Friday afternoon, towards the end of the first week of our China holiday. We are in Datong in the north of the country, not so far from Beijing. In the late fifth century CE (around the time of the last stages in the disintegration of Rome’s empire in the West) Datong was the site of the prosperous capital of the Northern Wei dynasty, one of the three competing states across China in these years. Around 460CE the rulers commissioned a major Buddhist cave temple complex, and this is our destination today. The surviving statues are deeply impressive but the visit as a whole is, like so much on our trip so far a puzzling and even a touch disconcerting experience.
Before we go any further I need to apologise again about the absence of images – my WordPress skills on the iPad don’t at present stretch this far. But you can find plenty of pictures online of what is most commonly called the Yungang Caves, or the Yungang Grottoes. Buddhism is said to have come to China from India with the missionary An Shigao around 148CE and to have been integrated with traditional Chinese beliefs at a number of royal courts. Then between 444 and 451 there was a period when Buddhist adherents were persecuted, after which the Chinese monk Tanyao suggested to the ruling family of the Wei that they commission the caves as an act of expiation.
The complex has twenty or so large caves (some of which inevitably are closed for restoration) and thirty or more smaller ones. At its heart are five colossal Buddhas, four of which are in caves and one of which – the most famous and the most photographed – is in a large alcove open to the elements, although it would once have been protected by a canopy.
When in 2009 we were making the second series of Art of Faith with John McCarthy for Sky Arts we filmed at the comparable complex at Longmen, which is to the south of here. Indeed in 494 the Wei dynasty decamped to Luoyang and had their craftsmen begin work on the Longmen caves there. The Longmen Buddhas are on a larger scale, and the site is more spectacular because the cliff face fronts on to a river. Nonetheless the Yungang Caves have their own glory and many of the main figures have a grace and a beauty that is moving and humbling. (It’s also engaging to see that the sculptors began work at the top of the figures and carved downwards – for at least two of the large figures they had miscalculated the height and so could not properly accommodate the legs of the Buddha; in one case they dug down below what should have been the floor level, in another they simply gave the Buddha very short lower limbs.)
The Yungang site is delightfully free of restrictions – you can wander in and out of the caves and photography is permitted in all but two. Nor on Friday afternoon were there many other visitors. Which was part of the puzzle, for the caves themselves are now at the heart of a sprawling complex that can only be described as a kind of tourist theme park, which seems designed to cope with crowds of hundreds of thousands. Perhaps there are other days at other times of the year when such facilities are desirable, but that certainly was not the case during our visit.
You enter through a massive gate beyond which you can be side-tracked into an extensive area of restaurants, shops and stalls. Beyond is a wide staircase leading up to a lavish marble and plate glass pavilion which is where you buy your tickets (the cost is about £12 per person). From here you descend to a newly built square, then a lengthy processional avenue, a wide bridge and then a massive new Buddhist temple built over an artificial lake. (And, no, I don’t really understand how the officially secular Chinese state regards Buddhism today or why it funds projects like this.)
Only after negotiating this temple do you enter the spacious and beautiful gardens, on one side of which is the relatively modest cliff face into which the caves have been dug. The gardens offer all sorts of other attractions, including a puppet thetare and the chance to ride a Segway (although the Chinese versions are not called that) around the wide smooth paths. The Buddhas definitely hold their own amongst all of the competition but they do not seem to need any of it.
The caves are well-known as a major religious and artistic site but Datong is not – yet – on the main routes for foreign tourists. Clearly the authorities are expecting this to change, and for them to attract far more Chinese visitors also. For the moment, however, coming here is a little like visiting a vast new library which holds at its centre just a few small number of books, albeit ones of exquisite worth.
Wandering the gardens we happened on the Zhou Enlai Memorial Hall, which commemorates the visit to the caves in 1973 of the Chinese Premier and the French President George’s Pompidou. At the tail end of the Cultural Revolution Zhou was apparently shocked to discover that this major site of Chinese history was in a desperately poor state of preservation and he ordered an immediate programme of conservation. This is now credited with saving many of the major artworks – which at the time would surely have been seen as irrelevant to the goals of the Great Nation. Just one more contradiction from the experience that is a visit to China today.