The stone carvings in the Yun Gang Caves are masterpieces of Chinese religious art, ranking with those at Mat Ji Shan and Dun Huang in Gansu Province and with those at the Long Men Caves in Henan Province The caves are situated about 10 mils west of Datong in the north cliff face of a valley running in an east-west direction. The Caves face south, and the 53 still in existence contain over 51,000 statues. There is also an old monastery building known as the Shi Fo Gu Si forming an entrance facade to three of the largest caves.
Work on the cave temples began 1,500 years ago in the mid-period of the Northern Wei Dynasty (A.D.386-534), under the supervision of a Buddhist monk named Tan Tao. Since most of the major caves were completed by the end of the fifth centuries, it is clear that the most important ones were built in as little as 40 years.
The practice of carving rock temples dedicated to the Buddha originated in India but came to Chinese from the west. The earliest examples in Chinese are to be found in the Dun Huang caves, which were dug out about 100 years before those at Yun Gang. However, the Dun Hung sculpture was of terra cotta, whereas the Yun Gang carvings are hewn from the rock face of the cave. They are the earth examples of stone casings of this type yet found in China.
The people who conquered the region m the period before the ~v~ were bath were a warlike race coming from Central Asia, although their exact origin is still obscure. They brought with them influences which had an effect on the artwork carried out at the cave. While the main style is clearly Indian, there are also Iranian and Byzantine influences. Superimposed on these were the artistic interpretations of the Wei sculptors and. later, those of the Tang.
Unfortunately, the eaves are located in a dry, arid area of China and hare suffered a great deal from wind and soil erosion. Many of the cave faces have collapsed, leaving the interior exposed to the hostile environ- ment. Restoration work was begun on a large scale after the State Council of the P.RC listed the caves among the National Ancient Monuments selected for special presentation.