After dynasties of carving and centuries of worship and protection, the Longmen Grottoes in central China's Henan Province has gained its unique reputation as a Buddhist site of the only empress in Chinese history.
In the largest cave of Longmen Grottoes, the Fengxian Temple, which is 35 meters wide and 39 meters high, there is a statue called the Grand Vairocana Buddha. Some historical records reveal that it was modeled after the face of Empress Wu Zetian, the only empress in Chinese history, who gained popular support by advocacy of Buddhism and reigned during the Tang Dynasty 1,309 years ago. People also call it Empress Wu Zetian's Statue.
About 17.14 meters tall with the head 4 meters long and the ear 1.9 meters wide each, the statue of Empress Wu is believed the most extraordinary masterpiece of the Longmen Grottoes. According to historical records, Empress Wu supported the construction of the statue with her own money and headed officials to the Buddhist ceremony when it was completed.
Empress Wu Zetian (625-705) is the only reigning female in Chinese history. She was first one of the harem of Emperor Tang Taizong and later the favorite of his son, Gaozong. After Gaozong suffered a stroke, she began to govern China from behind the scene via him and declared power in 690, when she established the Zhou Dynasty (690-705). At the age of 72 Empress Wu allowed the Tang Dynasty to be resumed and died soon after.
Although it was short-lived, some historians consider the establishment of the Zhou Dynasty the result of better gender equality during the succeeding Tang Dynasty.
Today, Empress Wu Zetian's Statute in Longmen Grottoes is reputed as the "Eastern Mona Lisa", or the "Eastern Venus" for its gentler facial expression.
Located 12 kilometers south of ancient city of Luoyang, the Longmen Grottoes stretch over 1,000 meters on the hillsides along the Yi River. They were first sculptured and chiseled around 493 AD during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534), and the entire construction lasted more than four hundred years up to the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
Today there are still about 2,100 caves and niches, 100,000 Buddhist images ranging in size from 0.02 to 17 meters, more than 2,800 inscribed tablets, and 43 Buddhist pagodas remaining at the site.
The Longmen Grottoes were listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 2000. They are reputed as among the greatest ancient stone sculpture sites in China along with the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang in northwestern Gansu Province and the Yungang Grottoes in northern Shanxi Province.
"The grottoes and niches of Longmen contain the largest and most impressive collection of Chinese art of the late Northern Wei and Tang dynasties (316-907). These works, entirely devoted to the Buddhist religion, represent the high point of Chinese stone carving," described the UNESCO website.
Besides worshipping Buddhism and Empress Wu, the Longmen Grottoes also reflect political, economic, and cultural lives in ancient China. The sculptures describe the people in the fields of arts, architecture, calligraphy, music, dressing and medicine.
Although much of the site has been well preserved, during its long history, some parts were damaged by natural erosion and vandalism. Crevices in the rock bases caused some caves to collapse. Saline sediments resulting from acid rain, train and automobile vibrations and natural disasters have also affected the site.
To well protect the historical site, the central and local governments have removed the restaurants and shopping stalls from inner scenic area and resettled the nearby Longmen Village to reveal the natural surroundings of the grottoes. Vehicles have been forbidden to enter the area to avoid tremors as well as dirt. The world heritage site is welcoming visitors with a more peaceful and beautiful image.
(Xinhua News Agency June 16, 2004)