Influenced by the Buddhist site of Bamiyan in Afghanistan and the caves of Kizil and Kuqa (in Xinjiang), the stone carvings of Yungang are the earliest of their kind in China. Hewn in three stages between 460 and 524, they show the movement from a heavy reliance on Indian and central Asian artistic models to an emergence of Chinese traditions. The caves numbered 16 to 20 (the "Five Caves of Tan Yao") were carved between 460 and 465 under the supervision of a Buddhist monk. Caves 1, 2, and 5 to 13 were carved in the second stage, which began in 470 and ended when the Wei dynasty capital was moved from Datong (at that time Ping Cheng) to Luoyang in 494. The remaining caves, carved without imperial patronage, are less notable.

For sheer size, Caves 16 through 20 are the most impressive. Made in part to honor the reigning emperor, Wen Cheng, and his four predecessors, each cave contains one central Buddha figure (representing an emperor) and his attendants. The best of them, Cave 18, contains the colossal image of Sakyamuni, the 10 arhats (enlightened disciples) associated with him, and two attendant Buddhas. The Buddha to the right of Sakyamuni has a webbed hand -- one of the 32 marks of a superior being. His robe was originally red, his face white, and his hair black. Traces of his green mustache and beard can still be seen, and echo the art of Iran.

Largest of the Buddhas in the Tan Yao caves is the sitting figure in Cave 20, now exposed by the collapse of the top and sides of the cliff. Holes for beams indicate that a wooden structure was built to protect the Buddha, but that, too, is long gone. The squared figures and static style are typical of this early period of Northern Wei statuary; they also suggest that the artists may have worked from sketches or drawings brought back by pilgrims from Indian holy sites. Notice in the later carvings the fluidity of line in the postures and draped clothing.

There is much more going on in the second group of caves, many of which depict stories from Buddhist scriptures. Cave 1 is interesting for its Chinese-style architectural features in the bas-reliefs of buildings, though many of the images have eroded. Cave 3 is the largest of the caves. The fuller bodies of the three Buddhist images it contains suggest it was carved as late as the Sui or the Tang dynasties. Caves 5 and 6 were both carved before 494, but the four-story wooden facade dates from 1651. Cave 5 houses the largest carving at Yungang -- a stunning Sakyamuni in meditation. In Cave 6 look for the two Buddhas, Sakyamuni and Prabhutaratna, facing each other. This customary pairing alludes to an episode from the Teaching of the Lotus Sutra. In this episode, a stupa (shrine) containing the relics of the Prabhutaratna Buddha appears in the sky. Surrounded by Buddhas and bodhisattvas, Sakyamuni rises to the stupa and unlocks it with his finger. Out comes the extinct Prabhutaratna, who praises and congratulates him. Other episodes from the life of Sakyamuni decorate the walls. On the entrance arch of Cave 8 are contented images of Shiva and Vishnu (two of several Hindu deities who found their way into Buddhism). The discs they hold represent the sun and the moon. Some sources identify the small bird on Vishnu's chest, and the larger one on which his feet rest, as the mythical garuda -- the vehicle (and disciple) of Vishnu; others, less convincingly, call them phoenixes, a Chinese motif. Traces of ancient Greece appear in the classical bow with inward curve at its center. (As in this relief, the bow is commonly held in the left "wisdom" hand. Presumably the missing right "method" hand held an arrow.) A seated Maitreya Buddha (Future Buddha) dominates Cave 13. Most delightful about this statue is the figurine of a four-armed attendant who stands on the Buddha's thigh while supporting its huge raised arm -- the artists' solution to a crack in the stone. Allow yourself at least 2 hours to see the main caves.