- Yungang: Art, History, Archaeology, Liturgy by Joy Lidu Yi
Now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Buddhist complex at Yungang (Cloud Pass) near present-day Datong in Shanxi Province remains one of the three most well-known and visited cave-temple sites in China. The other two are the Mogao caves near the city of Dunhuang in Gansu and those at Longmen outside Luoyang in Henan Province. Established around a.d. 460 under the patronage of the powerful Northern Wei dynasty (a.d. 386–534), Yungang consists of 45 major caves, not all of which are completely preserved, and approximately 1000 small niches. Many of the caves and niches contain sculptures that were at one time painted. The human-constructed cave-temples at this site have been the focus of Chinese, Japanese, and Western scholarship since the first decades of the twentieth century, yet the dating of the grottoes and the identification of their patrons remain somewhat controversial.
Both topics, as well as a reexamination of Yungang's politico-social and liturgical functions, are the focus of the recent interesting monograph by Joy Lidu Yi. Yi begins with a useful overview of previous studies, in varying languages and from art historical, epigraphic, historical, and archaeological perspectives. She subsequently discusses the impact of recent excavations at the site, focusing on the discovery of a monastery and residence halls above the caves which served as a center for translation and practice. Yi also incorporates new finds from tombs and other sites in Datong (formerly Pingcheng) and the Northern Wei capital from a.d. 386 to 494.
Her suggestions regarding similarities between funerary sculptures of figures from tombs in the capital and representations of donors in the secondary imagery at Yungang are useful, but the analysis is marred by a discussion of these people and their clothing as typifying foreigners (hu ren). The clothing [End Page 406] and the physiognomies reflect those of the Xianbei, a formerly nomadic people who established the Northern Wei dynasty. The clothing thus represents court and local styles rather reflecting that of the many foreigners, including Sogdians, who lived in the capital.
Both historical records and archaeological finds inform Yi's discussions of the chronology of Yungang. She begins with a set of five caves (currently numbered 16–20) that had been constructed at the suggestion and under the supervision of the influential cleric Tanyao; these are the most studied caves at the site. After having been named the superintendent of monks in a.d. 453 after a disastrous persecution of Buddhism the previous year, Tanyao was charged with reconstructing monasteries and other Buddhist centers, deepening the knowledge and practice of Buddhism, and supervising translations of newly acquired texts from the vast Buddhist corpus.
Each of the five caves houses a colossal Buddha and each Buddha is understood to represent a specific Northern Wei emperor in the guise of an incarnate buddha (tathagata) who is also a universal ruler (chakravartin). Discussions about which Northern Wei ruler should be matched with which cave or which buddha have continued for at least half a century. Yi's suggestion that the five caves in question were organized according to the zhao mu system, traditionally used for family shrines, is fascinating (pp. 65–67). According to this system, cave 19, the largest of the five, was the earliest to be opened and is associated with Emperor Daowu (a.d. 386–409), the founder of the dynasty. Caves 20 and 18 (on the left and right of cave 19) should then be associated with the subsequent emperors Mingyuan (a.d. 409–423) and Taiwu (a.d. 424–452). The smallest two caves (caves 16 and 17 located in the far west) were dedicated to Wencheng (a.d. 452–465), the fourth emperor and first patron of the site, and Crown Prince Jingmu. The son of Taiwu, Jingmu never ruled but was posthumously honored as emperor.
Yi's discussion of the religious and political imagery of...