The Enigma of the Longyou Cave Complex (龙游石窟) – Zhejiang – China

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(Research and Translation by Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD)

Translator’s Note: In this article I have gathered together a number of Chinese language texts and trnslated extracts containing relevant or interesting information. The Longyou Cave Complex is situated underground in Central Zhejiang province, and has been quarried out of sandstone. This is to say that the ancient Chinese engineers (and their highly-skilled workforce) burrowed into the local rock-face and succeeded in creating at least 50 substantially large caves, each possessing high ceilings, dividing walls, steps, pillars and ornate storage areas. On many of the walls, artisans have been at work creating engraved scenes of considerable quality and symbolic cultural meaning. The structure is difficult to date due to a number of contradictory factors. It is historically logical to state that the Longyou Cave Complex dates from the 1st century BCE, during the Western Han Dynasty. However, the style of the artwork employed, appears much older and dates to the ‘Liangzhu’ culture (3400–2250 BCE), whilst the presence of the female Buddhist icon Guan Yin (which only appeared in China from the 12th CE onwards), would suggest a much later date (whatever the case, Buddhism did not arrive in China until the 1st century CE – or during the Eastern Han Dynasty). Adjacent to the rock-face within which the Longyou Cave Complex resides, is the ‘Bamboo Forest Ch’an Temple’ (竹林禅寺), which was built in the Tang Dynasty, during the 7th year of the reign of Emperor Zhenguan (贞观) – or 632 CE. This old temple has been associated with a number of famous people in both imperial and modern times, but is renowned for the strictness and thoroughness with which its Buddhist monastics are trained – this includes ardent seated Ch’an meditation practice.

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Bamboo Forest Ch’an Temple

As the Chinese imperial system retained order in-part by the scholarly practice of keeping meticulous lists for virtually all aspects of everyday life, it is highly unusual that the building, purpose and presence of the Longyou Cave Complex is omitted from the historical record. This strange absence can be seen from the fact that when the ‘Bamboo Forest Ch’an Temple’ was constructed in the 7th century, no one involved was aware of the nearby Longyou Cave Complex. I have erred on the side of caution by suggesting that Buddhism arrived from India to China in the 1st century CE, but there are Chinese historical texts which convincingly suggest a time period between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE, with some other texts advocating a much earlier date. Whatever the case, it took hundreds of years for Buddhism to take root and develop, and is agreed in China that ‘Guan Yin’  was not worshipped as a woman until the Song Dynasty. Finally, in one or two Western articles about these caves it has been suggested that there is an undecipherable written script on the walls – but to date I have not found any evidence of this within Chinese language texts. If I do find information on this, I shall probably write another article on this fascinating subject. ACW 2.12.2017

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The Longyou Cave Complex can also be known in English translation as the ‘Longyou Grottoes’, or ‘Longyou Stone Caves’. Within the Chinese language, the Longyou Cave Complex is written as ‘龙游石窟’ (Long You Shi Ku), and literally translates as ‘Dragon Swimming Stone Cave(s)’. The Longyou Cave Complex is situated near a small village known as ‘Behind Stone Rock’ (石岩背 – Shi Yan Bei) in Central Zhejiang province, some 30 km from Quzhou City. As this village is of ancient settlement, and given that it sits on a  ‘north – south’ orientation, it is considered to be a place of great ‘feng shui’ (风水) significance. Not far from this village is the ‘Bamboo Forest Ch’an Temple’ (竹林禅寺 – Zhu Lin Chan Si), the entrance of which is immediately adjacent to one of the cave walls, but the inhabitants were not aware of the cave complex.

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The site is composed of at least 50 individual sandstone caves of considerable size, with each having stairs, support pillars, open spaces, storage areas. The caves contains engravings of trees, birds, mustangs, sharks, fishes, and scenes that appear to depict martial arts practice and hunting, as well as Buddhist iconology.

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As Buddhism was not known in China before the 1st century CE (i.e. during the Western Han), this would suggest that the caves post-date that era, or that the Buddhist iconology was added at a much later date to the much older (and original) pre-Buddhist construction. There are also indications of an early iconological Daoist influence – perhaps of a proto-Daoist significance. This is a logical conclusion as Daoism is indigenous to China (unlike the ‘foreign’ Buddhism that spread from India), and its shamanistic roots date back thousands of years into the distant past of China.

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Within Cave No. 1 there is a picture that has been described in Chinese texts as looking similar to an ‘Archaeopteryx’ (始祖鸟 – Shi Zhu Niao), but looks more like a serpent or dragon:

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The caves are entirely man-made, with each cave (on average) containing a floor area of around 1,000 square metres, and a height measuring up to 30 metres. The total area occupied by all the known caves, measures over 30,000 square metres. Local people had no idea that caves existed beneath a stagnant pond in the area (the opening of which is situated in the side of a mountain), and there was a myth that the pond was limitless in-depth. On June 9th, 1992, Wu Anai (吴阿奶) – together with three other villagers – decided to test this hypothesis and started to use four pumps (for 17 continuous days and nights), to remove the water from the this pond situated near the north-bank of ‘Qu River’ (衢江 – Qu Jiang) – 3 km from ‘Phoenix Mountain’ (凤凰山 – Feng Huang Shan). As the water receded, the Longyou Cave Complex came back into view for the first-time in hundreds (or thousands) of years. It is believed that the Longyou Cave Complex was constructed between two to three thousand years ago, at some point in time between the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BCE), and the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 24 CE), with a preference for an early date (as ‘Longyou County’ came into being during the Spring and Autumn Period, and is thought it may have been established to administer the engineering work).

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Although the methods used for building the Longyou Cave Complex are unknown, (and despite there not existing any contemporary written records of this construction taking place), the Longyou Cave Complex is believed to be the largest artificial underground structure dating back to the ancient world. What is interesting is that the style of art used, appears to be that of the ‘Liangzhu’ (良渚) Cultural Period, which dates to between 3400 – 2250 BCE. However, regardless of all the confusing historical data, Dr Chu Liangcai (褚良才) of Zhejiang University has stated (after carrying-out at least 10 field study trips to the area in recent times) that the Longyou site probably dates back to the Western Han Dynasty, as the historical records state that the Emperor Xuan Di (宣帝) [r. 74-49 BCE] issued an edict entitled ‘All Border Counties to Construct Warehouses’ (边郡皆筑仓 – Bian Jun Jie Zhu Cang), as a means to store food, and combat-ready weaponry – with similar buildings being used for this function ever since that time.

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©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2017.

Chinese Language References:

https://zh.wikipedia.org/zh-hans/龍游石窟

http://baike.sogou.com/h7334.htm?sp=Snext&sp=l67129568

http://ec.zjol.com.cn/yrsh/201705/t20170502_3545427.shtml?open_source=weibo_search

https://baike.baidu.com/item/龙游石窟

 

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