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September 12, 2018

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Statue of Buddha doing a V-sign invitation to all

I’d heard a lot about Longmen Grottoes in Henan Province, one of the four notable grottoes in China, since I was a child — how it represented the crowning achievement of Buddhism art in China and how it survived wars and lootings. But when the grottoes appeared in front of my own eyes, I realized that no story could compete with the real thing.

After a battery-powered car took me and other visitors from the ticket office to the entrance to the scenic area, I walked along the river toward the grottoes. The Yihe River is a tributary of the Huanghe River. The grottoes are distributed on the mountain cliffs on both sides of the river. The main attractions are on the west side, on the cliffs of Longmen Mountain.

From the Northern Wei (AD 384-536) to the Northern Song (AD 960-1127) dynasties, the sculpting of the grottoes lasted more than 400 years. While the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu Province are mainly known for their frescos, here in Longmen, the art of ancient Chinese sculptures reached its supremacy. It was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

The grottoes have more than 2,100 caves, in which more than 100,000 statues were sculpted.

The oldest caves, the Binyang Caves, are not far from the entrance. It took 24 years to create the caves and the original sites are still retained. In the caves, a Buddha statue is popular online as he is doing a “V sign” with his right hand. It is praised as the “cutest” Buddha ever. Experts say the “V sign” is actually one of the rarely seen Buddhism gestures that has something to do with Esoteric Buddhism. The gesture probably means that the Buddha takes all the people in.

The image of Buddha statues in the Northern Wei Dynasty was very different from those of the later Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). The Northern Wei statues had the look of northern ethnic people, with a relatively thin face and broad forehead.

The typical Buddha statue of the Tang Dynasty can be found at the largest cave, which is called Fengxian Temple. First dug during the Tang Dynasty, the temple was ordered by Emperor Gaozong (AD 628-683) to be built to bless the soul of his father, Emperor Taizong (AD 598-649).

Nine huge statues were lined up in the grotto, including the Buddha, two of his disciples, two Bodhisattva, two warrior guardians and two providers. A long staircase extended from the foot of the mountain to the grotto to show the devoutness of the pilgrims.

The clothes on the statues seemed different, too, as carvings showed that the clothes were thinner, softer and more silk-like than those represented by Northern Wei artists.

The 17.14-meter Buddha in the temple is the largest of all the grottoes, and his ears alone are 2 meters long. The statues, different from those in the Binyang Caves, are all of typical Tang style, with a round face, slant eyes and a plump figure.

It seemed that Emperor Gaozong and his wife and successor, Empress Wu Zetian (AD 624-705), were a pair of devout Buddhists as they ordered the building of several main caves during their reign.

The Moya Three Buddhas Cave was created during Wu’s time. There are actually seven statues in the cave, and they represent three statuses of Buddhas, the past, present and future. The Maitreya Buddha, the Buddha of Future, sits in the center of all seven, which is quite rare in Chinese Buddhist expressions. The cave, however, was never finished as construction stopped after Wu died.

However, that is a blessing rather than a pity for researchers, as it tells later generations the process of how the sculptures were made.

Although the Tang Dynasty was a prime time for the construction of the grottoes, the sculptures suffered the greatest damage during the period. About a hundred years after Wu died, Emperor Wuzong (AD 814-846) hated Buddhism as many men became monks to shun taxes. He forced monks to leave temples and resume a secular life, and destroyed many temples around the country. The Longmen Grottoes didn’t escape the disaster. But it was ironic that, after he died, his son started to worship Buddha.

Disaster struck again in the early 20th century. When China was involved in wars from the 1930s to the 1940s, the grottoes suffered severe damage because they lacked management. Many statues, inscriptions and reliefs were stolen and sold to Japan, the United States and Europe. That’s why many statues I saw were incomplete, some with their heads missing, some hands missing, and some caves just empty. What I saw was more shocking than any stories I have read on the cruelty of history.

But it’s fortunate that I was able to see what has survived from all that catastrophe and are still standing. After centuries, the grottoes are no longer about religion but human beings, because the art is, indeed, as UNESCO commented: “an outstanding manifestation of human artistic creativity.”

If you go

There are direct flights and high-speed trains from Shanghai to Luoyang. At Luoyang Railway Station, the No. 81 bus reaches the ticket office of the Long Grottoes Scenic Area. The ticket office is about 3 kilometers from the grottoes, and battery-powered cars between the two are available.

The sightseeing route starts from the western side of Yihe River. After reaching the end of the route, visitors can walk across a bridge on the river and reach the eastern side. Walking past the remaining grottoes takes you to Xiangshan Mountain and Baiyuan Garden.

Opening hours: 7:30am-10pm from April 1 to October 7, 7:30am-6pm from October 8 to 31, 8am-6pm from February 1 to March 31, 8am-5:30pm from November 1 to January 31 next year.

Admisson: 120 yuan (US$18), including admission to Xianshang Mountain and Baiyuan Garden


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