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Maijishan Grottoes,"the Oriental Clay Sculpture Museum".


Maijishan Grottoes is a sparkling spiritual sanctuary 45km southeast of Tianshui city, Gansu province. Enveloping by mountains in four sides, it erects abruptly 142 miles above the ground, like an island among the ocean of forest. Covering an area of 215 square kilometers, it includes scenic attractions such as the Maiji Hill, Immortal Cliff, Stone Gate, Twisting streams and the Old Town of Jieting.

maijishan grottoes map



Due to its peculiar shape similar to a wheat stack, it wins the name. There is a folk song devoted to it: “Chop away firewood on the Southern Hill to get the Wheat Stack Cliff builds up”. The topography of Maijishan Grottoes belongs to Danxi terrain (a wind-eroded formation). Construction of Maijishan Grottoes began in 384, the first year of Late Qin era (384-417), while the following 1600 years saw its continual expansion and renovation. By now, its remaining 194 caves shelter over 7,200 Buddhist stone and clay sculptures as well as over 1,000 m2 of murals.


Maijishan Grottoes boast rich Buddhism culture embodied by clay scupltures, murals

What makes Maijishan Grottoes Special

Maijishan Grottoes is neither the biggest nor the oldest grottoes, but its uniqueness enables it rank as top four Grottoes in China, the remaining three are: Mogao Grottoes, Longmen Grotoes and Yungang Grottoes.

First, among the top 10 grottoes, Maijishan Grottoes enjoys the most enchanting natural scenery.  It towers above lakes, rivers, gorges  and the lush forest extending all the way to the horizon. Birds chirping joyfully and animals will pop up in the remote path to greet you. This area is home to many rare plants also. This is definitely a great chance to embrace nature and experience culture baptism meanwhile. 


Maijishan Grottoes's 194 caves shelter 7200 statues and over 1000 sqare meters of Murals

Second, unlike all other grottoes which are usually caved on the cliffs from the ground, or take advantage of the natural caves, Maijishan Grottoes are carved 40-80m off the ground, Maijishan Grottoes is a fine example illustrating the power of faith. In a time lack of cranes or elevators, all these work was accomplished through hands. With strong will, wisdom and original mind, these artisans risked their lives to build a sparkling sanctuary for their spiritual idols.  Luckily, the stone is gletenite rather than granite, thus it is not so difficult to carve. Besides, there are some natural carves already exist.


 The Staircases Snake their Way into 194 Ancient and Mysterious Grottoes

 The Magnificent Buddha Statues erect for 1600 years  still look vivid

Third, Maijishan Grottoes own a large quantity of clay sculptures spanning over 1600 years, which is one of its kind and cannot be found elsewhere. If compare Mogao Grottoes  to a big mural museum, then Maijishan Grottoes can be likened as a big clay sculpture treasure house. The glutenite stone in Maijishan is rough and but not so hard, thus it is not so difficult to carve, but due to gletenite is not firm enough, many carves collapsed due to earthquakes. However, the glutenite stone is suitable for dug carves, but not suitable for carving stone sculpture. Thus, ancient Chinese take the clay sculpture which was the popular folk handcraft as an alternative. The clay in Maijishan is quite different, they can weather the humid climate and won’t breakdown in a thousand years. Though exposed to wind and rain, they resist the erosion and stay firm like burned pottery.

Maijishan Grottoes’ clay sculptures are unrivaled all over the world. They even transcend the Mogao Grottoes ‘sculptures in some aspects. Mogao Grottoes’ sculptures, with Tang dynasty as prime time, featuring exquisite handicraft and vivid color, but their shortcomings is over emphasis on the techniques and fail to delve into as well as express the Buddhism Buddha’s inner world. As a result, stately they are, there is something missing, that is the breath of life.


 the Secularized Buddha Statues

 Statues of Western Wei Dyansty

Outstanding Skills on Highlighting the Inner World of Buddha

the Giant Statue

Maijishan Grottoes surprise us on this aspect. Adopting excellent handicraft, they also instill life into those clay sculptures by highlighting their mentality, characteristic and inner world, bringing them from heaven to earth; give them life. Thus, it will be a pleasant experience to appreciate those clay sculptures.


Compared to other big grottoes‘ sculptures nationwide, except clay sculptures, Maijishan Grottoes also comprise clay sculpture with stone as its core, stone sculpture and wooden sculpture. Various techniques such as three-dimensional sculpture, relief sculpture are adopted. Besides, it boasts extensive content ranging from Buddhism theme to secular life. The clay sculptures in Maijishan Grottoes  sized from 20cm to 15m are more outstanding. Most importantly, from Dong Jin to Qing dynasty, every dynasty has its marvelous representative works, inherited intact and forms a whole system span 1600 years. Many of the works represent the peak level at that time nationwide. Thus, Maijishan Grottoes’ clay sculptures mirror their evolvement during the past 1600 years and provide precious authentic materials for people to study them. No wonder it is esteemed as the “the Oriental Clay Sculpture Museum”. 


"the Oriental Clay Sculpture Museum”

Maijishan Grottoes clay sculptures are distinguished by two features: assimilated by Han culture and the trend of secularization. From the shape of statues and their attire, one can discern easily they are typical of Han group feature. Since Northern Wei Dynasty, almost all Buddhism Buddha statues are shaped like human being in secular life featuring kind expression.

The evolving clay statures vary in styles in different periods: Maijishan Grottoes were first built from Late Qin (384-417), the clay sculptures feature well-built body and imposing air (Grotto 74 and 78 belong to this period). In Northern Wei dynasty (386-534), they flourish, marching by leaps and bounds and featuring delicate and beautiful outlook (grotto115, 135). Western Wei dynasty (535-556) is an updating era for them when great progress were made(grotto 127、121), and Northern Zhou Dynasty saw significant innovation with the styles maturing into new level(grotto 4、62、44). In Sui and Tang, they develop into a new era, featuring plump and exaggerated statues(grotto 37 belongs to Sui and Grotto 5 belongs to Tang) Song Dynasty (960-1127) witnessed their massive restoration, and the emphasize on realistic style (grotto 165).

Must See: “Petals Scattering Grotto”

Grotto Four is also called “Petals Scattering Grotto”. Legends say when the highest cave was completed, Sakyamuni arrived here to preach Buddhism and his 28 asparas (attendants) threw flower petals onto the pilgrims below. If someone is not faithful to Buddhism religion enough, a petal will fall on him or her. To Sakyamuni’s surprise, all the petals flying upwards into the sky, and Sakyamuni was overwhelmed with happy feeling.

80 miles away from the ground, 9m in height, and 8m in width, it is divided into two parts, ranking the biggest and highest grotto of Maijishan Grottoes and represents the highest architecture level of Northern Zhou Dynasty, as well as China’s biggest grotto with the antique architecture style. It provides important material for people to study the Northern Wei Dynasty and it mirrors the Buddhism Grotto’s exterior and interior outlook which has been assimilated by Han Culture during the late period of South and North Dynasty.


Five Stunning Photos of Maijishan Grottoes


maijishan grottoes
spiritual sanctuary
spiritual sanctuary
spiritual sanctuary
spiritual sanctuary


Author: Sophia   Posted in June, 2012

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