ABCs of Longmen: Why are statues in Longmen so exquisite?
The statues in Longmen Grottoes have got a great diversity of Buddhist figures and images, in all shapes and sizes. There is the 17.14 meters high Losana Buddha as well as small statues of few centimeters high only. The locations of the grottoes are arranged in a compact and orderly manner. What’s more, the larger than life statues are fascinating both in shape and appearance.
The Losana Buddha in Fengxian Temple, Longmen Grottoes [Photo / Longmen Grottoes on WeChat]
The Longmen Grottoes were mainly operated by the imperial households during Northern Wei and Tang dynasties. The direct participation and full support of the royal families is the primary reason contributed to the greatness of the grottoes. It can be told that there’s unified planning and layout at the very beginning and skillful craftsmen were recruited for the project of Longmen Grottoes.
Experts say, stones in Longmen mainly belong to the limestone and dolostone types, which are of high intensity and low hardness. Such rocks are easy to carve on but resistant to weathering and erosion.
Two statues in Fengxian Temple, Longmen Grottoes [Photo / Longmen Grottoes on WeChat]
The Lianhua Cave in Longmen Grottoes [Photo / Longmen Grottoes on WeChat]
The Binyang Middle Cave in Longmen Grottoes [Photo / Longmen Grottoes on WeChat]
Pete and Kristina Roam
We flew from Dunhuang to Xi’an. Xi’an was one of the capitals of China with history going back 3,100 years. Xi’an was the eastern end of the Silk Routes. Today it's a medium sized Chinese city with a population of 10 million. We had fun exploring the crowded streets in the old town.
We ate some of this spicy tofu, which was tasty.
We visited the Wild Goose Pagoda. It was built in 648 to hold the 600 scrolls that Xuan Zang brought back from India to China.
We climbed the seven levels to the top, 210 feet. The stairs got progressively smaller and steeper as we went up.
The views from the top were superb and made us realize how impressive this building must have been, as it was the tallest in the land for twelve centuries.
Last January we visited a wonderful Chinese temple for Xuan Zang when we were in Rajgir, India, where he had studied for two years at the great Buddhist University in Nalanda. Now in China we enjoyed learning more about this incredible scholar who spent 16 years traveling and studying Buddhism and Sanskrit in India. He then spent 40 years in Xi'an translating the scrolls he brought back into Chinese, profoundly enlarging the scope of Chinese Zen Buddhism.
Based on folk tales and the 16th century novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, we read Monkey, Journey to the West retold by David Kherdian. It’s the story of Xuan Zang and four magic animal characters who are Daoist Immortals that overcome huge obstacles while traveling to India to obtain the Buddhist texts. After years of traveling, the book ends with Xuan Zang bringing the scrolls back to the Chinese Emperor.
The Great Wild Goose Pagoda was built in an Indian architectural style to honor Xuan Zang’s journey and the Buddhist scriptures.
For the 2008 Olympics, a whole temple complex was added here. These roof ornaments are the Daoist Immortals in animal form. They are all watching the monk at the front who is riding a phoenix.
Pete enjoyed photographing the temple complex.
The big attraction in Xi’an is the terracotta army that guards Emperor Qin Shihuang's burial mound.
Completed around 210 B.C., it took about 40 years to create the life sized 7,000 soldiers and 600 horse sculptures.
The figures were painted after they were fired. When exposed to air, the paint oxidized. On these soldiers the paint has been restored.
The Emperor had been a tyrannical leader. After he died the people rebelled by smashing the terracotta army. Here you can see archeologists who are putting the pieces back together. It seems like it will take 100 years for them to complete the restoration.
This archer was found almost whole with only his hands broken.
The gift shop had full sized soldiers for sale. We were not tempted.
The terracotta army is called the Eighth Wonder of the World. It was rediscovered in 1974 by four farmers while digging a well. The two farmers who are still alive now spend their days autographing museum books.
After visiting the terracotta army, we went to a cultural show of music and dance. We thought of Sean Mattingly since his birthday was the next day, October 19th. Today we send belated birthday wishes to our dear friend Sean who always enjoys fabulous costumes!
Because we are with a tour group, we tend to be eating buffet or family style meals. So far the food in China has had varying levels of quality. This viscous corn soup tasted mostly of cornstarch.
Here are Kristina and Andy at Andy's favorite vegetarian restaurant. The restaurant's name is translated as Empty Mind. Bodhidharma, first ancestor of Zen, is part of the restaurant's brand. We will write more about Bodhidharma in our next posts.
These dishes of wheat gluten with soy bean sprouts and greens, and pickled cabbage salad were delicious.
In addition to Buddhist temples, we also visited Confucian and Daoist temples in Xi'an. The first photo shows ancestor money compared to real Chinese currency. As part of the Daoist tradition, it is burned regularly so that the dead have money in the afterlife. The second photo is where the ancestral money is burned.
One percent (1%) of Xi’an is Muslim. Like this mother and daughter, they are descendants of Muslims that traveled the Silk Road 1,000 years ago and settled in Xi’an. The photo was taken in the garden of the Grand Mosque of Xi’an, which was founded in 742.
Next the tour group traveled by bus to Luoyang to visit the Longmen Caves that have amazing Buddhist statues.
Carved into limestone cliffs, the many irregular shaped cave openings resemble Swiss cheese.
The Longmen Caves were initially funded by Emperor Xianwen of the Northern Wei dynasty in 493 when he moved his capital to Luoyang. This Emperor also sponsored some of the Dunhuang temple caves.
The peak creation of caves and statues was in the 7th and 8th centuries, which was during the Tang dynasty when Buddhism was also very strong. Shown here is Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant.
Supposedly there are as many as 100,000 Buddha statues here in the 1,400 caves. Considering that some of the statues are as small as an inch, and that this doorway leads to the 10,000 Buddhas cave, it seems possible.
This charming statue of a monk was about 8 inches tall.
The Longmen Grottoes are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were happy to be allowed to photograph the beautiful sculptures.
In addition to human forms, there are also building sculptures like this pagoda.
In this photo are Enkyo Roshi, Zen priest and spiritual leader of our trip Angus, a new friend and fellow practitioner and Andy Ferguson, Zen scholar and our tour leader. In the background is the Yi River.
This Vairocana Buddha statue is 57 feet tall, the largest statue at Longmen. Commissioned by Empress Wu Zetian, this grotto is considered to be the ultimate in architectural expression of the Tang dynasty.
We found his face to be very pleasing. It is conjectured that the Buddha was carved to resemble the Empress and it has been referred to as the Chinese Mona Lisa.
In the impressive grotto the Vairocana Buddha is protected by this fierce guardian.
We thought of advent calendars, with all the small carved niches.
How lucky we feel to be able to see such incredible and inspiring Buddhist sculptures!
Discovery and revival
During late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Western explorers began to show interest in the ancient Silk Road and the lost cities of Central Asia, and those who passed through Dunhuang noted the murals and artifacts such as the Stele of Sulaiman at Mogao. The biggest discovery however came from a Chinese Taoist named Wang Yuanlu who appointed himself guardian of some of these temples around the turn of the century.
Some of the caves had by then been blocked by sand, and Wang set about clearing away the sand and made an attempt at repairing the site. In one such cave, on 25 June 1900, Wang discovered a walled up area behind one side of a corridor leading to a main cave. Behind the wall was a small cave stuffed with an enormous hoard of manuscripts. In the next few years, Wang took some manuscripts to show to various officials who expressed varying level of interest, but in 1904 Wang re-sealed the cave following an order by the governor of Gansu.
Words of Wang's discovery drew the attention of a joint British/Indian group led by Hungarian archaeologist Aurel Stein who was on an archaeological expedition in the area in 1907. Stein negotiated with Wang to allow him to remove a significant number of manuscripts as well as the finest paintings and textiles for a fee. He was followed by a French expedition under Paul Pelliot who acquired many thousands of items in 1908, and then by a Japanese expedition under Otani Kozui in 1911 and a Russian expedition under Sergei F. Oldenburg in 1914. A well-known scholar Luo Zhenyu edited some of the manuscripts Pelliot acquired into a volume which was then published in 1909 as "Manuscripts of the Dunhuang Caves" (敦煌石室遺書).
Stein and Pelliot provoked much interest in the West about the Dunhuang Caves, however, there were initially little interest in official circles in China. Concerned that the remaining manuscripts might be lost, Luo Zhenyu and others persuaded the Ministry of Education to recover the rest of the manuscripts to be sent to Peking (Beijing) in 1910. However, not all the remaining manuscripts were taken to Peking, and of those retrieved, some were then stolen. Some of the caves were damaged when the caves were used by the local authority in 1921 to house Russian soldiers fleeing the civil war following the Russian Revolution. In 1924, American explorer Langdon Warner removed a number of murals as well as a statue from some of the caves. The situation improved in 1941, when the painter Zhang Daqian arrived at the caves with a small team of assistants and stayed for two and a half years to repair and copy the murals. He then exhibited and published the copies of the murals, which helped to publicize and give much prominence to the art of Dunhuang within China. Historian Xiang Da then persuaded Yu Youren, a prominent member of the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party), to set up an institution, Research Institute of Dunhuang Art (which later became the Dunhuang Academy), at Mogao in 1944 to look after the site and its contents. In 1956, the first Premier of the People's Republic of China, Zhou Enlai, took a personal interest in the caves and sanctioned a grant to repair and protect the site and in 1961, the Mogao Caves were declared to be a specially protected historical monument by the State Council, and large-scale renovation work at Mogao began soon afterwards. The site escaped the widespread damage caused during the Cultural Revolution.
Today, the site is the subject of an ongoing archaeological project. The Mogao Caves became one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1987. From 1988 to 1995 a further 248 caves were discovered to the North of the 487 caves known since the early 1900s.
Chinese Legends – The First Emperor and Shaolin Temple
As a child I have always been fascinated by stories of Marco Polo’s journeys and the Silk Route. The opportunity came in 2011 and we got to go on our own little Journey to the West. The first stop was Xi’an, the ancient capital of China and the resting place of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, and his army of terra cotta warriors. This city is also one of the stops along the ancient Silk Route. Unfortunately, the trip had already got off to a bad start with our flight to Beijing delayed due to bad weather. We ended up missing our connecting flight to Xi’an and had to fight tooth and nail together with a horde of angry Chinese travelers to secure transfer tickets for another flight. I do salute the Air China counter staff. These ladies can face down an angry and impatient horde of passengers and still dish out as good as they take.
Finally we arrived in Xi’an after a delay of 6 hours from our scheduled time. This meant that we weren’t able to do much sight seeing on our first day. Luckily, it was summer and days were longer which sort of compensated for the delay as we had more time to sight see.
View of the Drum Tower, as seen from the Bell Tower. The ancient bell is still here, and no, they won’t let me ring it. One of the city’s main gates. You can imagine that in ancient times the cars would be replaced with horses and carts.
The Bell Tower is located in the center of the city and roads lead to the North, South, East and West gates from here.
Xi’an also has a sizeable Muslim community and we walked over to Moslem Street where there are numerous shops and restaurants serving Muslim food.
Plenty of tourists along Moslem Street and beating the heat is done by rolling up your pants and shirts. The very prominent type of unleavened bread common in this region. We found this restaurant that was packed with people. Their specialty was lamb kebabs.
Luckily for us, we bumped into a licensed tour guide who was dropping off his guests at our hotel. After negotiating with him, we got him to take us on a tour the next day.
The first stop was Banpo Museum. This is the site of an Neolithic village which is more than 6,000 years old. It’s important because it shows that long before Emperor Qin Shihuang came along there was already a civilization established here.
Not much left after more than 6 millennia. I know this is lost in translation, but it is nice to know that they had broadband 6,000 years ago.
Finally, we got to the site of the terra cotta warriors. Being summer, the temperature was already 35°C and the tourist crowd was building up to immense proportions. The battalions of tourists must have numbered more than the terra cotta army.
One of the huge halls which covers the 1 of 4 archeological dig sites of the Terra Cotta Warriors. You get to see close ups of the excavated terra cotta figures which range from soldiers to scribes to horses. The amount of craftsmanship that goes into each figure is incredible. The horses for the royal carriage are so life like in this photograph. Finally we got to enter the excavation site. The size of the hall is immense and this is just 1 of 4 sites. There are many more sites which have been discovered but not excavated. Each terracotta warrior has its own unique facial features and expression. No two figures have the same face. Many of the terra cotta figures have been damaged over the thousands of years. The damaged figures are painstakingly reconstructed and put back into the pit where they were found.
Qin Shihuang is credited with being the man who unified China from many warring states into a large country, and also with building the Great Wall of China. Despite his accomplishments, he was also a brutal emperor who killed many of his countrymen by pressing them into slavery to build the Great Wall and also his tomb. He was also afraid of death and searched futilely for immortality pills and potions. Due to his great achievements and his weaknesses, he has become some sort of a legend, portrayed as a savior, or as a tyrant in many Chinese films depending on how the director wants to skew the plotline.
The actual tomb of the First Emperor, Qin Shihuang, is in a large mausoleum under a large mound where it is believed that he is entombed with more terra cotta armies. The terra cotta warriors that were discovered are just one of the many garrisons guarding the tomb. According to ancient texts, the Emperor’s tomb is laid out as a miniature map of China with flowing rivers and seas made of liquid mercury, and guarded by many traps. This really sounds like something out of an Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider movie. We might never know if ancient legends are true as the tomb has not been opened for fear of relic degradation once exposed to air. However, archaeologists have discovered that the soil around the tomb does contain unusually high concentrations of mercury, and ground scanning radar has revealed a large palace style tomb, so those ancient legends might be just true.
Just visiting these 2 places took the whole day. We came back to the hotel to cool off before making our way down to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and musical fountain in the evening. This musical fountain claims to be the largest in Asia and covers 15,000 sq metres.
We came early to find a good vantage spot to watch the musical fountain. Despite having a good spot, I realized that everyone in the first few rows was getting a free bath every time the central jet shot water and the wind blew in our direction. I decided to take a back seat after several baths. The crowd was more than happy to take over my place and get wet.
Luoyang is more than 500km away from Xi’an, but with the new high speed rail it took only 2 hrs for us to get here. This place is famous for the Longmen Grottoes and is also the stepping off point to visit Shaolin Temple. My dream of learning Shaolin kungfu was finally coming true. We had tried to get another guide for the visit but we only ended up with a driver and minivan.
The Chinese high speed rail at Luoyang station. Longmen Grottoes runs along the river and is a series of caves with Buddhist art carved into the cliff face dating back to 437AD. The centerpiece of Longmen Grottoes are these gigantic statues carved into the cliff sides.
After the tiring hike and climbing of numerous stairs, we decided to take the boat back to the starting point where our driver was waiting for us. Just a small section of the Longmen Grottoes.
From Longmen Grottoes it was another long drive to Shaolin Temple. Our anticipation was building up as we had seen and heard so much about this place from all the various kungfu movies.
The main gate of Shaolin which leads to the temple. We had to buy the entry tickets here. What do you mean we need to buy tickets to enter a temple? So we bought the entry tickets and then paid again for tickets to board the electric tram that ferries tourists from the main gate to the temple. This looks more like a scene from a kungfu movie. The guide explained that these holes in the tree trunks were made by monks practicing the Shaolin Finger Punch. After many years and many students later, you get these holes. The depressions in the floor are caused by the many monks who have trained by stamping their feet here. This was featured in the Shaolin kungfu movie starring Jet Li. What we came to see – some kungfu. Yes, we had to pay again to watch the show. The Pagoda Forest outside Shaolin. This was also featured in the Shaolin kungfu movie.
I can’t help but get the feeling that Shaolin Temple has become a commercial enterprise capitalizing on its brand name. The visit to the temple felt like I was in some kind of kungfu theme park with monks taking the roles of park attendants collecting money. I guess purists would be disappointed but for the rest of us who just want a flavor of Shaolin, this would have to do.
Longmen Grottoes and Shaolin Temple can be accomplished in day trip from Xi’an but if you want to spend more time in each place then I recommend an overnight stay in Luoyang.
So there you have it, 2 of the greatest legends in Chinese history which can come to life. The next part of this blog will be on Xinjiang, the mysterious land in the West that is the stuff of legends.
The Longmen Grottoes Digital Retrieval Project was initiated in the United States at a workshop at Harvard University in 2017. For an overview of the event, see “Longmen Grottoes: New Perspectives,” Newsletter of the International Institute for Asian Studies 79 (Spring 2018): 19. Sculptures from Longmen in American collections undergoing scanning include pieces in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, and the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian.
Due to the monumental size of the restored relief sculptures from the Binyang Central Cave, the sculptures have not yet been subjected to methods of conservation analysis that might be helpful in distinguishing between areas of restoration and original stone, such as X-ray examination. Moreover, because of the nature of the stone infill utilized in some of the restored pieces, the results of these tests may be inconclusive in certain instances.
For an overview of the two-stage restoration of the Empress Procession , see Fletcher Coleman, “Fragments and Traces: Reconstituting Offering Procession of the Empress as Donor with Her Court ,” Orientations 49, no. 3 (May/June 2018): 94–101. See page 95 of that article for other sources addressing the collecting of the Empress Procession fragments.
Coleman, “Fragments and Traces,” 96–99.
The three major early Chinese translations of the sutra text are found in Taishō shinshū Daizōkyō , ed. Takakusu Junjirō and Watanabe Kaigyoku (Tokyo: Taishō Issaikyō Kankōkai, 1924–32), texts 474–76. For a general overview of the Vimalakīrti debate scene and its significance, see Amy McNair, The Donors of Longmen: Faith, Politics, and Patronage in Medieval Chinese Buddhist Sculpture (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007), 42–47.
As seen in the photograph (figure 7), several heads are missing from the main figures in the Mañjuśrī tableau, in addition to the complete attendant figure of the disciple Śāriputra.
The Fogg Museum’s early stake in the relief came to light after Sickman’s death in 1988. Mention of the museum’s financial involvement in the collecting of the Empress Procession can be found in Michael Churchman and Scott Erbes, High Ideals and Aspirations: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 1933–1993 (Kansas City, MO: Nelson-Atkins Musem of Art, 1993), 50–51 and Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 92–95. Further details from the primary documentation not covered in these sources are provided here.
See the exchange of correspondence in Box 84, Folder 1909–1911, Papers of Edward Waldo Forbes, 1867–2005 (HC 2), Harvard Art Museums Archives, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Citing the sentiment of Warner and Sickman that “it would be a great pity to separate this group of figures into two pieces,” Forbes offered to acquire the whole group from Gardner and to reimburse the Nelson for its share of expenses. See Edward W. Forbes to Paul Gardner, 2 February 1940, Box 50, Folders 1214–1215, Papers of Edward Waldo Forbes.
In particular, Gardner and Forbes argued over the respective involvement of Sickman and Warner in prompting the acquisition of the fragments. See Paul Gardner to Edward W. Forbes, 8 April 1940, Box 50, Folders 1214–1215, Papers of Edward Waldo Forbes Edward W. Forbes to Paul Gardner, 16 April 1940, Box 50, Folders 1214–1215, Papers of Edward Waldo Forbes and Edward W. Forbes to Paul Gardner, 18 April 1940, Box 50, Folders 1214–1215, Papers of Edward Waldo Forbes.
In a series of personal exchanges, Sickman made an impassioned plea to Warner to back the Nelson Gallery’s rights to the piece, particularly on the grounds of spreading interest in Chinese art to the American Midwest. See Laurence Sickman to Langdon Warner, 11 June 1940, Box 2, Folder 74, Langdon Warner Papers (MS AM 3138), Houghton Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Langdon Warner to Laurence Sickman, 18 June 1940, Box 2b, Folder 4, Laurence Sickman Papers (MS 001), Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Archives, Kansas City, Missouri.
For the original letter from Forbes to Gardner (several carbon copies of which are included in various archives), see Edward W. Forbes to Paul Gardner, 26 June 1940, Box 2, Folder “Sickman B,” Laurence Sickman Miscellaneous Documents, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Archives, Kansas City, Missouri. I located what appears to be the photograph mentioned in the letter in “Photographs of Langdon Warner,” Box 13 FV9FKGK, Fine Arts Library Visual Collections, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Otto Burchard to Laurence Sickman, 16 September 1939, Box 1a, Folder 32, Laurence Sickman Papers (MS 001).
An unprocessed collection of Sickman’s papers at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Archives was brought to my attention following the initial publication of my “Fragments and Traces” article (see note 3 above). The bulk of the information presented here was garnered from these materials.
For the difficulties faced by Burchard in Germany and the move of his operations to Stockholm in 1934, see Laurence Sickman to Paul Gardner, 7 November 1934, Box 1, Folder “Laurence Sickman and Langdon Warner to Paul Gardner, 1934,” Laurence Sickman Miscellaneous Documents Otto Burchard to Laurence Sickman, 13 May 1940, Box 1a, Folder 30, Laurence Sickman Papers (MS 001) and Otto Burchard to Laurence Sickman, 16 June 1941, Box 1a, Folder 30, Laurence Sickman Papers (MS 001).
“Report Form TFR—300 Series A: To be used by (1) Individual Nations Not Engaged in Business to Report for Themselves, and (2) Other Persons to Report Property Interests of Such Nationals,” Box 1, Folder “Vimalakirti Correspondence 1943–1944,” Laurence Sickman Miscellaneous Documents.
See “Report Form TFR—300 Series A” in the previous note, as well as Box 1, Folder “Burchard, Dr. Otto, 1946,” Laurence Sickman Miscellaneous Documents and “Department of Justice to Laurence Sickman,” 13 May 1955, Box 1a, Folder 17, Laurence Sickman Papers (MS 001).
Langdon Warner to Laurence Sickman, 30 July 1940, Box 2b, Folder 4, Laurence Sickman Papers (MS 001).
Langdon Warner to Laurence Sickman, 2 September 1941, Box 2b, Folder 4, Laurence Sickman Papers (MS 001).
Laurence Sickman to Mathias Komor, 6 February 1942, Box 1, Folder “Vimalakirti Correspondence 1943–1944,” Laurence Sickman Miscellaneous Documents.
Burchard’s health issues and complications during World War II are mentioned in a series of letters between various individuals over a period from roughly 1939 to 1946. Concerning his penultimate surgery and postwar transition to New York, see Otto Burchard to Laurence Sickman, 3 October 1946, Box 1, Folder “Burchard, Dr. Otto, 1946,” Laurence Sickman Miscellaneous Documents.
Mathias Komor to Lindsay Hughes, 19 June 1944, Box 1, Folder “Correspondence Mathias Komor 1941–1944,” Laurence Sickman Miscellaneous Documents.
Langdon Warner to Laurence Sickman, 30 June 1944, Box 2b, Folder 4, Laurence Sickman Papers (MS 001).
H.D. Weiser to Myron S. Falk Jr., 21 August 1945, object file F2001.7, Freer and Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. For the original auction notification and bill of sale, see the same folder.
For the details concerning the loan request and the original loan receipt, see Mathias Komor to Myron S. Falk Jr., 31 July 1945 Alan Priest to Major Falk, 8 August 1945 and The Metropolitan Museum of Art loan receipt to Major and Mrs. Myron S. Falk Jr., 28 August 1945, object file F2001.7, Freer and Sackler Galleries.
For letters between Burchard and Sickman detailing the fallout between the two men over the seizure and sale of the Vimalakīrti relief, see Box 1, Folder “Burchard, Dr. Otto, 1946,” Laurence Sickman Miscellaneous Documents. Regarding the restitution that Burchard received for the relief, see Department of Justice to Laurence Sickman, 13 May 1955, Box 1a, Folder 17, Laurence Sickman Papers (MS 001). For confirmation of the amount and date of Burchard’s restitution, see Annual Report of the Office of Alien Property, 1955 (Washington, DC: Department of Justice, 1955), 110.
Langdon Warner to Laurence Sickman, 2 September 1941, Box 2b, Folder 4, Laurence Sickman Papers (MS 001).
Otto Burchard to Laurence Sickman, 5 July 1946, Box 1, Folder “Burchard, Dr. Otto, 1946,” Laurence Sickman Miscellaneous Documents.
E. Pearlstein and R. Lowinger, “Conservation of a Chinese Cave Relief,” Feb.–Aug. 1980, object file F2001.7, Freer and Sackler Galleries. Documentation from Mathias Komor indicates that he also facilitated restorations on the relief with the help of the Katayama Art Studio after Myron S. Falk Jr. purchased the piece and before it was loaned to the Metropolitan Museum. See Mathias Komor to Major Falk, 18 April 1945, object file F2001.7, Freer and Sackler Galleries.
Pearlstein and Lowinger, “Conservation of a Chinese Cave Relief,” 2–3.
See, for example, a famous letter in which Warner effusively praises the results of the second restoration of the Empress Procession relief: Langdon Warner to Laurence Sickman, 29 August 1940, Box 2b, Folder 4, Laurence Sickman Papers (MS 001).
In a partially complete letter apparently from Laurence Sickman to one of the directors of the Nelson Gallery (probably Paul Gardner), in which the author contemplates placing a bid on the Vimalakīrti relief, after expressing doubts about the amount of the bid, the author states, “This stone is broken and would have to have repair work and mountings, and then all we would have would be a head and we have ten of those in the Relief of the Empress.” Unsigned and undated letter, Box 2, Folder “Sickman A,” Laurence Sickman Miscellaneous Documents.
Langdon Warner to Laurence Sickman, 6 June 1934, Box 2, Folder “Letters to File,” Laurence Sickman Miscellaneous Documents.
Warner’s early attitudes towards restoration, as well as those of his star students such as Sickman, reflect certain nineteenth- and early twentieth-century views on the educational role of plaster monuments. For an overview of these ideas, see Fletcher Coleman, “Encountering Chinese Sculpture in America: The Early Pedagogy and Exhibition of Monumental Ink Rubbings from Longmen,” Orientations 51, no. 1 (Jan./Feb. 2020): 90–100.
On changing attitudes towards the restoration of fragments in classical sculpture, see Glenn Most, “On Fragments,” and William Tronzo, “The Cortile delle Statue: Collecting Fragments, Inducing Images,” in The Fragment: An Incomplete History , ed. William Tronzo (Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute, 2009), 9–22, 39–60.
The terms “fragmentary” and “complete” are used here to refer to the relative intactness of the Vimalakīrti and Empress Procession reliefs following their removal and restoration. It must be acknowledged that, no matter how complete the stone fragments contained within the restored reliefs are individually, removed from the Binyang Central Cave, they remain incomplete from their original context. Regarding the nature of the fragmentary state as it pertains to Buddhist sculpture, Gregory Levine of the University of California, Berkeley, has presented extensively as part of an ongoing project entitled “Buddha Heads: Fragments and Landscapes.”
Permissions: Copyright to the content of the articles published in the Ars Orientalis remains with the journal. Copyright to the images in the articles published in Ars Orientalis remains with the image rights owners. This article may be copied for use by nonprofit educational institutions, and individual scholars and educators, for scholarly or instructional purposes only, provided that (1) copies are distributed at or below cost, (2) the author, the publisher, and the Journal are identified on the copy, and (3) proper notice of the copyright appears on each copy. For other uses, content permission must be obtained from Ars Orientalis and image permission must be obtained from the rights owners.
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
China’s Buddhist caves: the enduring art of the Silk Road
The Silk Road is well-known as being one of the world’s earliest trade routes, allowing the exchange of goods between China and Europe, via Central Asia. And it was along the Silk Road that Buddhism began spreading into China from India as early as the first century AD. With it came the idea of constructing temples and holy sites by hollowing out rock faces: Buddhist caves and mural art spread across China in this way.
Hundreds of these magnificent cave art sites, or grottoes, still dot mountainsides and rock faces across China, housing impressive sculptures and vivid murals that are thousands of years old. Not only are these sites evidence of their creators’ dedication to their faith, they also offer a fascinating glimpse into the multicultural society that thrived for a thousand years along the once mighty Silk Road trade route that connected east and west.
Stories of the Silk Road
China’s Buddhist caves were often chosen for their scenic beauty, sometimes by travelling monks who had had visions at a particular spot or who were attracted by its spiritual aura. Within the excavated caves, which would take years to hollow out, monks and other followers would carve thousands of Buddhas, bodhisattvas (spiritual beings on the path to becoming Buddhas), apsaras (heavenly nymphs) and celestial musicians. These would be painted and highlighted in explosions of colour made from precious materials like lapis lazuli, indigo and real gold traded along the Silk Road. Alongside these heavenly beings, however, more down to earth details were also depicted – Central Asian merchants, Indian monks in white robes and Chinese peasants working in the fields. These portraits of average travellers from bygone times have sat quietly in grottoes throughout western China, preserved for generations to come.
Many Buddhist caves in China became the focus of worship and meditation not only for the communities of monks who would reside there, but also for visiting pilgrims and traders. Indeed, many of the temples and holy sites on the Silk Road were used by merchants as banks or warehouses. They would be centres of religious practice and cultural exchange, as well as valued stop-off points on the long, dangerous routes through central China. Over the years, more and more cave sites, stretching further away from the Silk Road and deeper into China, would be excavated and decorated, matching closely the spread and acceptance of Buddhism across the country and showing an incredible development and change in artistic style as they moved.
As the millennia passed, however, and trade along the Silk Road lessened (thanks to increased sea transportation), many of the caves were abandoned or fell into disrepair. Others were destroyed as cultural shifts in China meant that different religions and new ways of worship came to dominate certain parts of the country. Many Silk Road caves were looted for their treasures or cast from the cultural consciousness, becoming buried by the desert sands from which they were carved. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the caves began to be opened up again, as explorers and archaeologists from China and around the world started to rediscover their hidden treasures.
Most well-preserved Buddhist caves in China today
The enduring Buddhist caves in China are mainly scattered throughout the far west, mainly in Xinjiang, Gansu and the Yellow and Yangzi River regions. Many are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, housing unique sculptures and murals in varying states of preservation.
What connects them all is their important place in the story of Buddhism and multiculturalism in China. They are among the world’s greatest monuments to faith and the way in which humans always have, and continue to, share and transmit new ideas.
There are many grottoes and cave art sites across the country that are open to the public. Here are our choices of some of the most interesting Buddhist caves in China.
Hewn into eastern slope of the evocatively named Rattling Sand Mountain near Dunhuang in Gansu province, the Mogao Grottoes are one of the most important collections of Buddhist art in the world. Situated at a strategic point along the Silk Road, at a crossroads of trade as well as religious, cultural and intellectual influences, the grottoes first began being carved in 366 AD by a monk named Yue Seng. The artwork here reached its creative peak during the Tang dynasty (618–907), when the area housed 18 monasteries, more than 1400 monks and nuns, and countless artists, translators and calligraphers.
Nowadays, around 500 cave cells and sanctuaries survive and are prized for the statues and wall paintings, spanning 1,000 years of Buddhist art, preserved within. Protected under UNESCO World Heritage status, the caves at Mogao show the evolution of religious art along this part of the Silk Road, and provide a literal vivid picture of medieval politics, economics, culture, arts, religion, ethnic relations and daily dress in western China.
Accessible mainly by boat, and hidden in an arid gorge formed by the Yellow River, Bingling Si in Gansu province certainly wins the prize for most spectacular location. The site's desert isolation not only provides an adventurous journey to reach it, but it also means it is one of the few Buddhist cave sites to have survived the ravages of time and human interference relatively intact.
Over a period of 1600 years, starting from around 420 AD, daring sculptors dangled from ropes to carve almost 200 niches and 700 sculptures into the steep canyon walls. Their sculptures show differing cultural and physical features, with the earliest carved with clear Indian influence. The most spectacular sculpture here is the 27m-high seated statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha, but some of the smaller bodhisattvas and guardians are equally impressive in their tiny detailing. It’s a challenge to find the smallest one, which measures just 25 centimetres in height!
Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves
The Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves in the far western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are believed to be the earliest Buddhist cave complex in China. They were started in the 3rd century BC and reached their height between the 5th and 13th centuries, when Buddhism was the dominant faith in the area.
While not many of the caves are open to the public, those that are contain colourful murals depicting a variety of religious themes, ranging from the life of the Buddha to stories about the nature of karma. Many of these are painted in the shocking blue tinge of lapis lazuli, a semi-precious rock prized for its intense colour – one of the most precious commodities traded on the Silk Road at that time. What’s particularly interesting about the murals here is that most lack any clear Chinese influence in their style. The presence of Afghan, Persian and Indian elements in the murals indicate that they were produced at an early date by western travellers passing just passing through.
The 51,000 statues and carvings in the 5th-century Yungang Caves, in Shanxi province, are simply magnificent. They were predominately carved during the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534), when nearby Datong was the capital of the Turkic-speaking Tuoba clan that ruled China. The dynasty was one of the earliest in Chinese history to adopt Buddhism as their state religion and many of the caves at Yungang were constructed under the supervision and support of the imperial court.
The sculptors here drew inspiration from Indian, Persian and even Greek influences to create their masterpieces. Despite the centuries that have passed since their creation, many of the statues and frescoes at Yungang still retain their gloriously vivid colours. Beautifully painted images of animals, birds and angels fill the walls, while almost every cave contains depictions of tiny Buddhas seated in niches, also known as the ‘1000-Buddha motif’.
The grottoes at Longmen, located a few kilometres south of Luoyang in Henan province, were started in around 494 AD, after the capital was moved from Datong. As well as being some of the most beautiful representations of ancient Chinese stone art, the statues and inscriptions within the caves provide a window into the political, cultural and artistic environments of that early time. Many of the statues in the oldest grottoes were commissioned by the royal court as a way to honour their ancestors.
The grottoes were maintained and developed over a period of around 200 years, reaching their zenith in 675 AD with the completion of the extraordinary Fengxiansi Cave. It’s an awe-inspiring experience to gaze up at the cave’s colossal statue of Vairocana Buddha, flanked on one side by disciples and bodhisattvas, and by heavenly kings and guardians on the other. The face of the Buddha is said to have been modelled on Tang empress and Buddhist patron Wu Zetian, the first empress regnant in China, who funded its carving.
Another series of grottoes set into a cliff face so steep you genuinely wonder how they were carved in the first place, Maijishan has over 221 caves and niches that hold around 7800 sculptures. A series of vertiginous scaffolding walkways and stairwells connects visitors up and around the site, to peer into tiny caves for glimpses at Buddhas and bodhisattvas, some dating all the way back to the 4th century AD. The site was continually added to as trade through the region brought visitors – he towering 15.7m Buddha flanked by two bodhisattvas carved into the cliffside was added a little 'later' during the Sui dynasty (581–618). During the 1980s, restoration works on the site revealed a treasure folded away within the Buddha's fan: a handwritten copy of the Sutra of Golden Light.
Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter. Make the most of your travel with sightseeing tours and activities from our trusted partners.
An Unusual Dark Grey Stone Head of a Female Attendant, Tang Dynasty (618-907), possibly Longmen Caves
An Unusual Dark Grey Stone Head of a Female Attendant, Tang Dynasty (618-907), possibly Longmen Caves
Carved as if facing slightly to the right, with small chin, well-defined mouth and slightly open eyes below curved brows, the hair drawn up into two topknots, with remains of pigment and earth accretions, the back sheared off. 14 in. (35.5 cm.) high, stand. Estimate $20,000 - $30,000
Provenance: J.T. Tai & Co., New York, prior to 1975.
Notes: Fragments of secular figures within processions of donors are among the rarest surviving carvings removed from the Longmen grottoes, Henan province. This head of a young girl has her hair dressed in an elaborate double-topknot with looping braids which can be seen on contemporaneous Tang sancai wares, but which is clearly derived from Northern Wei prototypes, such as those on the famous panels of the processions of Emperor Wenzhao and Empress Xiaowen flanking the entrance to Cave 140, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, respectively. See S. Di, Comprehensive Illustrated Catalogue of Chinese Buddhist Statues in Overseas Collections, vol. II, Beijing, 2005, pp. 341-5. Retinues of female donors may be seen on caves executed during the Tang dynasty in historical photographs taken by Eduoard Chavannes in 1907. See Missions archeologiques francaises en Chine: Photographies et itineraires, 1907 - 1923, Paris, 2004, p. 69, which may be a view of the Southern Binyang Cave, Cave 159. Compare, also, a kneeling female donor in Niche 328, which also appears on the proper left wall of the cave entrance and facing in (thus to her left), illustrated in Complete Works of Statues in Longmen Grottoes, vol. 2, Beijing, 2002, p. 109, figs. 291-2 and another in Cave 362 and Niche 363, p. 133, fig. 356, and p. 141, fig. 381, respectively.
The ancient city of Luoyang Culinary Arts Festival
Luoyang is a city bearing too much glory, down 5,000 years of history and it has many adhesions, monuments, art, gourmet food.
In a fiery day I set foot on this ancient city, feel the breath, trying to constantly walk to experience one of the most beautiful in Luoyang.
Luoyang water banquet · Culinary Arts Festival
Luoyang should really do taste the food be?
Is, of course, through the Tang dynasty have a Royal feast, in Luoyang water banquet of boiling broth in water to get the greatest satisfaction, making the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, full enjoyment.
• Peony flower food “Peony”, regardless of length, Luoyang. Water banquet cuisine, fine to let people not chopsticks.
Luoyang water banquet began in the Tang dynasty, and accurately is Empress Wu after the capital Luoyang.
Luoyang drier, so people dietary meal are soups. There was a joke, said Luoyang people meeting and greeting people, not asking, “have you eaten yet? “But” did you eat soup? ”。 Luoyang soups is a long-standing tradition of eating habits.
To curry favor with Empress Wu moved the capital to the diet has to be ill, people try every trick, collecting and improving, and finally achievement was the female Emperor in favor of the Luoyang water banquet. Soon, the Palace water Gallery into a community, has a long history, as food culture of Luoyang’s most classic works.
Water table has two meanings: first, soup is good at, and the other is eating one-for-one and water in General.
At present, the Luoyang water banquet as a kind of national intangible cultural heritage both at home and abroad.
The water banquet to go to taste the most authentic classic, non-Luoyang “really different” qualifies here has received many foreign guests.
We are in the “very different” rooms and antique, display many Guttau. The seat and Red napkins on the table is beautiful unique shape, each stack of law are not the same. Visually stunning enjoyment, and soon four meat and four four-point total of 12 cold dish Apex up, happy taste buds begin to boil.
• These are just an appetizer dish.
▲ Look at the “singing”. Such as “foreplay” dish, even the styling is so beautiful, and way delicious, really enjoy the feeling of the Emperor, each dish taste that I couldn’t even eat, stay room, the next course is delighted.
About each food represents different meanings, wore dresses of the Tang Dynasty Palace staff will explain one by one, and I just eat food give the meaning of no mind that enjoyment of food gives me is not falling as they have.
Hawthorn Sydney “cake”, and cuttlefish, and duck Chin, and bar Yam · · · · · ·, each together food are is ever I eat had of similar food material in the cooking have best of, and each road food are so of right can meet we of needs, like in hot of summer eat Shang appetizer solutions summer of Sydney Hawthorn, articulate between of wonderful enjoy temporarily Zhijian to described.
Even more rare food can satisfy the needs of all flavors, sweet and sour, salt and pepper everything, I am was a serious activist, but every food eating here, I have not say love. A dish to please everyone, this scene, I just see here.
“Real different” service good and don’t have anything to say, say details, and cold dishes served just fly a bug on it, the waiter immediately keen-eyed hand back the dish, said he would do it again, and we did not see the tiny insects.
▲ People watering Peony swallow nest.
Peony swallow nest, also known as Luoyang swallow nest, is based on various types of vegetables, mostly radishes and cook it the smell of bird’s nest soup. This “bird’s nest” is Wu Zetian usually taste a dish, best eat less greasy. Soup cooking light and delicious, the “bird’s nest” toughness and refreshing, say one of enjoyment.
• I love the “bird’s nest soup,” I eat not the bird’s nest, is turnip. Delicious soup I got almost the same.
I’m not eating radish flavor, I consulted with the waiter knew radish answers site Eater like me, surprised.
To make a delicious and toughness of the “bird’s nest”, carrot strips have to be dried before cooking. Dried radish is a technical, ventilation and sunlight has on the environment much.
• Iron foodie, feast of the water.
After a cold dish, soup of water and all kinds of dishes, a staple a strong debut.
Soup per person each one, the boiling broth in my front tank never more than 5 because two on each soup, the waiter would bring to a new soup, take another soup, I often won’t let her take soup that I haven’t finished, but before it is filled. Water water seats, I had come to deeply appreciate the feast.
Episode: boiling broth over water, to avoid going to the bathroom, got back on the table, a partner told me, there are two soups, I haven’t even tried to bite, has been taken away. So I learned every soup, drink two small, leisurely ask the waiter to take away, waiting for the next fresh enjoyment. This scenario reminds me of the TV to see the emperor to dine out, too, have a taste, leaving her, and finally, in the presence of food, I also do an emperor.
• No matter how delicious the soup, I can only, eat two bites, withdraw!
▲ Go to fill out “really different” façade. Many big name, such as state dinners, the Tang dynasty Chinese first feast · · · · · ·, I think worthy of the name.
• Lobby Attendant. Enter “really different,” it feels like it’s out of the ordinary.
▲ Father-in-law propaganda purpose, Luoyang water Banquet, Queen qinci.
We enjoy seats going to the water masses of stalls, rooms have 2 maids waited on, good food and service make us pleasantly, I do not know how wonderful and fancy bits of water sitting experience. However, I have been very satisfied, and Luoyang trip, is enough.
▲ “Really different” inside. Also wanted to do some people experience tongue on the ancient capital of Luoyang.
▲ Night “really different” in front of crowds, traffic and business is very, very good.
Longmen Grottoes · Cliff exhibit wonders of the Millennium
Longmen Grottoes in the dazzling cave shrines, statues, and do not really know where to start.
As the world’s cultural heritage, the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, has become one of the most significant source of tourist revenue. It is located in the South suburb of Luoyang Longmen mountains, there are East and West Castle, most of the spectacular caves dug at the foot.
▲ Fengxian Temple Longmen Grottoes is the largest, the most exquisite carved a set group, is today the most complete and most beautifully. Middle of the master – the Buddha Vairocana Buddha statue has become the spokesperson of the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, even.
Occasion of the Longmen Grottoes was founded in Emperor xiaowen of the Northern Wei capital Luoyang (493), after hundreds of years after large-scale construction, the Middle has been damaged, there have been stopped, there have been people collective, built all sorts of conditions. Maximum of Fengxian Temple is the Buddha Vairocana Buddha, Buddha in the Lotus caves of the minimum, only 2 cm.
• Looking ahead, cave shrine of countless big and small, they just packed in the mountain stretches a kilometer. Its spectacular speaks for itself.
▲ Mountain cliffs on the surface as well as the intricate carvings, some visible, some only a fuzzy body. I also visited the Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi province, due to the textures of the mountain, where the Buddha saved was more delicate than the Longmen Grottoes.
▲ Is preserved in the cave Grotto statues, rare integrity, Grotto cave and some residual color and text at the top. Can imagine the radiant was first built.
▲ Cave cave, except for a few main Buddha statue, looking, top, walls, dense is all, that seemingly small bump one after another was Buddha. So much of the amount, engraving is so fine, wonder construction of Longmen Grottoes take up to 400 years old.
Common identification number this is 1XXX cave outside hole, Bay number thousands, the great number of them.
• Omnipresent statues, Buddha mind, Buddha among the people, everywhere, it just means it was fear of belief of times.
▲ Cliff on the spectacular Buddhist shrine along the ladder, go straight up, are not finished before the eyes of Buddha.
▲ The statue in the shrine. In the history of these grottoes have suffered varying degrees of destruction, many niches are empty, or a Buddha head was cut off, not preserved. Even limited retained part of the lot also has been unable to discern the face of charm, the Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi province also has a lot of damage, but retained most of the statues are clearly distinguishable, eyes perseverance in God. It seems that weathering of the Longmen Grottoes was more serious.
▲ Retain most exquisite group of Fengxian Temple Buddha, which is part of Royal Temple Fengxian Temple, built by Empress Wu’s sponsor. Statues of plump, meets the aesthetics of Tang fat is beautiful. There are nine Buddha, Lord Buddha up to 17 metres, an air of gentle kind, these feminine feminine statue reminds me of the Shanxi Yungang stone cave Buddha to those strong masculinity, male. Two very different images.
As with the Yungang Grottoes, Longmen Grottoes in many Buddha statues are also references the Emperor face of repair, there’s a folklore this most expensive of Vairocana Buddha is referred to Wu Zetian’s appearance.
▲ Fengxian Temple statues of you, right 2, air is clearly visible, who still has a little color. Compare the 2 lie in the rough, and Vairocana Buddha is really loving wisdom, no wonder he became a spokesperson of the Longmen Grottoes.
▲ Between Dong Shan XI Shan grottoes, grottoes and, flowing gently down the river.
• When you leave the Longmen Grottoes, we sailed off from the River, ships far off picture of Fengxian Temple.
▲ Night at the Longmen Grottoes, lights turn on, very brilliant. Looks like the Buddha a big Party?
I didn’t tour caves, this picture was taken on the area’s night poster. But I think back more than 1000 years ago, the Tang dynasty, in the color of the painted sculptures and carvings has barely faded before, Longmen Grottoes is the stunning spectacle.
The caves were cut into the side of a cliff which is close to two kilometers long. At its height, during the Tang Dynasty, there were more than a thousands caves, but over time many of the caves were lost, including the earliest caves. 735 caves currently exist in Mogao the best-known ones are the 487 caves located in the southern section of the cliff which are places of pilgrimage and worship. 248 caves have also been found to the north which were living quarters, meditation chambers, and burial sites for the monks. The caves at the southern section are decorated, while those at the northern section are mostly plain.
The caves are clustered together according to their era, with new caves from a new dynasty being constructed in different part of the cliff. From the murals, sculptures, and other objects found in the caves, the dates of around five hundred caves have been determined. Following is a list of the caves by era, compiled in the 1980s (more have been identified since):
Sixteen Kingdoms (366–439) - 7 caves, the oldest dated to Northern Liang period.
Northern Wei (439–534) and Western Wei (535-556) - 10 from each phase
Northern Zhou (557–580) - 15 caves
Sui Dynasty (581–618) - 70 caves
Early Tang (618–704) - 44 caves
High Tang (705–780) - 80 caves
Middle Tang (781–847) - 44 caves (This era in Dunhuang is also known as the Tibetan period because Dunhuang was then under Tibetan occupation.)
Late Tang (848–906) - 60 caves (This and the subsequent periods until the Western Xia period are also known collectively as the Guiyijun period (歸義軍 'Return to Righteousness Army', 848–1036) when Dunhuang was ruled by the Zhang and Cao families.)