Dazu: ten thousand carvings, “monumental cave complexes” about Buddha, 2 hours outside Chongqing, in Sichuan. They’re not hacked out of mountains, but tucked into natural caves, dripping with jungle plants. It’s laid out, as one scholar notes, like a scroll unfolding, in a horseshoe-shaped valley. Nature is a temple.
The Dazu caves show life nearly 1,000 years ago. To win ordinary people over to Buddhism, the cave sculptures explain Buddha’s compassion with illustrations of motherhood: breastfeeding, a midwife beside a woman ready for birth, and even a carving of a mother moving out of the way where her baby peed in their shared bed. They also show the taming of animals, and the earliest evidence of a gun (a “bombard,” early-1100s).
Dazu escaped the violent frenzies of the Cultural Revolution, maybe because, in southern Sichuan province, buried in dense overgrowth of mountain valleys, the site was hard to access, hidden from harm.
The stories depicted contain Confucian and Taoist elements–indigenous Chinese influences absent from China’s older Buddha caves, which are more Indian, from before Buddhism fully enveloped China. (Unlike the other caves we’ve written about which are strongly influenced by Persian, classical Greek, and other cultures.) Dazu caves, the latest, are also the finest re: delicacy & complexity.
Dazu has been comparatively speaking little studied–through the mid-’00s, only two scholarly works in English. In 2006, USC held a conference, the first ever U.S.-China dialogue on Sichuanese temple-cave art.
In the caves’ renderings of buildings (see the big pic below, top & bottom) — cities, temples, architecture — there’s an unexpected spatial realism. Buildings aren’t frontal but 3-dmensional, comparable to perspective in Renaissance art.
The university where I lectured on journalism & writing (Southwest) was kind enough to send us in a car, with a team of student caretakers who held me like a frail, old lady! Thanks for being pushy about it, Kenny. He wanted a feeling of completion, since we’ve seen the other great Buddha caves of China. This is the last, and in some ways –the storytelling, the naturalness in the woods, the Chinese-ness, the fine state of preservation and phenomenal artistry — greatest.