Current Condition and Brief Recent History
The rich and complex contents and artistic achievement of of the Xiangtangshan caves is not readily surmised today because of extensive damage to the sites. Some of the loss is attributable to the erosion and historical events over the passage of the centuries, but most has been perpetrated by relatively recent human activity. The fine quality of the sculpted images made them a target of looters in service of the art market beginning in the early twentieth century. The plundering began around 1909 during the period of severe political upheaval which saw the collapse of the last imperial dynasty in 1911 and the establishment of the Chinese republic. The relative isolation of the caves from urban centers left them vulnerable to large-scale destruction over several decades. The free-standing images that were in the caves have mostly been removed, and many relief elements are missing, forcibly cut away. Nearly all of the heads and hands of the remaining images are gone.
Sculpted figures and fragments from the caves first began to appear in museum and private collections around 1913. Several large standing figures were published in the Burlington Magazine in 1914. The volumetric modeling, large scale, and fine detailing of these limestone sculptures makes them among the most impressive of Chinese sculptures in many museums in the West and in Japan. Around one hundred sculptures or fragments are known in museums and private collections in Europe, Japan, Taiwan, and the U.S.
The first photographs known of the caves were mostly taken by Japanese photographers in the 1920’s and 1930’s, after extensive damage had already been done. They show repairs that were made so that the caves could continue to function as religious sites, but the new figures and replacement heads were poor substitutes for the originals. The photographs are a valuable record of the condition of the caves in this period. During the Second World War and in the early years of the Peoples Republic further damage occurred. The caves at the Southern Group, located near the village of Pengchengzhen and at the edge of the coalmining town of Fengfeng were used as storage for a munitions factory and then a people’s daily newspaper in the 1950’s. The remaining damaged sculptures and fragments were removed from some of the caves so that they are now virtually empty.
In recent decades the caves have been under the official supervision and protection of the Fengfeng Mining District Office for Preservation and Management of Cultural Relics. Environmental pollution is now the most serious threat to their existence. The caves are situated in a rural coal mining area with severe air pollution from mining and the operation of coal-fueled electrical power plants, ceramic kilns, and cement factories. The combined effect of acid rain and cement dust is taking a visible toll, particularly at the Southern Group of caves on the on the edge of the town of Fengfeng. The use of explosives for quarrying stone in close proximity to the caves is a threat to the Shuiyusi site. The location of the monumental caves at the Northern Group high up on a mountainside beside a rural village, gives it an advantage over the other locations. It is today a frequently visited religious site where people make offerings to the images and where popular festivals are held annually.
The Caves and Their Contents
The caves and their contents can be discussed under three principal subject headings: 1] the architectural forms, 2] the carved images and their arrangements, and the 3] engraved scriptural passages.
1] Architecturally the caves were designed as stūpas of one or two storeys with a domed roof. Stūpas, which derive from Indian burial mounds for the relics of the Buddha, developed different forms over the centuries with the transmission of Buddhism across the vast reaches of Asia. After the historical Buddha’s death in the sixth century BCE his ashes or relics were divided and buried in seven stūpas. In the third century B.C. the Indian emperor Ashoka is said to have divided these and distributed them across all of his empire. The legend of Asoka credits him with the miraculous construction of 80,000 stūpas in a single day. The stūpas changed in form over time and across geographical regions from hemispherical mounds, to constructed stone and brick monuments with raised central domes surmounted by multiple layers of umbrellas to towering structures and multistoried wooden buildings known as pagodas. The stūpa came to be the identifying feature of Buddhist temples and monasteries. In the late Northern Wei dynasty, stūpas took the form of a multistoried structures that could rise to great heights, the most extreme case being the celebrated stūpa of the Yongning Monastery in the Northern Wei capital at Luoyang which was recorded to have been nearly a thousand feet high. Begun in 516, it burned down in 534 in a great fire that became a symbol of the fall of the dynasty. Perhaps for this reason the favored architectural type of stūpa beginning in the succeeding the Eastern Wei and through the Northern Qi was a single-storey structure with domed roof, which may have been seen to refer back to earlier, possibly Ashokan, prototypes. The exterior façade of most of the Xiangtangshan caves is modeled on wooden architecture carved in stone with domed roof shown in relief at the top. Some caves still have a porch preserved in front showing the details of post and lintel construction and bracketing to support a tiled eave over the entrance. These exterior features are best preserved at Cave 7 of the Southern Group. Many smaller relief stūpa-shaped niches are carved in stone inside the caves, on the mountainsides nearby, and at other temple sites in the region. Miniature domed stūpas also appear floating, or supported by flying divinities, above entrances to caves and above the main images of the Buddhas and other deities on Buddhist steles of this period.
2] The principal sculptures are groups of Buddhist images set on altars in the central pillars or against the walls of the caves. The interiors of the Xiangtangshan stūpa caves are of two types, the central pillar cave and the chamber with altars on three walls. In the latter type the images may be placed in three large niches set into the walls or on a continuous platform extending around the walls of the cave. The main image groups consist of a Buddha as central figure with two, four, or six attendants. The standing attendant figures include bodhisattvas, disciples and pratyekabuddhas. These main images are modeled with full volumetric forms in spite of frequently being attached to the walls behind them. Some were originally carved in the round and then set into pedestals and thrones on the cave altars. Subsidiary figures were carved in relief—heavenly apsarases and musicians, kneeling monks, lions, spirit kings, guardians, etc. These are located on the front of the altars, on the walls and ceilings, in cave entrances and on the facades. In addition there are fearsome monsters, kneeling and supporting columns at the side of niches, donor figures, paradise scenes, and narrative episodes from the life of the Buddha. Other elements include relief carvings of lotus blossoms, incense burners, and rows of small “thousand Buddhas.” The richness of the imagery is further supplemented by ornamental floral, flame-like, and interlaced scrolling patterns that appear in the haloes of figures, on pillars, and in doorways.
3] The engraving of Buddhist scriptures, or sūtras in stone is an important innovative feature of the Xiangtangshan caves. This practice appears to have been initiated in the Northern Qi period in the area of Ye. Sūtra engravings appear at both the Northern and Southern Groups of Xiangtangshan Caves. Most notably, the South Cave or “Cave of the Engraved Scriptures” at the Northern Group has extensive sutra engraving work that was sponsored by the official Tang Yong from 568-572. This practice spread to other sites in the area of the capital, most notably Wahuanggong in Shexian, Hebei, and from there to other parts of northern China by the late Northern Qi period. In Shandong province, most of the engravings are in natural settings without caves, on cliff faces, the sloping sides of mountains or on large boulders, as at Taishan, Tieshan, Gangshan and other locations. Sūtras are texts believed to have been teachings of the Buddha and are therefore a type of relics, relics of the Buddha dharma, and appropriately housed within or associated with stūpa caves.
The Northern Qi dynasty (550-577) was part of the Northern Dynasties period (420-589) when the northern part of China was controlled largely by non-Chinese Xianbei rulers who first established the Northern Wei dynasty in the late fourth century through military conquest. The Northern Qi were the successors to the Eastern Wei (534-550), established after the split of Northern Wei into eastern and western regimes. Under the minister Gao Huan, the power behind the Eastern Wei throne, the eastern capital was established at Ye, in present-day Linzhang county, southern Hebei province. This was also the seat of the Northern Qi dynasty declared in 550 by Gao Huan’s second son, Gao Yang, the Emperor Wenxuan (r. 550-59). The dynasty was ruled by a succession of the sons and grandsons of Gao Huan and then was conquered in 577 by the Northern Zhou (557-581), which had arisen from the Western Wei regime based at Chang’an, in Shaanxi province. The Xiangtangshan caves are located not far from the capital at Ye and on the road leading between Ye and Jincheng (near present-day Taiyuan, Shanxi province), the seat of the Gao family, which was much traveled during Eastern Wei and Northern Qi period by members of the court.
Though regarded as a period of political unrest and continuing warfare, the brief Northern Qi period saw the arts flourish in a multicultural environment. The close interaction between Chinese and non-Chinese artisans, patrons, and artistic models and influences fostered new, often hybrid, art forms. Xianbei aristocracy and military leaders, Chinese officials, artists, Buddhist monks (both Chinese and non-Chinese), as well as foreign traders, entertainers, and official envoys were active participants in the political, religious, cultural, and commercial life of the time. By the late fifth century, the Xianbei aristocracy frequently intermarried with the local Chinese elite. The rulers made use of the traditional Chinese agrarian system to fill their granaries while maintaining their military strength. They sought out the talents of people of various ethnic backgrounds to assist in administering their empire, to design and furnish their palaces, temples, and tombs, to supply them with luxury goods, and provide religious guidance. The Northern Qi is artistically a very significant period during which the arts of painting and sculpture flourished, and the names of famous artists who were active are recorded in history.