What are the Dazu Rock Carvings?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan
Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

The Dazu Rock Carvings are a collection of assorted religious carvings and sculptures. They are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and have been since 1999. The oldest of the Dazu Rock Carvings go back to the 7th century, while the majority come from the 9th century on.

There are more than 50,000 statues comprising the Dazu Rock Carvings, spread across some 70 sites. The Dazu Rock Carvings are found spread throughout the hills of Dazu, and the most famous are undoubtedly the carvings at Mount Beishan and Mount Baoding. There are generally considered to be three main areas of carvings aside from Beishan and Baoding: Nanshan, Shimenshan, and Shizhuanshan.

The Dazu Rock Carvings cover different religions, as well. Carvings portray imagery and scripts from Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The largest and most iconic of the carvings are Buddhist in nature, but a number of impressive Confucian and Taoist carvings can be found as well.

The oldest of the major Dazu Rock Carvings are the Beishan carvings, dating from the late-9th century. These carvings and statues show a bit more wear than most of the others, but are still quite impressive. The overarching theme is one of militarism, with a number of famous historical figures in full armored regalia. A fair amount of religious sculpture is in this group as well, however, particularly representing the Goddess of Mercy, Kwanyin.

The grottoes found in Baoding are generally considered the most impressive of the Dazu Rock Carvings, in part because of the relatively short time in which they were all carved. The more than 10,000 carvings found here were all created over a seventy-year period, and were overseen by one monk, Zhao Zhifeng, who devoted his entire life to their creation. The Cave of Full Enlightenment is a popular place in Baoding, looked over by guardian lions, with carvings of clouds on the roof, and the Buddhist trinity. Afterwards is a beautiful rendition of the Wheel of Life. The Reclining Buddha in this section is also a perennial favorite among visitors, and is followed by an intricate and tortured rendition of the Eighteen Layers of Hell.

The Dazu Rock Carvings are perhaps most impressive for their preserved state and immense thematic range. Unlike some of the more extensive rock carvings found at Luoyang or Dunhuant, the Dazu Rock Carvings are mostly in excellent condition, and most of the carvings are still fully painted.

Reaching the Dazu Rock Carvings is not very difficult, with a bus traveling from nearby Dazu town. The countryside is classically Chinese, and many people find the everyday lifestyle going on around adds to the site itself. Despite its rural feel, there is a fairly sophisticated tourist infrastructure around the Dazu Rock Carvings. Food stands, souvenir stands, and tour guides for hire are all around, and most of the year the site is fairly packed with both Chinese and foreign tourists.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books