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Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, Henan Province of P. R. China, also known as “Longmen Shiku 龙门石窟” Wang, Dong


This entry seeks to provide notes, text and image archives, discuss scholarly debates, and link relevant resources surrounding the Longmen Grottoes, a major Chinese Buddhist historical and UNESCO World Heritage site in Luoyang, Henan Province, from antiquity to the present. Meaning “dragon gate,” the name Longmen refers to the scenic mountain ravine between the East (303.5 meters altitude) and West Hills (Longmenshan, 263.9 meters altitude) through which the Yi River flows, a place also known as Yique, about thirteen13 kilometers (around 8 miles, or 25 li) south of Luoyang in Henan Province, the central province of the North China Plain, the heartland and imperial capital of thirteen Chinese dynasties, mostly south of the Yellow River. Approximately and arguably dating from 493 CE during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534) as a Buddhist votive site, the Longmen Grottoes as we see today comprise an assemblage of more than 2,000 stone niches and caves, over 100,000 fine-grained limestone sculptures and reliefs, and around 2,800 memorial steles (stone tablets) containing more than 300,000 words of inscribed text. The caves are carved into a 1-kilometer stretch of limestone cliffs on either side of the Yi River. While many of Longmen’s sculptures are low relief carvings on the walls and ceilings of the caves, some are spectacularly hewn out of the limestone in situ. The inscriptions are also mostly chiseled into walls and ceilings, alongside the images to which they refer. The production of stone images at Longmen continued in the Eastern Wei (534–550), Western Wei (535–556), Northern Qi (550–577), Northern Zhou (557–581), and Sui (581–618) dynasties, tailing off after the Tang dynasty (618–907) as Luoyang was repeatedly subject to war and communal violence and gradually waned in status, although new carving projects were likely undertaken until the early seventeenth century during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Slighted and denounced as a squandering of resources on gaudy frippery for centuries by many Chinese elites in history, the large group of stone icons, decorated cave chapels, votive niches, walls, ceilings, inscribed steles, pillars, and floors at Longmen received irregular maintenance and repair, probably the most significant due to the Qianlong emperor’s visit in 1750. Rediscovered by American, British, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, and Swedish scholars, collectors and connoisseurs around the turn of the twentieth century, Longmen in modern times came to embody the values of universalism, modernity, and the modern impulse for both China and the world. The treasures at Longmen—preeminently stone sculptures dating from the fifth to the tenth centuries CE—were the object of a global quest that can be compared with the exploits of Indiana Jones. In 2001, UNESCO decided to add the Longmen Grottoes to the World Heritage List of properties deemed to have outstanding universal value.

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