The Xumishan ("Xumi Mountain") Grottoes lie on the eastern side of Mount Xumi in Guyuan County of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, some 50 kilometers south of the village (county town) of Guyuan and some 300 kilometers south of the city of Yinchuan. There are more than 100 grottoes in the mountain, all of which are collectively called the "Xumishan Grottoes". "Xumi" is the transliteration of a Sanskrit word meaning "treasure mountain" ("shan" itself means "mountain" in Chinese).
On Mount Xumi there are peaks atop peaks, craggy, bizarrely-formed boulders strewn here and there, and thatches of very tall, very straight pine trees. There are also some parts of the mountain – especially the rounded, time-hewn sandstone area where most of the grottoes are located – that are completely bald, i.e., devoid not only of vegetation, but of soil. In sum, the mountain presents landscapes that are both uniquely beautiful, and strange.
The Xumishan Grottoes date mainly from the Northern (CE 386-588) Dynasties period of the Southern and Northern (CE 386-588) Dynasties era, though further grottoes were added during the course of subsequent dynasties. The locale on the mountain where the first grottoes were chiseled was formerly a giant Buddhist temple (Jingyun Temple) during the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty. Decades later, during the first reign (CE 1436-1449) of Emperor Zhengtong of the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, the temple was renamed "Yuanguang Temple". There are still grottoes in the Yuanguang Temple area, as well as a number of other grottoes in other areas on the mountain. Yuanguang Temple is one of the more prominent scenic sites within Xumishan Grottoes Scenic Area.
The first grottoes of Mount Xumi were initially chiseled during the middle to late period of the Northern Wei (CE 386-533) Dynasty. Unfortunately, years of neglect that has permitted a natural deterioration of the grottoes (primarily a deterioration of the state of the stone figures within the grottoes), due mainly to wind and rain erosion as well as to earthquakes – combined with some destruction at the hand of man – have taken their toll on the grottoes of Xumishan.
Today there are hardly more than 20 grottoes with well-preserved contents on the mountain, most of which are located in the five scenic sites of Dafo Tower, Taohua Cave, Xiangguo Temple, Yuanguang Temple, and Zisun Palace. Among all the remaining grottoes of Xumishan with well-preserved contents, grottoes nos. 45 and 46 have fared best, with the largest number of intact stone statues (more than 40 such statues). In addition, although grotto no. 51 was somewhat damaged by earthquake, it remains one of the grottoes with the largest number of intact statues.
Wind and rain erosion have also taken their toll on the grottoes themselves, though the general shape of the grotto can still be seen, revealing a vestibule, or anteroom, a main room, and two smaller rooms, one on either side of the main room. The main room has a width of 26 meters, a depth of roughly 12 meters, and a height of slightly more than 12 meters. There are three statues in the shrine of the main room: a Buddha statue and two Bodhisattva statues. In the adjacent altar are three more Buddha statues.
Many of the statues of the best-preserved grottoes are in excellent condition, being artistic rarities among all the stone statues throughout China. The grottoes of Xumishan are known the world over, as are the grottoes of Dunhuang, Yungang, and Longmen, for their precious religious and cultural heritage, not only to the Chinese people, but to all mankind. The government of China therefore took the decision in 1982 to offer the grottoes of Xumishan official recognition as one of the country's Top-Priority National Protected Historical Sites. In 2008, Xumishan Grottoes was put on the World Monuments Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites (World Monuments Watch is an organ of the NGO, World Monuments Fund).