Maizishan Caves and Wheat Mountain in China

Cave Cities and Temples – Part VII. Maixishan

Maijishan is one of the largest and most impressive Buddhist rock temple complexes in China. Maizishan is situated near the village of Maizi , about 45 kilometers southeast of Tianshui City (Gansu Province). Maijishan is a high, green-covered hill, 142 meters high, the southern side of which is a vertical rock cliff.

The complex is famous for the fact that in 194 caves there are more than 7200 sculptures (the highest sculpture reaches 16 meters high) and about 1300 km 2 different frescoes. The Maijishan Grottoes are a group of cave monasteries. One of the largest Buddhist structures of this type. The mountain resembles an anthill in shape. Grottoes are connected by wooden walkways built into the steep rock.

Maijishan literally translates as “Wheat Mountain”. The first caves in it began to appear during the Late Qin Dynasty (384 – 417). Maijishan lies at a crossroads: the road leading to India passes here. In the past, the Great Silk Road passed through here, so some of the sculptures in the caves, made around the fourth century, resemble those from Indian temples.

The caves served as shrines for the worship of various deities, but with the arrival of Buddhism in China, the caves became part of China’s religious architecture (like Ajanta in India). Buddhism spread in this part of China with the support of the Northern Liang (397-439), one of the 16 barbarian states that existed from 304-439. Overall, 12 dynasties influenced the construction and restoration of the caves: the Late Qin, Northern Wei, Western Wei, Northern Zhou, Sui, Tang, Five Dynasties period, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing.

The Buddha Amitabha, who was especially revered in the Buddhist school of the Pure Land, is most often found in the caves of Maijishan. This Buddha accepted anyone who sincerely appealed to him, regardless of background or position.

Almost all the sculptures in the grottoes of Maijishan are made of clay with the addition of a binding agent; in some of the caves they are made of sandstone. It is still unknown where the local craftsmen brought the stones to create the sculptures and how they were transported up the steep rock to a height of 80 meters! The tallest sculpture in the complex reaches 16 meters in height.

Caves Maizishan thoroughly began to be studied only in the mid-fifties of the XX century. According to Chinese archaeologists, the construction of the cave complex began in the IV-V centuries AD Thanks to the frescoes and sculptures Maizishan scientists were able to trace and establish the stages of development of sculptural art in China.

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For centuries, many caves in Maijishan have been neglected, irreparably damaged by erosion and sandstorms, and constantly plundered. Throughout its history, Gansu Province has suffered many earthquakes and natural disasters. However, the cave monasteries have remained intact. Today you can see here except the sculptures, more than 2000 objects of ceramics, bronze, iron and jasper, ancient books, documents, paintings and works of calligraphers. Currently, the temple complex is preserved as a museum, many grottoes are closed to the public.

The Maizishan Temple Complex in Gansu Province is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Maizishan – “Wheat Mountain”


The world has recently learned of the new richest treasures of Buddhist painting and sculpture in China, located in the cave shrines of Maizishan. Maijishan, the “Wheat Mountain” (so called because it is shaped like a pile of bread), is located in Northwest China, not far from the “Heavenly Waters” city of Tianshui, on the Beijing-Xian-Lanzhou railroad line that crosses the Huang He River basin. Two hundred years ago the wooden galleries surrounding the western slope of Maijishan Mountain were destroyed by fire; they were rebuilt only recently. And until then, no one had been able to enter the ancient cave monastery on the mountain.

The area where Maijishan is located has an ancient history that can be traced back to the Neolithic period. It is known that thousands of years ago Xi’an was the cultural center and the ancient capital of China.

You should go to Maijishan from Tianshui by car. The road runs through a fertile area where corn crops alternate with fields planted with soybeans, melons, and eggplants. Poplars and weeping willows grow along the sides of the road. In every stream, in every pond, children splash like goldfish. As we approach the densely forested slopes of the Qinling Range, we see Maijishan, the top of which is topped by a tall ancient pagoda.


The Tales of the Jade Hall, written in the 10th century A.D., tell of the “Wheat Mountain”: “The northern part of the Maiji Range lies between the provinces of Jingshui and Weizhou. Its southern part adjoins the province of Lintan. Maijishan is in the middle of the range, among peaks and mountain ranges stretching for more than five hundred li. This huge mountain, which rises steeply to the height of many thousands of zhangs, is perfectly round in shape and resembles a stack of bread. On the steep slopes of the upper part of the mountain, buried in bluish clouds, are carved many images of the Buddha and thousands of niches containing other images. And although all of this is man-made, it seems as if the gods have worked here. In the year of Sun Wei, at the end of the Tang dynasty, thirty-nine years ago (949 A.D.), I climbed this rock and left an inscription there…”

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In the cave of Buddhas there is another telling inscription: “On the edge of the cliff, like a ladder leading into the clouds, there is a path… It seems as if someone mighty has rushed in a chariot, cutting through the mountains, and through an invisible bridge has soared up, to the countless stars, leaving the earth far below… The walls of the cave are covered with sacred inscriptions, from countless niches look images of Buddha. Here, in the body of the rock, someone’s hands carved the Palace of the Moon Disc and the Hall of Reflected Flowers.”


However, the history of Maizishan began much earlier than the X century. In 420 AD the Buddhist monk Tan Hong founded his monastery here. Soon he was joined by followers, the number of which reached three hundred.

The top of the mountain – the cliff – has a height of about 150 meters. The entire surface of the rock is covered with carved stone sculpture groups depicting the Buddha and his ministers. A deep crevice divides Maijishan into two parts – the western and eastern groups of caves. At the foot of the mountain, in the dense jungle, is the Rai Yin Monastery.

The Maijishan caves were carved at different times; the oldest dated inscription discovered in one of them dates back to the fifth century AD, the time of the emperors of the northern Wei dynasty. There are now 194 known shrine caves; many of them are huge, like cathedrals, others resemble small chapels. The walls of the caves are covered with frescoes and countless statues depicting Buddha, Bodhisattvas, ministers, disciples, male and female donors, guardians of the four worlds, divine nymphs – apsaras – with flowers and incense, and heavenly musicians playing harps, flutes and cymbals. For centuries these statues stood hidden from view in the dark recesses of the caves.

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The names of the Maijishan caves themselves are interesting: Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas, Nirvana Cave, Bull Hall, Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas, Hall of Scattered Flowers, Heaven Cave. In ancient times, wooden galleries were built on the surface of the rock so that people who came to worship at the shrine could pass from one cave to another. The remains of these old galleries destroyed by fire – long wooden beams protruding from the body of the rock – are still visible. It was extremely difficult to rebuild the destroyed galleries; truly heroic were the efforts of the carpenters who worked at great heights, crouched on the old beams and in the nests carved into the rock.

The Gallery of the Thousand Buddhas, created during the reign of the northern Wei Dynasty (5th century AD), stretches for about thirty meters. The figures adorning it are molded from clay. When you walk along this gallery, on one side of which stretches a string of figures, and on the other – an abyss deep in hundreds of meters, it really seems that this – the road to heaven, because on some days the clouds float at the level of the caves.


Although the first caves on Mount Maijishan were carved in the era of the emperors of the Northern Wei Dynasty (one empress of that dynasty retired to the Rai-Yin monastery, where she spent the rest of her days), the creation of new caves and statues continued until the Ming Dynasty (XV-XVII centuries AD). The Maijishan seems not to have been touched by the three periods of brutal persecution of Buddhism known as the “calamities of the three Wu. Although each of these periods lasted only a few years, the Three Wu calamities caused enormous damage to Buddhist temples. Thousands of temples with famous frescoes were destroyed, bronze statues and bells were melted down. In the first period of persecution alone (444), 260,000 monks and nuns were forcibly returned to secular life.

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In the uppermost cave of Maijishan, known as the Cave of Heaven, there was hidden a huge stone Buddha statue with two servants, apparently dating back to the era of the northern Zhou dynasty, under one of whose emperors the second wave of persecution began. It is not known where this statue came from or how it was raised to such a great height. The surviving inscription of the tenth century makes it possible to judge how difficult this task was: “Above the highest hall, there is another cave carved in the rock, called the “cave of heaven. It can only be reached by a ladder hanging over an abyss. Out of a thousand men, there is hardly one brave man who would dare to climb up there.


The greatest and most striking complexity of all these caves is the Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Again we turn to the ancient description: “As you ascend the suspended staircase leading from the small cave on the west side of the mountain, you pass by a thousand halls and innumerable niches. The edge of the staircase is unobstructed; one false step and you feel nothing but air beneath your feet. None of the people climbing these stairs dare look over their shoulders. When you reach the end of the stairs, you enter the hall of the Ten Thousand Bodhisattvas. Carved beams and consoles, painted pillars and architraves with relief depictions of clouds are all carved into the rock.”

Frescoes and images of the Buddha, displaced in plaster and painted in bright colors, cover the surface of the walls in this hall. At the entrance is a huge statue of the Buddha, about five and a half meters high (sculpture from the Tang dynasty); the hands of the deity are stretched out in a gesture of blessing over the figure of the disciple standing before him. The cave, sometimes called the Cave of the Painted Steles, contains twenty stone stele carved with scenes from the life of the Buddha and sacred symbols. All the statues and steles are painted, and though time has done its work, the colors are still strikingly beautiful and delicate.


The frescoes in the Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas are rare examples of V-VI century murals. We see here images of battles, solemn processions of the nobility, palaces and fortresses, scenes of hunting and everyday life of the era; we see figures soaring in the air, we see donors, disciples, the Buddha himself and Bodhisattvas.

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The emperors and empresses who built such monuments as Maijishan employed thousands of stone carvers, sculptors, and master painters who created the cave temples of Dunhuang, Binling, Yungan, and Lunming, which are undoubtedly among the true wonders of the East. Although the rulers of the Wei and Tang dynasties made the greatest contribution to the construction of these majestic monuments of faith, all imperial dynasties participated in one way or another in these works and supported them.

For example, one of the emperors of the short-lived Sui Dynasty (589-618 A.D.) ordered the construction of four thousand temples; under him a million and a half ancient statues were restored and ten thousand new ones were created – of gold, ivory, bronze, sandalwood, lacquer and stone.

Most of the Maizishan figures are made of clay; they are the only examples of the largest sculpture of their kind, not only in China, but on the entire globe. The rock of Maizishan is of little use for carving; the stone sculpture groups and stelae found there with images carved on them were undoubtedly brought from other places, probably for the purpose of saving them in times of turmoil.


Many scholars and poets have visited the caves over the years; they often carved their poems on the walls of the caves. Wang Zhen-hsu, a poet of the Tang dynasty, reached the Hall of Heaven. “If you look down from here,” he says, “the mountain range appears as a low bank.

I have climbed to the height of thousands of zhans on a ladder hanging over an abyss, And my mortal body is now close to the white clouds. How small the mountains seem, far below, at the foot of the cliff! From here, from the hall, you can see the rays of the setting sun on the ground itself. The way to the top is dangerous, few can climb it. Stout pines grow on the age-old cliffs; cranes like to nest here. In this inaccessible place, high above the horizon, I will leave my name… Wiping the dust off the rock, I carefully write these words.”

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