The Yungang Grottoes have over 250 caves and 50,000 statues which range from a few centimetres to 17 metres in height, and are a repository of early Buddhist art in China.
They were begun during the Northern Wei dynasty which was established during a turbulent time in China’s history by one of the tribes of Xianbei, an ancient Mongolian nomadic people.
After conquering most of northern China they quickly assimilated to the more advanced Han culture, and played a major part in introducing Buddhism to the country, and making it the state religion.
Despite one short period of persecution during a later Emperor’s reign Buddhism continued to flourish under their short rule, which lasted only around 150 years.
The original capital of the dynasty was at Datong, and it is near there that the caves were excavated; in the latter part of the dynasty, the capital was moved south to Louyang, so that the work on the caves lasted approx. 100 years.
The statues themselves are still quite Indianised in form at the beginning of construction, but started making concessions to Chinese aesthetics later.
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