China Datong Yungang Buddhist Grottoes

Buddhist Caves unesco heritage


China shanxi location map

Buddhists, merchant's and royal patrons planted a lot of cultural heritage in the province of Shanxi. When trade routes extended all the way to central Asia and India, merchant's did not only bring goods but also ideas with them. The Yungang Buddhist caves are a result of this long interaction.

Another important area for Buddhist development in China is Wutai Shan. This mountain area has a large collection of important temples and is a great travel destination too but

Shanxi province has more to offer:

• Yungang grottoes

• Datong city historical interests:

• Hanging monastery (aka hanging temple)

• Pagoda of the Fogong Temple

• Wutai Shan (Shan is Chinese for mountain, ShanXi = Mountain West)

• Pingyao


Datong is the city close to the Yungang Buddhist grottoes and host to the airport. The Dragon wall of Datong was the first place we visited. These Datong dragons are four-clawed dragons, four claws where reserved for nobility and certain high ranking officials. Only an depiction of a Imperial Dragon is allowed to have five claws. You can find two more dragon walls of this kind in China. One at the Forbidden city and the other at BeiHai Park in Beijing.

At the time of our visit (2009) most temples in Datong where closed for renovation also many streets where closed, making getting around difficult.

Yungang Grottoes: unesco heritage

! Note, many Yungang grottoes are under renovation from 2013 onward, inform yourself before you go !

The grottoes where constructed during the reign of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 - 534 CE). An abrupt escarpment in the landscape was ideal for sculptors to dig out niches and grottoes. Inside you can see marvellous carved Buddha's in all sizes imaginable.

The area has many coal mines and coal is used everywhere. As a result coal dust settles down on the statues and other pollutants also erode the stone.

However when we visited hundreds upon hundreds (if not thousands) of trees where planted. Trucks loaded with trees where driving around everywhere. There is a strong impulse to make the area more clean, green and organized.

After the persecutions of Buddhism under emperor Wu (446 CE), who favoured Daoism, the Northern Wei dynasty initiated a revival of the Buddhist religion.

Making a statement in stone that Buddhism was in favour again, the monk Tan Yao set the construction activities in full swing. He directed the construction of 5 grottoes at Datong currently numbered 16 to 20.

Not only the nobility and high officials funded carving of sculptures also common people teamed up to sponsor a project in order to improve there personal Dharma for there next lives.

The main theme of the depictions at Yungang grottoes are about the live of the Buddha. The sculpture style is still influenced by Gandhara, Indian and Central Asian styles.

But before the grottoes completed the Dynasty moved it's capital to Luoyang in Henan Province. Once again they started constructing Buddhist grottoes on a large scale known as the Longmen grottoes.

Hanging monastery:

The hanging monastery (aka hanging temple) is a relatively small temple precariously build on the cliff side. Its an impressive site. And conveniently on the route from Datong to Wutai Shan.

The monastery was founded during the Northern Wei dynasty (386-584), although much was reconstructed during following dynasties, as well as in more recent times.

Although the hanging monastery is mainly considered to be a Buddhist temple, Confucian and Daoist deities are also worshipped in this temple. The area is mainly sacred to Daoism the indigenous religion of China.

Wutai mountain: unesco heritage

Wutai Shan, Five (Wu) Terrace (Tai) Mountain (Shan). One of China's holy mountains and of great important for Buddhism in China.

There is a good road to the top of the mountain with nice views. At the top you have to pay an entrance fee to the area and you will descent into a valley that is surrounded by the five terraces. In the valley you will find the village of Taihuai that caters to tourists during the summer and here you will find some basic hotels and restaurants.

Wutai has many large and historical important monasteries. The dominating Sarira Dagoba (white stupa) of the Tayuan Temple is visible from far and a good point for orientation. It was constructed in 1301, during the Yuan Dynasty, by a Nepali architect Arniko. Arniko also designed the "great white dagoba" at the Miaoying temple in Beijing.

When to visit Wutai Mountain:

People in the village only live at Wutai during the summer tourist peak season. In Winter time the area in not accessible because of snow and only the monks and nuns live there.

Pagoda of Fogong Temple:

On our way back to Datong we stopped at the Pagoda of Fogong temple. It is located halfway between Wutai mountain and Datong city.

This impressive wooden Pagoda was build during the Liao Dynasty (907-1125) that had it´s capital in Datong. It was build as part of a larger temple complex to honer the emperor's mother's hometown. Build in 1056 only the pagoda remains of the original complex and is considered the oldest surviving wooden Pagoda in China.

At the time of my visit (2009) a brand new temple behind the pagoda was about to finish construction. You probably be able to enter it by now.

Transportation and accommodation:

Our route took us from Datong to Wutai Shan with the Hanging temple and Fogong Pagoda on route as stop overs. For this trip we hired a taxi, the driver has specialised in driving tourists around in the Shanxi province.

We arrived early in the morning at Datong airport and drove straight to the Yungang grottoes. After several hours we set out to the hanging monastery. Within that same day we arrived at Wutai mountain with time to spare for a walk around.

The next day we got up early and looked around at Wutai Shan more. If you want to visit temples in the surrounding mountains you need at least a day. It is best to plan in advance what temples you like to visit.

Wutai Shan's status as world heritage site did really speed up development of infrastructural projects and renovations. Personally I have my questions about the historical accuracy of these "renovations".

Large amounts of Chinese tourist groups visit Wutai so don't expect tranquillity, loud disco music from the bars and café´s combined with traffic in the valley will pull your senses into the here and now. (2009)

Shanxi province:

Shanxi is deeply rooted in Chinese history. Cities like Datong and Taiyuan played important roles in China's cultural and religious development. Specially during the Tang Dynasty. The Province's most important attractions are:


When you drive around the province you will notice the special landscape. Shanxi is for a big part made out of highly fertile Loess. This silty soil erodes very easily and the landscape is marked by ravines as a result.

farmer shanxi loess donkey
Shanxi farmer on the loess plateau sowing his patch of land with his donkey (2009)

Eroding loess plateaus give some impressive views but also engineering problems for new railroads being build currently. It is relatively easy to build cave dwellings in this soft soil though. You find them in Shanxi but Shaanxi province (next to Shanxi province) is more famous for this type of vernacular architecture.

Be sure to try some traditional Shanxi noodles they come in a variety of tastes and are best with some Chinese beer.

Yungang Buddhist grottoes China near Datong city gallery
Historical context:

The history of Wutai Shan dates to the beginnings of Buddhism in China. The first temple built on Mount Wutai was sponsored by a Emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty in 68 CE, according to records written during the Ming Dynasty. At that time Indian / Kushan Buddhist masters where introducing Buddhism in China.

Throughout history imperial courts where the main sponsors of the monasteries on Wutai Shan. In return for this support the Buddhist monasteries held festivals for the ruling house.

The dominant deity worshipped on Wutai Shan is the Bodhisattva Manjusri associated with transcendent wisdom. Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism) arrived later to Wutai Shan and coexisted with the worshipping of Manjusri.

The Qing Emperors undertook many pilgrimages to Mount Wutai as part of their policy to show solidarity with Mongolians and Tibettan, in the hope to strengthen the stability of the empire.


location :


Pu ming wang logo