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The Dazu rock carvings are a magnificent set of Buddhist cliff sculptures carved in stone in Dazu, dazuSzechuan province, China. They were designated a World Heritage Site in 1999.

What makes the Dazu carvings so special is not their scale - they cover small areas compared to those at Datong, Luoyang and Dunhuang - but their quality, state of preservation and variety of subjects and styles. Some sculptures are small, some are huge; many are brightly painted and tell religious, moral and historical stories.

UNESCO says of the Dazu carvings:

"They are remarkable for their aesthetic quality, their rich diversity of subject matter, both secular and religious, and the light that they shed on everyday life in China during this period. They provide outstanding evidence of the harmonious synthesis of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism."

There are over 50,000 sculptures at Dazu, accompanied by over 100,000 Chinese characters of inscriptions and epigraphs. All the rock carvings can be viewed in natural light and are connected by walkways and paths. The two main sites are Bei Shan, just outside the town of Dazu, and Baoding Shan, 16km to the northeast.

Bei Shan Carvings
The carvings are Bei Shan are the oldest works at Dazu, begun in 892 AD. They were started by the military governor Wei Junjing, who was posted here while campaigning against Sichuanese insurgents. The sculptures here are somewhat worn and formal in execution, making an interesting comparison with the more lively sculptures of Baoding Shan. They fill 264 numbered recesses in two groups and are protected by an awning.

The first group is the oldest and features several military pieces, including a life-sized Wei Junjing dressed in armor. Tucked away in the first niche beside the entrance, this was sculpted by a defeated Shu warlord.dazu2

The second group dates from the 12th century and is spread over a 500-meter-long overhang. The sculptures here mostly feature Kwanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, accompanied by monks, nuns and the donors who funded the project. In niche 130, Kwanyin appears unusually like a fearsome Tantric goddess, holding weapons and a severed head in her many hands. Next door, in niche 131, she is in her more typical peaceful form, gazing at the moon’s reflection. In niche 136 is a 4.5-meter-high prayer wheel surrounded by Kwanyin images. The most impressive work is in niche 245, which depicts the Kingdom of the Buddha. The Buddhist trinity is surrounded by clouds of Bodhisattvas, with heavenly palaces above and earthly toil below.

Baoding Shan Carvings
Variously exciting, comic and realistic, the carvings at Baoding Shan are unmissable if you’re in Dazu. They are the life work of the monk Zhao Zheifeng, who raised the money and designed the carving work from 1179 to 1245. This accounts for the unusually harmonious nature of the 10,000 sculptures here.

Dafowan is the most impressive group of carvings on Baoding Shan, with 31 niches incorporated into the inner side of a broad, horseshoe-shaped gully. The sculptures depict scenes from the Buddhist scriptures intercut with images of daily life. They are all in amazing condition given their exposure to the weather. The Cave of Full Enlightenment is a lion-guarded deep grotto with 12 life-sized lohans surrounding the Buddhist trinity and a roof carved with clouds. An overhang beyond is decorated with demonic guardian figures painted in blue, red and green; this is followed by Anicca holding the wheel of predestination.

Midway around the site, visitors come upon a 20-meter-long Reclining Buddha inset into the cliff face, fronted by realistic portraits of important donors. The following two panels, Parental Kindness and Sakyamuni’s Filial Piety, interestingly use Buddhist themes to illustrate Confucian morals. Next is the Eighteen Layers of Hell, a horrific scene interspersed with amusing images like the Hen Wife and the Drunkard and His Mother. The final panel illustrates the life of Liu Benzun, a Tang-dynasty ascetic from Leshan showing strong Tantric influence.

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