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Ancient art with A smile
By Zhou Yubin

As I climbed Maijishan Mountain in Gansu Province, looking for its famous grottoes, I kept wondering if I was in the right place.

I'd always thought Buddhist caves were located in the middle of nowhere - desolate desert or mountains - so that the sculptures and murals were less at risk and monks could follow a contemplative life.

But the Maijishan Grottoes, some dating back 1,600 years, defy such expectations.

On my way up to the cliff, I passed through part of Maijishan National Park. The area was covered by trees, fresh and luxuriant in the morning drizzle. Birds were singing in the branches; local people jogging in the clean morning air.

After a 20-minute walk through this beautiful scenery, the Maijishan Grottoes finally emerged from the foggy mountain. Maijishan - which literally means "Wheat Stack Mountain" - is said to resemble a 142-meter tall haystack.

The grottoes are built on the eastern and western faces of the "stack," consisting of more than 7,000 sculptures and statues and 1,300 square meters of murals. The caves spread along the cliff, some more than 80 meters up.

The first sight - and indeed the signature - of the Maijishan Grottoes is three Buddha statues on the eastern cliff face.

The central Buddha is 15 meters tall - although it looks much bigger from the foot of the mountain - and the other two slightly smaller. They have welcoming smiles, beaming down on visitors making the ascent.

With their numerous sophisticated sculptures and statues, the Maijishan Grottoes have been described as a "sculpture museum."

Stepping onto the walkways that zigzag the cliff face, visitors can get a closer look at sculptures and statues in different shapes and sizes. They're everywhere: hewn out of the cliff face; inside caves; even tucked away on a small corner of the mountain.

While showing the same respect for the divine Buddha found in other grottoes in China, the Maijishan sculptures exhibit a different artistic approach: a strong Chinese influence.

The creation of many ancient Buddhist grottoes in China coincided with the establishment of Buddhism - which originated in ancient India.

Many grottoes reflect this influence through round figures with deep-set eyes and the use of bold colors.

That Maijishan works have a more Chinese look can in part be explained by its location in the Xiaolongshan forest 45 kilometers southeast of Tianshui City.

This spot is not only close to the Silk Road connecting ancient China and countries to the west , but is also at a strategic point on the route connecting Xi'an in Shaanxi Province, the ancient capital city of China, and provinces to its south, such as Sichuan.

Being so close to the "heart" of China, means the Maijishan Grottoes are more a product of Chinese culture, with Indian and other styles seen only in very early works.

Work on the Maijishan Grottoes started in the Later Qin Dynasty (AD 384-417) and boomed during Northern Wei (AD 386-534).

Sculptures of that time were said to be influenced by famous southern painter Lu Tanwei, whose style was characterized by slender and attractive figures.

Indeed, many of the Buddha sculptures here have typical Chinese faces and slim, almost ethereal, bodies; even their clothes seem in a Chinese style.

The Maijishan Grottoes works are also in a more "secular" style than others. Many sculptures have more "human" expressions, with attractive eyes and smiling lips.

For me, many sculptures of Buddha evoke awe, making me feel I should kneel before them.

But the ones at Maijishan look beautiful and kind, making me want to get closer for a better look, then smile with them.

A statue of a young monk with an innocent and lively expression in Cave 133 is a good example of this, his vivid smile known as "the Smile of the Orient." People are still talking about him after 1,600 years, wondering what he's thinking and feeling a warm, human connection in his smile.

Other sculptures, such as the boy and girl in Cave 123 and Bodhisattva talking to a monk in Cave 121, are so lifelike they look as though they could step down and walk around at any moment.

The Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) is another important phase for the Maijishan Grottoes. Much significant reconstruction work took place, with standards reaching a new level. Much of what visitors see today is new or replacement Song period sculptures in older grottoes.

New sculptures were carefully placed together with older ones, expanding the scale of the work and magnifying the overall beauty.

Two eye-catching warrior sculptures of Cave 4 epitomize artistic achievements of the Song Dynasty.

Their bodies are painted pink, the muscle definition clearly depicted. With a fist raised above the head and wide eyes almost popping out of their sockets, the warriors look powerful and terrifying.

Although their facial expressions may seem exaggerated, they carry the spirit of great warriors in the carefully carved contours of their physique.

The Maijishan Grottoes are also renowned for their Buddhist murals and stone carvings. Cave 127 alone has 99 square meters of murals, covering almost every corner.

Dating from the late Northern Wei - some 1,500 years ago - some of the murals have faded over time. However, many are still recognizable. The jingbian paintings illustrating the Buddha's story are regarded as among the best early Buddhist murals.

During its 1,600-year old history, the Maijishan Grottoes were quite well preserved. The area miraculously escaped the ravages of numerous wars and was never "discovered" by foreign explorers who looted treasures from other sites in China.

But the environment is not ideal for grottoes. The climate is relatively humid, making the sculptures more vulnerable and the murals fading faster than those found in more arid areas.

Ironically, the beautiful scenery of Maijishan National Park which provides a tranquil route to the Buddhist caves, increases humidity in the area.

Whatever the challenges, the treasures of the Maijishan Grottoes will face these with the same serene expressions they have presented to the world for 1,600 years.

If you go

How to get there:

You can fly to Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu Province, or Xi'an, the capital city of Shaanxi Province first. Then take a train to Tianshui, Gansu. It takes three to four hours by train from Lanzhou or Xi'an to Tianshui.

Local bus No.34 connects Tianshui Railway Station and the Maijishan Grottoes directly.

Where to stay:

Tianshui Garden Hotel. It's right in front of the railway station. Tel: 0938-2651-111

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164