07/01/17 – Ten Thousand To The Power of Ten Thousand Buddhas

Entrance to the Yungang Grottoes, reconstructed perfectly in the ancient Tang style…because UNESCO told them they had to.

Okay, this is where the trip really gets started. All that fun stuff I promised in the first few entries, fronted by a blog post that talked about smog and jetlag? Come on, right?!

Well, wait no longer – today’s post explores my first of many forays into the world of Buddhist cave architecture. No more incessant memes, no more weird pop culture references (except for anything on the Robert De Niro WTF face scale), just straight up archaeological epicness.

I’ll be posting my next entry on the wild world of Chinese train travel, but for now all that needs to be said is that Francesca and I got into Datong around 10pm on a hard sleeper train on Monday night and hopped into a cab to the bus station for Yungang on Tuesday morning. The cab driver was so surprised he had foreigners in the back of his cab that he decided we needed to be his display picture on WeChat (China’s solution to social media).

One of many photos before I get my tan in Cambodia where the flash makes me blend in with the white background…thanks genetics…

I’m always wary of getting lost on public transportation in these places, but considering Francesca has both been lost and found on multiple buses in Datong over the past half-decade she’s lived in China I was more than willing to trust her judgment. And what could’ve have been a 300 RMB (kwai in the local slang) taxi ride one-way turned into a 3 RMB bus ride where the worst thing that happened was that I banged my head on a short ceiling leaving the bus. Serves me right for being 6’2″ in a 5’5″ land.

Which is odd because Yungang’s modern entranceway is a gigantic combination of antique-style courtyards and an obnoxiously grandiose monastery on an island:

This went up in approximately a year ago, along with an artificial lake, an art gallery, and a really depressing cage with half a dozen peacocks.

Yungang is kind of like a warm-up in itself, both in terms of my month in China and the way the site was set up. The smaller caves are near the entrance, while the ancient artisans of the 5th – 7th centuries built their masterpieces near the end. The grottoes were first commissioned during the Northern Wei Period of the mid-5th century, and served as an important pilgrimage site on the easternmost portion of the Silk Road. Construction continued into the Tang Period (618-961 CE), and a new coat of paint and architectural restorations were undertaken later in the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911 CE). The amount of carving and patronage that went into these caves are incredible considering the remoteness of the site, and instead of explaining every cave like a boring history professor I’m just going to post the photos (and yes I know they’re lopsided in the blog):

These windows were interesting vantage points for an unfortunately incomplete Buddhist figure…that little Buddha is about five years old.
The smaller niches make for some great photogrammetry projects


This is where the Northern Wei got a little crazy and the Qing Dynasty butchered the repainting of the cave.


Wide angle lens = bad acid trip.
The Tommy Chong of Bodhisattvas
This is what I mean by 10000 x 10000 Buddhas.


The last five Buddhas along the Yungang cliff face are thought to have been carved to resembled the first five kings of the Northern Wei Dynasty of China (386 – 534 CE).
The Buddha on the right is only as imposing as it is because half the cliff-face covering it collapsed at some point – it should be way back in a niche.

We also got to work on creating some 3D models to compare with the ones we’re going to be looking at in Turfan, Gansu, and Sichuan – I’ll be posting that one when I get really bored on the 36 hour (formerly 30…thanks for the disclaimer, Francesca…) train ride from Xian to Turfan I’m taking tonight until the morning of the 9th.

While most visitors to Yungang first notice the sheer number of carvings in any specific cave, one thing that’s been really overlooked by Chinese scholars is the way that these caves were meant to be presented and how this affected their construction. Also important is how later builders saw these earlier caves and constructed in relation to them. At Yungang there is approximately four centuries of intense construction, but only the Buddhist motifs are ever studied. Francesca is interested especially in the shape of these caves, and even looking through the pictures above you can see the variety: some are small niches that are meant to be viewed from the outside, some are large subterranean caverns with multiple wings holding enormous Buddhas, some have supporting pillars, and some appear to be only accessible to a select few worshippers at any time. Understanding the way worship was experienced through the spaces built to house worshippers is especially important to understanding why caves were constructed the way they were. Without inscriptions, the iconography can only go so far.

Of course, suggest any of this to a Chinese scholar and they’d tell you that you’re being fantastical and unnecessary. Talk to an American scholar and they’d tell you the Chinese way was ridiculous and elitist. So, we find a balance between the two.

Speaking of which, since we’re now in Xian (home of the Terracotta Warriors) after spending a night aboard a hard sleeper train from Datong, we’re about to head to lunch with a scholar from Xian University, Yu Chen (Yu Laoshi), in order to pitch the research plan and get some support for our GIS work down in Sichuan. Rumor has it that the Ministry of Culture folks down in Chengdu (Sichuan’s capital) are becoming a little crabby that two lao wai (foreigners) are reinterpreting data with 21st century spatial tools instead of 19th century art-historical know-all, and even though our permits are pretty much set in stone, the wrong official waking up on the wrong side of the bed can veto anything.

So, the plan is to kick ass at this meeting, and afterward too, because I’m starting to like these caves. They’re kind of mind-blowingly awesome!

Oh yeah, just so you get a scale of Yungang…forgot to mention that everything was COLOSSAL!!!

Oh yeah, one last funny story: this taxi driver tried to fleece us for 300 RMB at the exit to Yungang by the carpark by trying to convince us that the bus was no longer running because it was snowing. Ten seconds later the bus shows up, no snow. I’ve never seen a taxi driver turn so red and have so many people laugh at him at the same time.

Worst. Con Artist. Ever.

Andrew Harris



2 thoughts on “07/01/17 – Ten Thousand To The Power of Ten Thousand Buddhas

  1. Thanks for your awesome post – I visited the Yungang grottoes last year but sadly didn’t know much about what we were looking at! It must be fascinating to study them in so much depth!


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