"They [the Dazu Rock Carvings] are remarkable for their aesthetic quality, their rich diversity of subject matter, both secular and religious, and the light that they shed on everyday life in China during this period. They provide outstanding evidence of the harmonious synthesis of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism."
- Official 1999 UNESCO statement when Dazu
Grottoes was listed as a World Heritage Site
Dazu Grottoes, aka the Dazu Rock Carvings, are located in Dazu County, Chongqing Municipality*, the closest of which carvings are situated about about 160 kilometers west of the city of Chongqing. The earliest of the Dazu Rock Carvings were carved on the walls of grottoes that were excavated in the first year of the Yonghui (CE 650-655) period of the reign (CE 650-683) of Emperor Gao Zong of the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty. The carvings depict both religious (either Buddhist, Confucian, or Taoist) as well as everyday secular motifs. They consist of a large series of figures, some quite large and many in fact tiny, spread out over a vast mountainous area and whose creation spanned more than a millenia, beginning in the early Tang Dynasty and ending during the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty. They include over 50,000 statues and countless inscriptions and epigraphs, all of which were carved either upon, or from (usually in niches) open cliff walls, or upon the walls or floors of excavated grottoes, some large, some small.
What makes these carvings unique is not only that they include secular motifs, but that they represent a broad, popular effort, undertaken not only by emperors and religious figures, but also by ordinary citizens from all social classes. The only prerequisite seems to have been the ability to work with stone or to possess the wherewithal to hire - or inspire - others to do so. The motifs include not only Buddha and Bodhisattva figures, but also figures of monarchs, ministers, military officers and other higher-ranking government officials, as well as rank-and-file monks and nuns, lower-ranking government officials, performing artist and even jailers and executioners.
Though the earliest figures date from CE 650, the bulk of the carvings and inscriptions were created from the 9th century to the 12th century. One of the driving forces behind the carvings that were made in the 12th century, i.e., during the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty, was a Buddhist monk by the name of Zhao Qifeng, who devoted his life to this leviathan and popular effort. Zhao Qifeng spent the better part of his long life (he lived to be 70 years old) raising the funds for, and overseeing, the carving of the figures at Mount Baoding (Baodingshan). Before him, the military governor and Prefect of Changzhou, Wei Junjing, had devoted himself to raising funds for and overseeing the creation of the carvings on Mount Bei (Beishan) - the other main site of the Dazu Rock Carvings (other, somewhat less dazzling Dazu Rock Carvings are located on nearby Nanshan, Shimenshan and Shizhuanshan) - during the 9th century, i.e., during the late Tang Dynasty.
It was during the difficult interim period between the relatively stable Tang and Song Dynasties, i.e., during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (CE 907-979) period, that the continuation of the carvings at Dazu was undertaken especially by "unofficial", or ordinary, folk, whose motifs were often secular and included the aforementioned diverse assortment of human figures, but also by dedicated local religious persons, including rank-and-file monks and nuns.
The Beishan (Northern Mountain) Rock Carvings
Work on the Beishan Rock Carvings, many of which are carved on the walls of, or from the floors of, grottoes that were expressly excavated for this purpose, while others were carved into niches on cliff faces, began in CE 892, towards the end of the Tang Dynasty. The work at Mt. Beishan, which would continue for another 250 years, stretching beyond the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period into the Song Dynasty, resulted in roughly 300 niches containing more than 10,000 Buddha, Bodhisattva and secular figures.
The most impressive work at Beishan, by general consensus, is the Wheel of the Universe, or Wheel of Fate, which symbolizes the eternal workings, or rotation, of the universal Buddhist laws that govern both the physical as well as the metaphysical world. The Wheel of the Universe is located in Xinshenche Grotto, in the center of which is the famous statue of Puxian Buddha (aka Buddha Sakyamuni, the Indian monk who rediscovered the Buddhist path to enlightenment), flanked by a number of smaller Bodhisattva figures depicting the various religious-philosophical "faces", or facets, of Buddhism.
The figures are arranged in a symmetrical fashion, forming a set piece, as it were, or an integral whole. All are carved with a high degree of artistic skill, and in a lifelike manner, with the lines and folds of their garments accentuating their highly naturalistic, well-proportioned bodies. The figure of Samantha Bhadra (Pu Xian Pu Sa, in Sanskrit), or the Bodhisattva of Universal Benevolence, was meticulously crafted with fine, delicate lines in order to highlight Samantha Bhadra's femininity, her graceful features, her soft skin, her gentle and tranquil expression, and her elegant, dignified posture. The beauty of this figure, both with regard to the subject matter itself as well as with regard to the artist's painstaking effort in rendering it in a naturalistic manner, has earned it the title of the "Venus of the East".
During the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, which, surprisingly, was a very productive period at Beishan, nearly 10,000 figures were carved at Fowan (aka Buddha Bay, or Buddha Crescent), Yingpanpo ("po" means "slope"), Guanyinpo (Guanyin is the Thousand-Hand Goddess - see Baodingshan Rock Carvings below), Bei Ta Si (Northern Tower Temple), and Fo'er cliff, as well as at other Beishan sites. The figures at Fowan, a crescent-shaped gully that is divided into a northern and a southern section - most of the works of the southern section, the first to be developed, stem from the late Tang Dynasty and the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, while those of the northern section stem from the Song Dynasty - are the most concentrated.
A 300-meter-long, 7-meter-high cliff houses 290 small grottoes, replete with carved figures, 264 cliff-face niches with carved figures, 55 inscriptions, 8 stone pillars featuring engravings of classic Buddhist sutra themes, and 6 stone tablets. The Weijunjing, Caijing nad Wenxiao Tablets are unparalleled in Chinese cultural history. Not only are they exquisite treasures of handwriting in their own right, they also represent the sole source of certain data that would otherwise be missing from the historical record. Some of the figures are "free-standing" (though their base is part and parcel of the stone cliff underneath them), some are in intaglio (i.e., facade-like, with only the front emerging from the background stone), while others are a combination of the free-standing and intaglio methods. One of the most famous intaglio figures is an image of the Bodhisattva Manjusri ministering to patients (Bodhisattva Manjusri was the inspiration for the superhuman (mythological) figure, Wenshu Guangfa Tianzun, in the 16th century Chinese novel, Investiture of the Gods, aka Fengshen Yanyi).
The Baodingshan Rock Carvings
The rock carvings on the cliffs of Mt. Baoding commenced in CE 1179 during the Song Dynasty, and were undertaken by a local Buddhist monk, Zhao Qifeng, who had dedicated his life to this work. The most singular aspect of the carvings at Mt. Baoding is that most of them - those that were carved on the initiative of Zhao Qifeng, in any case - form a carefully planned whole. Completed in CE 1249, these carvings, taken as a whole, portray an exhaustive catalogue of the Buddhist rites of the Mi sect, a sub-sect of the mainstream Han Chinese sect of Buddhism. They are carved on those sections of the cliff face of a gully that lend themselves to such a project, the most impressive section of the gully being a ½ kilometer long uninterrupted stretch of cliff face called Dafowan (Great Buddha Crescent), which varies in height from 15 meters to 30 meters. The planning "artist", Zhao Qifeng, rather than leave the placement of these statues to happenstance, carefully exploited his medium's proportions to situate the statues in places that would be appropriate to their relative significance. The result is that Baodingshan - and Dafowan in particular - possesses an inherent harmony that is unsurpassed in Chinese grotto art. There can be no doubt that Zhao Qifeng also profited from the knowledge gained from earlier Chinese grotto art, for the workmanship of the art of Baodingshan represents the pinnacle of Chinese grotto art.
Most of the carvings at Dafowan pertain to Buddhism, either directly or indirectly (Buddism is employed to convey the Confucian belief in filial piety, or respect for one's ancestors, including respect for one's parents and grandparents, just as Buddhism, all-embracing as it is, is often employed to convey Taoist principles), althouh there are some secular carvings at Dafowan that belong to Chinese folklore, such as The Spinning Girl and the Cow-Herd. The Dafowan carvings can be divided into four sections with each its separate, albeit, interrelated, theme. The theme of the first section is the preservation of Buddhist laws and the knowledge of the six transmigrations and their principal and subsidiary causes. The theme of the second section is the Mi sect doctrines expressed in the Three Sages of Huayan (Sutra) figures and the Bodhisattva figure of the Thousand-Hand Goddess Guanyin, or Goddess of Wisdom.
The Huayan Sutra (Avatamsaka Sutra in Sanskrit), centers on the three sages, Shakyamuni, Manjusri, and Samantha Bhadra. Bodhisattva Guanyin is traditionally depicted riding on the back of a lion; here she stands, with an eye in each of her thousand hands, but one (the Bodhisattva Guanyin at Baodingshan actually has 1007 hands), the message being that Bodhisattva Guanyin is all-seeing/ all-knowing, hence her nickname as the Goddess of Wisdom. The one hand that does not have an eye in its palm holds instead a tower that symbolically contains a million sacred Buddhist scriptures, also a departure from the traditional image of Bodhisattva Guanyin.
The theme of the third section is Sakyamuni entering nirvana (aka Reclining Buddha), and the accompanying moral state of this stage of enlightenment, which is of course the ultimate goal for a Buddhist. The theme of the fourth section concerns examples of Buddhist life that either lead toward nirvana (the path of purity) or that result in the cycle of continued rebirth, with its concomitant pain and suffering.
The rock carvings of Dazu Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are a precious cultural heritage that share Chinese national and now world recognition with the other famous examples of Chinese grotto art, namely, the art of the Duhuang, Longmen, and Yungang Grottoes.
* There are three super-sized metropolitan regions, or administrative municipalities, in China that are independent of their respective surrounding provinces, much in the way that the District of Columbia (D.C.) in the United States of America, which houses the U.S. capital, Washington (usually written as Washington, D.C., to distinguish it from the coastal state of Washington in the northwest corner of the 48 contiguous U.S. states), is independent of the surrounding states of Maryland and Virginia. The other two administrative municipalities are Beijing Municipality - which is independent of its surrounding province, Hebei - and Shanghai Municipality, which is independent of Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces.