There are four major grottoes in China, attracting numerous travelers each year, and Longmen Grottoes is one of them. Located 12 kilometers south of Luoyang, Longmen Grottoes was included in the World Cultural Heritage List in 2001 and was praised as “the highest peak of Chinese stone carving art” by UNESCO.
-Interesting Knowledge of Longmen Grottoes
Legend Recalls that a mountain once stood here thousands of years ago. Beyond the foothills, in a vast expense of water lived a dragon, causing havoc and constant chaos. The Great Yu, a mighty figure of ancient China who tamed the rivers, split the mountain in halves to release the dragon to the sea. The sheer cliffs of the Eastern and Western Hills were thus formed. There are, of course, other legends and other explanations about the creation of these cliffs, however, Longmen is far more fascinating as a work of Man than for a work of Nature. More than 1352 Grottoes, 750 niches, and 39 pagodas were carved and built here on the slopes of the Eastern and Western Hills Carving of the Longmen Grottoes began in the fifth century and according to historical records took more than four hundred years to complete. There are 97,306 Buddhist statues by one accounting and the number is likely far greater. The smallest is only two centimeters tall. The largest one’s ear is taller than the average height of humans.
-Why and When Were the Longmen Grottoes Built?
Its story began with the ambition of an ancient Chinese emperor. Buddhism flourished during the Northern Wei dynasty (386- 534) and by 495 North Weu had reached its zenith. In the same year, the work on the grottoes began. In September 493 AD, Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty (established by the Xianbei nationality, an ancient nomadic tribe) officially announced to move the capital from Pingcheng (the current Datong City, Shanxi Province) to Luoyang. There was a special group of people in this migration team. They were the craftsmen who built Yungang Grottoes in Pingcheng. Then they followed the emperor to Luoyang to create another treasure house of stone carving art. Its construction lasted for more than 400 years. Now the eastern and western cliffs on the bank of Yi River are densely covered with 2,345 caves, stretching for one kilometer from north to south. There are over 110,000 Buddha statues and 2,800 pieces of stone inscriptions. Its huge scale and magnificence will definitely blow your mind.
The construction started with Guyang Cave which was built by Emperor Xiaowen in honor of his grandmother. This small cave carried the emperor’s deep sorrow. You can see Shakyamuni sit high on the wall in deep meditation, flanked by a Bodhisattva on each side.
Just as the craftsmen began their work, the emperor issued a decree about speaking the language of Han people, wearing Han clothes, and changing to surnames of Han people. The emperor himself also changed his surname from “tuoba” to “yuan”. A regime founded by a minority nationality needed to learn the advanced agriculture civilization with an open mind so as to be recognized by the vast number of Han people and maintain the ruling order. This was the real purpose of Emperor Xiaowen’s reform. In April 497, the crown prince Yuan Hong who conspired to escape back to Pingcheng to restore the former regime was put to death. The emperor used a hard and even brutal way to suppress the Xianbei nobles who resisted this policy. These Buddha statues clearly recorded the emperor’s mind track. They abandoned the characteristics of the nomads, bold and unconstrained, and got closer to meticulous and restrained Han people. You can see from the flying Apsaras, dancing gracefully on the wall like the Han women.
-Who Built the Longmen Grottoes?
Since the fall of the Northern Wei Dynasty, there were only a small amount of statues built during the Eastern Wei Dynasty, the Western Wei Dynasty, and the beginning of the Tang Dynasty. When can Longmen Grottoes see another peak period? Who was the next person after Xiaomen Emperor to contribute the Longmen Grottoes? After about 150 years, Longmen Grottoes was alive again in 675 AD. With the support of Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty, the huge statue of Vairocana Buddha was completed, and Wu Zetian attended the opening ceremony with the civil and military officials. The Buddha was given a pair of big bright eyes and a slightly upturned mouth. It looks solemn and elegant. “Vairocana” means wisdom and light. Standing at the foot of the Buddha, you can feel her eyes of wisdom shining over you.
-Who Is Wu Zetian and What’s Her Story?
Wu Zetian originally was Emperor Taizong’s concubine. In 649 AD, Wu Zetian was sent to Ganye Temple together with other concubines when the emperor died. According to the usual practice, they will spend the rest of their lives in the temple. Unexpectedly, Wu Zetian was taken back to the imperial palace by the new emperor Gaozong Li Zhi. Wu Zetian quickly climbed the ranks and became the empress. She felt that her success was a blessing from the Buddha. To build Vairocana Buddha, she donated her own money.
It’s said that the face of Vairocana Buddha was based on Wu Zetian’s. But how dare an empress carve her image on the stone wall on such a grand scale because only an emperor could do this to show his divine right? Actually, Li Zhi became weaker and weaker since 656 AD, and Wu Zetian was put in charge of the state affairs. She was even more powerful than Li Zhi. At that time, they were called the “Two Sages”. No wonder that the statue was modeled after Wu Zetian.
In December 683 AD, Li Zhi died. Some officials believed that Wu Zetian could lead the Tang Dynasty to create new glories, while some thought that this move was against the traditional rule. On a night June 688 AD, a stone carved with Dayun Sutra was retrieved from the Sishui River in Henan Province which said that Wu Zetian was the reincarnation of Maitreya and shall be the emperor.
In 690 AD, Wu Zetian ascended the throne and changed the Tang Dynasty to the Zhou Dynasty. She was 67 years old that year. For thousands of years, only a man could sit on the throne, and this was the first time a woman sat on it. She was the only female emperor in Chinese history. To consolidate her regime, Wu Zetian devoted more effort to Longmen Grottoes. Not only were the blank spaces on the Western Hill were carved with niches for Buddha statues, but also grottoes were excavated on the Eastern Hill.
In 705 AD, Wu Zetian removed her title of emperor and returned the throne to her son Li Xian. Ten months later, she died of illness and was buried at Qianling Mausoleum in Qianxian County near Xian with her husband Li Zhi. The heyday of Longmen Grottoes also ended upon her death.
-How Do I Visit the Longmen Grottoes?
Longmen Grottoes, joined by Shaolin Temple & Kung Fu Show dominates the basic content of Luoyang tours during one’s China vacation. With the convenient transport net including flights, trains, and high speed trains, it’s easy for travelers to enjoy a Luoyang Longmen Grottoes tour from other popular Chinese tourist cities, such as a Luoyang day tour from Xian or Luoyang tours from Beijing by high speed trains. We are local expert providing a variety of Luoyang Longmen Grottoes tours with customizable service. If you’re planning a trip to Longmen Grottoes, please don’t hesitate to ask more informtaion from us at [email protected]!