The Longmen Grottoes are caves that hold over 100,000 stone sculptures that are manifestations of Chinese Buddhist art.
The carvings were created after Emperor Xianwen moved the Northern Wei capital to Luoyang in 493, and the tradition continued with the Tang Dynasty in the 7th and 8th centuries. The site also holds more than 60 stupas and 2,800 inscriptions carved on steles.
Community Perspective: The site’s strength lies in the multitude of Buddhist carvings that are present and the riverside setting. Solivagant recalls his visit in 1978, while Frederik explains the differences between the Northern Wei and Tang art.
Map of Longmen GrottoesLoad map
The Longmen Grottoes are a huge area of Buddhist caves and statues carved into the hillsides of two opposing hills along the Yi River. Longmen means Dragon's Gate. There are more than 100.000 statues ranging from tiny (2.5cm) to huge (17m) in size. The site was built primarily during the Tang dynasty (600-900CE), but first carvings were done a bit before (493CE).
I came on a day trip from Xian. Honestly, I didn't expect much as the title is really not helping. But after I came and saw the scope of the area and the sheer abundance of carvings, I was very glad I came. This is a stellar site and should be included in a visit to Xian.
Via fast rail you can easily travel to Xian and Zhengzhou, the next major cities. Xian is a must see for any reputable WHS traveller for the Terracotta Army.
The fast rail station in Luoyang is aptly named Luoyang Longmen and is located South of town (as so many other fast train stations in China). While included in the name, the Grottoes are yet even further to the South and you will have to get some transport (cab, bus).
If you plan to combine the Grottoes with a visit to the Shaolin Temple (Dengfeng), you should get a driver at the train station and negotiate a fixed price for the whole day. I paid 500 RMB I think. A driver (not taxi) contacted me when I exited the train station and it seemed pretty fair. We got along splendidly. PM me if you want his contact data. It would be good to have a local phone number.
Getting In and Around
The ticket office and the actual entry to the site are fairly far apart (>2km). They operate a shuttle bus to take you to the actual entry from the ticket office. You can also walk as I did. But it's really not a nice walk, so you should go with the bus. If you plan to walk, just follow the road along the river to the hills and then cross the river via the bridge.
The bulk of the Grottoes are on the west side of the river. This is where you start your visit. Visiting the grottoes involves some climbing stairs up and down as they are built fairly high into the hillside.
Under normal circumstances the tour is a circuit as there is a foot bridge at the end of the west side. When I visited (January 2020) the bridge was closed for repairs, so I would have had to backtrack to the main entry and jump on another shuttle bus to get to the East entry. I decided to skip on the visit and returned to where my driver was picking me up.
While You Are There
A visit to Longmen without going to the Shaolin temples around Dengfeng would be in vain. I managed to see both in a packed day trip from Xian. But the whole day felt rather too squeezed.
The Luoyang area (as so many others in China) holds plenty of sites, being a former capital city. The main site of the city is the White Horse Temple which is part of yet another Silk Road (T) nomination.
After a long bus journey from Luoyang train station, I was at Longmen bus stop without any problems, but the thing I encountered was a large complex of well designed mock up traditional village to serve tourist spending. I had to walk through this fake village with countless shops selling souvenirs you can find everywhere in China for almost 15 minutes, a real exhausted experience from tourism industry. Thankfully that beyond the village was a beautiful and peaceful landscape of riverside garden spanning from the village to the limestone cliffs located both side of the river forming a pretty river valley where ancient Chinese named this area “The Dragon Gate” or Longmen.
With the hefty fee of 120 RMB, I went under the arch bridge which cleverly used as an entrance gate engraving Longmen name in traditional Chinese alphabet, a real unique as other Longmen sign in other places using simplified alphabet, a really nice small detail if you know Chinese. After passing tourist information center, the wonderland of hundreds of grottoes was appeared. For over 200 years, artists were busy for craving the striking white limestone to hold thousand of small Buddha statues, a real religious devotion transforming the cliff to be looked like a large emmental cheese. After in-depth admiration, the art of Longmen was divided into two styles – northern Wei style and Tang style.
From my perspective, northern Wei Buddhist art was quite strange; a collision of many central and eastern Asian art elements, a face of Buddha was hard to explain as it was unique in its own kind with oval face, the out proportionate body and the larger than usual ears but exquisite cloth line depiction. The best of northern Wei was Three Binyang Cave, with three grottoes and three totally contrast Buddha statues, noted for the right grotto has funny posed Buddha with Churchill’s victory finger. I have to admit that northern Wei was not my favorite or ideal Buddhist art in my humble opinion, but for the Tang groups I really appreciated to see.
Tang art was developed after northern Wei and in Longmen could be found in Fengxian Si, a large group of statues with Buddha and guardians. The famous Losana Buddha is one of the iconic images in China believed to be modeled after the face of Empress Wu, the only woman who ruled China by her own right and had been regarded as Mona Lisa of the orient for its beautiful and real life face, not only Losana, the face of the guardians were also wonderful, Tang style had add the expression to the face of the statues, and these made a great contrast to Northern Wei ones, the statues also have unique illusive proportion of head and body, a real great art.
After exit, I walked to another side of the river for great view and then used the arch bridge crossing the river, the same one that used as an entrance gate, and back to the tourist village. All in all Longmen was a great place to visit, since this was my only and first Chinese Buddhist cave I saw, so I could not make any comparison to other Chinese cave in WHS list, but if you want to see the zenith of Tang Buddhist art period, Longmen was the place to pay visit and admire the art representing one of the most sophisticated time in Chinese history.
The Longmen Grottoes are located about 15 kilometers south of Luoyang. I arrived there by taxi in the late afternoon. There's a large sign just past the entrance that it is forbidden to take pictures, except "for personal souvenir". The Chinese were happily snapping away though, so after some hesitation, I did the same. The many sculptures are well visible within their caves. Most of them have their heads smashed, a result of the Cultural Revolution.
The two highlights for me were the Wanfo Cave and the Binyang Cave. The Wanfo Cave is were 15,000 small statues of Buddha are chiseled in the walls of the cave. Binyang is the biggest area, where the huge statues are almost out in the open.
Across the bridge, on the East Hill, there are more grottoes. I found these less spectacular than the ones on the West Hill. It is worth to get over anyway because there's a great overview of all the caves on the other side. The enormity of it all becomes much clearer then.
It is tempting of course to compare these carvings to the ones I saw earlier this trip in Dazu. The Longmen Grottoes are from a much earlier period however. They lack the colouring and the details of social life that characterize Dazu. The interest of the Longmen Grottoes lies in the size of the area and the multitude of Buddhist carvings that are present.
Robert D. Fiala
Indeed, this is one of the many outstanding Chinese masterpieces, added to over many centuries. It was a most thrilling experience to visit Longmen.
My first visit to Mainland China was in 1980, and I have returned on a number of occasions.
I served as a "Foreign Expert" teaching English and Western Civilization at the Normal College of Foreign Language in Beijing in 1987-8. The Foreign Experts Bureau was based at my residence hotel, the Friendship Hotel in Beijing. Not only did they 'watch over us', they were there to assist us in many ways. About every third week they organized a weekend visit to historic sites. I visited twenty-one provinces that year, usually for less than US$20 a weekend, everything included. Those were the halcyon days of China before the tragedies of 1989.
My visit to Longmen was in May 1988, and there was considerable time to visit the various caves. It was somewhat understanding, though disappointing, to see all of the vendors and to see people climbing among the statues. I understand that the vendors have been removed from the immediate area. That visit has remained one of the highlights of my numerous visits to China.
My interest in Chinese architecture developed greatly as a result of these tours, and it led to my extended participation in a co-operative web photo venture on "Asian Historical Architecture." The site includes almost fifty photographs of the Longmen Grottoes, plus a long essay (plus the Yungang Grottoes, and about 10,000 images from many other parts of Asia): http://www.orientalarchitecture.com/ >China>Luoyang>Longmen Grottoes.
You may discern in the attached photo, taken outside the Longmen Grottoes, that the majority of the people are wearing blue “Mao suits” – this photo was taken on my first visit to China in May 1978. It is perhaps worth recalling the historical background of the time. In late 1976 Mao Tse-Tung had died and the hard line communist “Gang of Four” had been arrested by Hua Kuo Feng who was still prime minister at the time of our visit. On the other hand Deng Shao-peng was still a “non-person” after proposing supposedly “rightist” views in 1975 (but would re-emerge in the next few months, pay a visit to the USA in Jan 1979 and ultimately replace Hua’s “Soviet planning” approach with more pragmatic economics). China was “on the cusp” as it tentatively moved towards opening up – and the rest as they say “Is History”!
It was fascinating to visit China at this pivotal time – all the outward shows of strict Communist rule were still in place – the Mao badges, the collective farms, the neighbourhood committees. Yet among the people we met one sensed a strong desire to change. As part of the “opening up” small groups of tourists were “invited” (but paying!) as “Foreign Friends”. This gave us a status which unfortunately was soon to disappear in China’s dealings with foreign tourists! We were asked what we wanted to see and it was arranged. So schools, universities, hospitals, factories, mines, collective farms and workers flats were all made available (to some degree – we were not naive!). Every visit was preceded and followed by a meeting where we all sat in those enormous Chinese upholstered armchairs, supped green tea and asked questions. (Which, in retrospect, were answered in remarkably open fashion)
The same routine occurred at sightseeing locations and my diary notes such meetings at Longmen. Foreigners were still incredibly rare – in some towns if you stood still in the street 100s of people would just gather round and look at you. On one occasion I had a hair cut in a barbers and the shop was besieged by onlookers! My diary notes that children at Longmen ran away when looked at by us but conversely that a seller of ice lollies insisted on giving me one as an act of friendship. Another note from the introduction was that “Imperialists cooperating with feudalist officials stole a great number of statues from Longmen” – the language of a different era! (though with some justification – China still regards the artefacts in the possession of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC as “stolen”!)
The caves are manmade and run alongside a riverside terrace with an external row of giant statues (photo). Inside the caves are buddha/bodhisattva/apsara carvings of all sizes from around 6th/7th centuries – one cave contains an enormous one whose ears alone are 6ft high – another has (reportedly) 10000 tiny carvings covering the walls, blackened shiny over time by fires and the hands of pilgrims.
The situation of the caves near Loyang means that they are convenient for anyone travelling to/from Xian overland. If you want to take in only 1 of the WHS “Buddhist carving” caves that probably makes this one the most preferable. Yungang is situated near “dusty Datong” and Mogao in far away Dunhuang. Perhaps the interiors of Yungang are more impressive but no doubt some expert in oriental art will disagree!
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