Teach Through Educational Travel: Yungang Grottoes

If asked, could you excavate 1km of soft sandstone and create special grottoes (caves) filled with incredible art? Such was the task given, in the 5th century CE, to the head of the Buddhist church, a monk named Tan Yao and a crew. It took 60 years to carve out 252 grottoes (five by Tan Yao) and fill them with over 51,000 Buddha statues – and paintings! Located southwest of the city of Datong, China, the Yungang Grottoes are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as a “masterpiece of early Chinese Buddhist cave art.” Within the five main caves are enormous statues of Buddha. Now, the grottoes at Yun Gong are the center of Buddhist art in China. The grottoes are protected, and are open to the public.

Teach Through Educational Travel

Can you imagine 51,000 statues of Buddha? They range from 2 centimeters high to 17 meters tall! The tall one is in Grotto #5, also known as Big Buddha’s Cave. Inside each grotto, every surface is carved (or carved and painted). Watch this video to get a sense of the scale of the grottoes. Have you ever been in a place of art dedicated to one theme? What was it like?

  • The art influences of these grottoes include Persian, Byzantine, Greek, and Indian. Explore the grottoes through these interactive photos – choose a grotto (#V is awesome), head inside, and use your mouse to look around. Which grottoes were you drawn to? Do you think most visitors prefer the large statues, or the small ones? If you were there, what would you try to see first?
  • Read this description of a visit to the Yungang grottoes. How do you think people are affecting the statues? What about development – traffic, pollution, and the effects of the mining nearby? Brainstorm actions that environmentalists can take to preserve the art and the grottoes.


Article written by Sarah Wyland

Sarah Wyland
Sarah never gets in trouble for being on Facebook and Instagram at work, because its her job. As social media manager, she gets to tell the stories of travelers, teachers, and interesting places. Other titles she enjoys include dog mom to Knox, barre instructor, Crossfit athlete, avid reader, and world traveler.