Longmen Grottoes of China (Dragon Gate)
by Wang Yu and Jon Bryan Burley, ASLA

Around the world, there are still many landscape architectural sites that merit prominence in the literature. This is especially true in China, where the inclusion and study of significant sites was hampered by political events for several centuries. However, over the last 30 years, during a period of openness and world harmony, scholars have been able to visit these notable places and describe landscape architectural designs for others to understand and appreciate. While many people are aware of the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Great Wall of northern China, and the preserved gardens of Suzhou, few are aware of the many other significant landscape architectural sites in China. Among these is the Dragon Gate (Lóngmén Shíku in Chinese, also known as the Longmen Grottoes). The Longmen Gottoes are a landscape architectural site where topography, hydrology, geography, culture, religion, and sculpture combine to form a special experience.

Located along a 1,000 meter portion of the Yi River, 12 kilometers south of Luoyang City, in Henan province, the Longmen Gottoes is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is one of the three most famous stone sculpture sites in China. The site contains over 2,100 niches (small caves/grottoes) and more then 100,000 statues. There are also about 40 pagodas and around 3,600 tablets and steles (carved or inscribed stone slabs).  The stone carvings are primarily Buddhist topics and subjects. We visited the area together in the spring of 2008.

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Wang Yu, (center, lavender umbrella) surrounded by tourists visiting the Longmen Grottoes.
Image courtesy Jon Bryan Burley, copyright 2008, all rights reserved.

The Longmen Grottoes were developed as an important site in relationship to Luoyang City. Luoyang City has been at times the capital of the Chinese empire. In Chinese society, to show respect to the emperor, one should face north and arrive from the south. For example, in the Forbidden City in Beijing, emissaries had to enter from the south. As one traveled by boat along the Yi River, the Dragon Gate was a prominent feature south of the city and afforded the opportunity to establish a symbolic and spiritual entry to the capital. The site is certainly impressive, with massive stone carvings that are primarily Buddhist topics and subjects.

The Buddhism tie was made possible because of connection between the capital and the Silk Road. Longmen Grottoes are just south of the Yellow River, which is connected to the Silk Road, the primary route by which Buddhism entered this area of China. Most of the stone carvings were made during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 AD) and in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). During the Northern Wei Dynasty, much of China was divided into two great countries (Northern Wei and Southern Qi), plus the kingdom of Tibet, the country of Tuyuhun, the western Xiyu city-states, and the northeastern country of Goguryeo. Luoyang was the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty. The Tang Dynasty was composed of much of the area of present day China, plus some parts of Vietnam. Chang’an (Xi’an) was the capital of the Tang Dynasty, but Luoyang became the capital during the last three years of the Tang Dynasty.

Most of the stone carvings are along the hill Longmenshan (Dragon Gate Mountain) on the west side of the river.

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Drawing of view from the east bank of the Yi River looking at a cluster of grottoes on the west side of the river.
Image courtesy Jon Bryan Burley, copyright 2008, all rights reserved.

The east hill, Xiangshan (Fragrance Mountain) contains some stone carvings, a hotel, and a temple. The two hills form a “gate-like” landscape leading to Luoyang.

The first carving was actually made in the Eastern Han Dynasty around 68 AD. Emperor Ming sent two ministers to India and returned with two important Indian monks, a white horse, and a figure of Buddha. The Emperor ordered the construction of the white horse temple.

Many of the caves have distinct names and features. The Guyang Caves are along the southern portion of the Longmenshan hill. Guyang cave was carved around 495-575 AD and is considered the earliest of the grottoes, containing a meditating Buddha and two lions by his feet. The ceiling has a lotus flower design. The cave is rich with script containing Buddhist stories in excellent calligraphy.

Farther north are the three Binyang Caves.

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Drawing of the entrance to the Binyang caves.
Image courtesy Jon Bryan Burley, copyright 2008, all rights reserved.

Loosely interpreted, Binyang means “greet the coming sun.”  The Middle Binyang Cave (Binyangzhongdong) was constructed by the order of Emperor Xuanwu during the Northern Wei Dynasty in honor of his parents. This cave contains carved and painted rock concerning stories associated with Dīpankara (a Buddha before the historical Buddha), Śākyamuni (historical supreme Buddha also know as Siddhartha Gautama), and Maitreya (a future Buddha). The main Buddha in the cave is a carving of Śākyamuni. The Buddha was carved in a very slim looking motif because Wei people considered a skinny emaciated style as beautiful.

The South Binyang Cave was also constructed from an order by Emperor Xuanwu to honor his parents but was not completed until the short-lived Sui Dynasty (581-618). In this cave, the main Buddha is Amitābba. The face is more plump, reflecting the change in taste towards the more full figured preference in the Tang Dynasty. This cave has many inscriptions.

The Northern Binyang Cave (binyangbeidong) has the same history as the two other caves, but was not finished until the Tang Dynasty. Like the south cave, the main Buddha is Amitābba.

The largest grotto is the Fengxiansi Cave, a grotto measuring 36 meters by 41 meters. At one time this temple had a roof.

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Drawing of a heavenly king (left) and Vajra Pani (right) standing on top of trampled demons at the Fengxian Temple.
Image courtesy Jon Bryan Burley, copyright 2008, all rights reserved.

The statue of Vairocana Buddha (Losana) is the central figure. Vairocana means illuminating all things in the sutra (canonical Buddhist scriptures). By the side of Vairocana Buddha are two disciples: Kassapa and Ananda, looking meek and devout. Completing the grouping, two bodhisattvas (enlightened beings): Manjusri and Samantabhadra, each are standing to the side of Kassapa and Ananda. The south wall contains the damaged carvings of Vajra (a weapon representing the strength of a diamond) and Vidradhaka (one of the four guardian gods protecting the universe). The north wall exhibits large carvings of a heavenly king and Vajra Pani (a protector and guide for Buddha).

In ancient China there were few Buddha statues that looked like women, but in Fengxian Temple, the Vairocana Buddha looks like a very kind woman. The carving was completed during the time of Empress of Wu Zetian and it is claimed that this Buddha resembled the Empress. A feminine resemblance makes this statue very special across the globe.

The Wanfodong (Ten-thousand Buddha Cave), built during the Tang Dynasty is comprised of two rooms. It contains over 15,000 small carving of Buddha, plus carvings of scripts, hands, and eyes. This cave had two carvings of dogs, but in the 1930s they were moved to America. There is a Buddha carving nearby, just south outside of the cave’s entrance with one of the most beautiful Buddha statues from the Tang Dynasty at Longmen caves.

Lianhuadong (Lotus-flower Cave) is a Northern Wei Dynasty cave containing a very large lotus flower surrounded by six offering apsaras (supernatural beautiful girls). For the Chinese, the lotus flower is symbolic of something growing in mud that rises above the filth to bring forth a pure white flower. This illustrates the purity that followers should seek, even during difficult times. In addition, the lotus is considered to represent regeneration. In Buddhism, the lotus flower blooms and sheds its seeds at the same time. Thus in the context of Buddhism, the theory of karma suggests that, just like the lotus flower, life is derived by cause and effect. Every cause—be it action, word or thought—will have an effect that can be seen in this lifetime or in future lives.

Prescription Cave (Yaofang) is near Guyang Cave and was started in the late Northern Wei Dynasty but not completed until the Northern Qi Dynasty. There are over 100 medical prescriptions in this cave. These are the earliest prescriptions caved on rock in China.

There are numerous more grottoes at Longmen—too many to describe here. These other caves and grottoes contain thousands of carvings of Buddha. Many ceilings in the caves are highly decorated with flowing designs. For more information on other Longmen caves, see Liu Jing Long’s book, Longmen Grotto (1996) (PRS Publications).

Towards the end of the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism was in less favor across the country. Over time, souvenir hunters stole various carvings, and cultural changes in the country  spurred the defacing of some of the sculptures. But today, the stone carvings are well protected and are a highly valued tourism resource.

The Longmen Caves are open every day of the year. Visitors can stay in Luoyang and take a bus or taxi to the grottoes, or at the Dongshan Hotel overlooking the Yi River near the grottoes. Visitors can ride a boat along the Yi River between the east and west banks to gain good overviews of the grottoes. Summer in Henan can be quite hot and winter quite cool, so fall and spring are the most comfortable visiting periods.

Wang Yu is an urban planning graduate of Nanjing Forestry University. She can be reached at: dawy1028@hotmail.com.
Jon Burley, ASLA is an Associate Professor in the School of Planning, Design, and Construction at Michigan State University. He can be reached at:

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