The city of Datong, situated in northern Shanxi Province between the inner and outer Great Wall, was a town of strategic importance and a communication hub in ancient times. It takes about eight hours to reach Datong from Beijing by train. As the train passes through the Juyong Pass and Badaling in the inner Great Wall and the Yanmen Pass, it affords some delightful views of the scenery on both sides of the Great Wall in north China.
The Xianpei nationality united the various ethnic groups in north China and set up the Northern Wei Dynasty in A.D. 386 with its capital in Datong. Datong remained the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty for 108 years, until in A.D. 494 Emperor Xiao Wen, pursuing a policy of assimilating all ethnic groups with the Han culture, moved the capital southwards to Luoyang in henna.
The emperors of the Northern Wei Dynasty believed in Buddhism, and many ancient buildings, sculptures, drawings, paintings, and other pieces of Buddhist art in Datong date from that time. The Yungang Grottoes are the crowning achievement of this ancient culture.
Although the city of Datong today has become a leading center for China’s coal industry, the “land of Buddhism,” with its beautiful grottoes and magnificent monasteries, is also a tourist attraction.
Not to be missed are the Yungang Grottoes located at the southern foot of Wuzhou Mountain fifteen kilometers west of Datong. The grottoes stretch for a whole kilometer from east to west. There are 53 grottoes and 1,100 niches, with about 51, 000 statues.
Legend says that in A.D. 446 during the Northern Wei Dynasty, Emperor Tai Wu suddenly renounced Buddhism and ordered that it be eradicated: monks and nuns were forced to resume secular life, and Buddhist monasteries and pagodas were burned down. Soon after he had launched this first “campaign to eradicate Buddhism” in Chinese history, Emperor Tai Wu fell ill and died. His grandson, Emperor Wen Cheng, took his sudden death as a sign of retribution. Wen Cheng therefore did his best to reinstitution Buddhism. Monk Yun Yao, who was then in charge of Buddhist affairs in China, was entrusted with the project of building grottoes at the foot of Wu Zhou Mountain. He conscripted a labor force of 10,000 men, and five grottoes were hewn in five years to commemorate the five emperors who had reigned since the founding of the Northern Wei Dynasty. The project was discontinued when Emperor Xiao Wen moved the capital from Datong to Lupyang. It is believed that the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang were a continuation of the Yungang Grottoes project.
On entering the grottoes, the visitor sees an astonishing number of Buddhist statues and decorative frescos. One seventeen-meter Buddha with down-cast eyes seems to gaze with penetrating insight into the human heart as it wavers between good and evil. One series of carvings depicts scenes from the life of Sakyamuni from birth until his attainment of nirvana. Many of the carvings combine traditional Chinese art forms with foreign influences to create a unique style that occupies an important position in the history of Chinese art.
Huayan Monastery is located in the southwestern part of Datong. These splendid ancient buildings were constructed of wood during the Liao Dynast more than nine hundred years ago. This “great monastery of the Liao Dynasty,” as it was called, was almost completely destroyed in wars, but the remaining main hall is one of the largest Buddhist temples dating from the Liao and Kin dynasties (1,559 square meters). At the sides of the hall stand thirty-two Devarajas (Heacenly Guardians), and in the middle are three wooden Buddhist statues. Especially noteworthy is the hall of Boga Sect, which contains thirty – one fine statues sculptured in the Liao Dynasty.
Nine Dragon Screen (Jiulongbi)
Located at the center of the city of Datong, Nine Dragon Screen was formerly the front screen of an imperial palace. This glazed – brick structure has nine dragons sculptured in relief in five colors. As a symbol of the ancient emperors of China, the dragons were depicted fighting and frolicking in the clouds above the blue sea. The screen is 45.5 meters long, 8 meters high, and 2 meters thick. It was built more than six hundred years ago, and is not only larger than the nine-dragon screen in Beijing’s Beihai Park, but three hundred years older.
Benevolent Incarnation Monastery (Shanhuasi)
Located south of the Nine – Dragon Screen, Benevolent Incarnation Monastery was first built in A.D. 713-741 during the Tang Dynasty. Destroyed in war, it was rebuilt in A.D. 1128-1143 during the Kin Dynasty, although the Grand Hall was a structure left over from the Liao Dynasty. The entire monastery is a well – proportioned, well – preserved complex. It contains more than thirty Buddhist statues sculptured during the Liao and Kin dynasties, the most noteworthy being covered in gold leaf.
Wooden Pagoda in Yingxian
Located in Yingxian County to the south of Datong, this is the oldest and tallest wooden pagoda in China. Built in A.D. 1056, it is a sixty-seven-high-high octagon with a diameter of thirty meters at the base. From the outside it appears to be a five-storied structure, but since it has four additional inner stories, it is actually a nine-storied structure. A rational, well-proportioned structure, the pagoda has withstood gunfire and earthquakes. Items of interest in the pagoda include statues and frescoes.
Suspending Monastery (Xuankongsi)
Located in Hunyuan County southwest of Datong, this monastery was built on the face of a cliff at Jinlongkou at the foot of Hengshan Mountains. It dates from the late Northern Wei Dynasty about 1,400 years ago. Its forty halls and pavilions were built along the contours of the cliff, supported by its natural hollows and outcroppings. Using the technique for building a plank road around the face of a cliff, the building set cross beams paved with timbers and stones and supported by posts resting on the outcroppings. A visit to this breathtaking structure is an awe-inspiring experience.