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The Maijishan Grottoes

The Ancient Treasure of the Maijishan Grottoes

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Just a few miles south of the Silk Road in Gansu Province, lies one of the most spectacular artistic treasure of China’s past – the Maijishan Grottoes, a series of 194 caves cut into the side of a rock face and adorned with more than 7,200 sculptures and over 1,000 square metres of murals. The name ‘Maijishan’, which means ‘wheat stack’ derives from the giant, haystack-like appearance of the hill which rises 142 metres above the otherwise flat but lush landscape.

This astonishing example of rock cut architecture goes as far back as the Later Qin era (384 – 417 AD) when Buddhism first reached China from India, and its construction and restoration extended over 12 subsequent dynasties, each era bringing with it the influence from new cultures and people.

Over the centuries it remained an attraction to the monks and artists who travelled along the Silk Road, some of whom chose to stay at Maijishan and offer their talents in the construction and decoration of these impressive grottoes.

The Maijishan grottoes

The Maijishan grottoes are cut into the side of the cliff-face and decorated by thousands of Buddhist statues. Credit: mke1963/flickr

The earliest written records of the Maijishan caves comes from the biography, ‘Memoirs of Eminent Monks’, which explores the lives of two monks Tanhong and Xuangao, who meditated at the grottoes along with more than three hundred disciples.  Xuangao later moved to the court of the local king where he remained until its conquest by the Northern Wei, when he, together with all the other inhabitants of the court, were forced to migrate and settle in the Wei capital. He died in 444 during a period of Buddhist persecution. Tanhung also left Maijishan during this period and travelled south, to somewhere in Cochin China, when in approximately 455, he burned himself to death.

The peak of construction at Maijishan occurred during the Western Wei and Northern Zhou dynasties during the 6 th century AD, and most of the sculptures also date back to this period. But the caves were continually added to and restored, right up to the beginning of the twentieth century.

Maijishan Sculptures

Most of the construction of Maijishan and its sculptures occurred in the 6 th century AD, but it continue for another fourteen centuries. Credit: Mozomiigel/flickr

The stone sculptures and statues that can be seen within the Maijishan caves are made of clay with the addition of some sort of binding agent, which was imported to the mountain from an unknown source, since the local rock was of too soft a consistency to sculpt. It is also unknown where the statues were made, or how they were hauled up into the caves.

Most of the statues, especially those inside the caves are ornately decorated. Many of them are painted and have kept their colour over countless centuries. Generally, the statues are in very good condition thanks to the intense efforts to protect and preserve them over the years. 

Well-preserved painted sculptures Maijishan grottoes

Well-preserved painted sculptures can be found in many of the Maijishan grottoes. Image source: Wikipedia

The sculptures have helped archaeologists to not only track the growth and advance of Chinese sculpture but the history and expansion of Buddhism in China, and the styles of statues reflect distinct eras and influences. For example, the sculptures of the Northern dynasties (369 – 581 AD) are characterized by slim figures, while the Sui and Tang dynasties (581 – 907 AD) feature plumper ones. The statues that appear around the 6 th century AD appear to have Indian features, while the sculptures of much later dynasties are more distinctly Chinese.

As well as enhancing knowledge about the ancient history of China, the Maijishan grottoes represent a beautiful and graceful testament to the work and faith of countless generations of monks and artisans.

One of the murals inside the Maijishan grottoes

One of the murals inside the Maijishan grottoes. Image source .

Featured image: The Maijishan Grottoes. Source: Wikimedia

References:

The Maijishan Grottoes - Artistic Treasure of China’s Past – Kuriositas

Maijishan: Rock cut architecture and 7,000 Buddhist sculptures in Tianshui – Atlas Obscura

Maijishan Grottoes of history of art – Chinese cave temples

Maijishan Scenic Spots - UNESCO

By April Holloway

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