, Xiamen, Yinchuan, and Urumqi.

You can also take a bullet train to Datong from Beijing (2½ hours), Taiyuan (2½ hours), Pingyao (3½ hours), and Xi'an (6½ hours)

After arrival, you could take a taxi from Datong to the Yungang Grottoes. Or contact us and we'd be happy to arrange a comfortable transfer and well-guided Yungang Grottoes visit for you.

Discover More About Datong on a China Tour

Datong, a city between Beijing and Xi'an (and easy to combine with them on a China tour), played an important role in imperial China. See our customizable 4-Day Essence of Datong and Pingyao Tour itinerary for ways to get more out of your time there.

For a tailor-made Datong/China tour, please do not hesitate to tell us your interests and requirements.

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