The Yungang Grottoes are carved out of sandstone cliffs on Wuzhou Mountain, located near the city of Datong, Shanxi Province. The Yungang Grottoes were dug over a span of forty years (CE 453-493), during the Northern Wei (CE 386-533) Dynasty, which was part of the Northern (CE 386-588) Dynasties period of the Northern and Southern (CE 386-588) Dynasties period (note that while the Northern Dynasties period spans the entire Northern and Southern Dynasties period, the Southern Dynasties period doesn't). The Yungang Grottoes, which stretch some 1000 meters continuously from east to west, are one of the four famous grotto complexes throughout China (the other three are: the Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang, the Longmen Grottoes of Luoyang and the Maijishan Grottoes of Tianshui).
It should also be pointed out that at the time of the digging of the Yungang Grottoes proper (the sculptures and other statues stem from the period CE 520-525, i.e., towards the end of the Northern Wei Dynasty), the city of Datong was the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty; the capital was moved to the city of Luoyang (home of the Longmen Grottoes) in CE 494.
Of the 53 original grottoes of the Yungang Grotto complex, only 45 remain intact. These remaining 45 grottoes contain some 250 niches and 51,000 statues, the latter ranging from a few centimeters in height to 17 meters high. Grottoes No. 5 and No. 6 are particularly impressive as they are very colorful and intricately detailed, compared to other grottoes here which contain few, but large, figures. At the other extreme, the 14-meter-high seated Buddha of Sakyamuni outside Grotto No. 20 commands respect not only for its size, but also for the face of the figure, which is characterized by soft lines and a pair of eyes that radiate intellectual and spiritual vigor.
Unfortunately, these precious grottoes have suffered severe and sustained degradation, both at the hand of nature (in the form of exposure to the elements, including driven sand) and at the hand of man, aka pollution, especially in the form of coal dust and and other industrial-produced grime which has marred the beauty of these fragile grottoes. In fact, the international community has begun to show an interest in the preservation of all of the old grottoes of China, including the Yungang Grottoes. For example, the Getty Conservation Institute has teamed up with the government of the PRC in an effort to halt the degradation of the Mogao and Yungang Grottoes, recognizing that these grottoes are part of world culture. In that regard, a word or two on the cultural signifance of the grottoes – or perhaps more properly, the cultural signifance of the contents of the grottoes – is in order...
The emergence of the art of the Yungang Grottoes (and the same applies even more emphatically to the Magao Grottoes) is intimately linked to the Silk Road that connected China to the outside world from the 1st century BCE to the 16th century CE. The Silk Road was of course primarily a trade route, but it was also a communications route in the broadest sense, i.e., ideas traversed from east to west and vice-versa (the very notion of East versus West surely stems from the geography of the overland Silk Road route*, which, from Chang'an (present-day Xi'an) in the east to Constantinople (Istanbul) in the west, very nearly describes a straight, horizontal, east-west line). One such idea that travelled from east to west during the era of the Silk Road was Buddhism. Indeed, the Magao Grottoes lie directly on the original, northern Silk Road route.
At the time of the interrior adornment of the Magao and Yungang Grottoes, Buddhism was in ascendance in China. Less than a century later another religious idea, which would prove to be pernicious to these Buddhist grottoes, would travel in the reverse direction: Islam. A number of the images of these grottoes, especially those representing the human form, would be effaced by zealous Muslims (though, in fairness, it must be said that much of the effacement seen on the buddha figures of Yungang Grottoes is due to unchecked natural erosion and manmade pollution).
The unique beauty of the Yungang Grottoes was recognized almost immediately upon their completion. Li Dao-Yuan (CE 466-527), a renowned geographer in China during the Northern Wei Dynasty, once said, "The 53 grottoes, carved out of cliffs, are vivid, grand and rarely seen elsewhere; the mountain shrines and waterside palaces co-exist so harmoniously here". The most culturally significant figures in the Yungang Grottoes, after the Buddha figures, is perhaps the statues of the five Chinese emperors. These important works of art are among the few historical relics to survive the Northern Wei Dynasty. The international community has been somewhat tardy in recognizing the contribution of these grottoes to our common cultural heritage, but it has finally responded favorably. The invaluable work of the Ghetty Conservation Institute has already been mentioned above. In 2001, UNESCO officially recognized the cultural importance of the Yungang Grottoes by including them on UNESCO's annual World Cultural Heritage List.
There will be two free large-scale performances to show the culture and the process of worshiping the Buddha in the Northern Wei Dynasty in Yungang Grottoes. One is to eulogize Tan Yao Master who is the imperial eminent Monk in the Northern Wei Dynasty and show the folk customs at that time. It is held at 9:30, 10:30 and 15:00 on Tan Yao Square every day. The performances include the folk acrobatics, allegro, the tea ceremony and music and dance shows. Officials and the public gather there to praise Tan Yao’s great achievements and his virtue.
The other is a large-scale parade of the emperor’s worship of the Buddha in the Northern Wei Dynasty. The show is held at 11:30 in the morning and 16:00 in the afternoon. It is located on the Lotus Boulevard which is in front of the 20th cave. The parade consists of the emperor, empress, civil officials, military ministers, maids, imperial guards, monks, dancers, musicians, etc. It is in order to reproduce the royal worship scene in the Northern Wei Dynasty. The performance is to pray the peace and prosperity for the country and is divided into three parts. Part one is to make a pilgrimage to the Buddha. The emperor, empress and officials worship in front of the Grotto. The second part: the emperor gets off the sedan to look back to the Buddha, while all the imperial dancers are dancing. The last part is that all the warriors are waving the flag with great vigor when the emperor tries to look back.The performance starts from now on and ends on October 31, 2012 because of the weather. It estimates that the show will be on from April to October next year.
* A second "Silk Road", this one by sea, replaced the overland Silk Road when the cost of Arab "toll fees" (beginning with the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty, trade along the Silk Road was increasingly controlled by Arabs, who exacted increasingly exorbitant transit fees) eventually made alternative transport by sea financially attractive, thus bringing an end to the era of camel caravans that had crossed the vast deserts of Central Asia ever since the 1st century BCE. The overland Silk Road route began to decline towards the end of the 15th century, and dried up to a trickle in the beginning of the 16th century. The demise of the overland route was, however, as much due to political instability along the route as it was due to increasing "toll fees". Successful trade – at least of the legal sort – requires a certain degree of peaceful cooperation between local (and tribal), regional, and nationial entities. Where this is lacking, trade suffers.