We’ve received and published this article written by Camilla Fatticcioni, author of the blog “Per Quel Che Ne So Io“.
The history behind how Buddhism came to the region of Gansu
I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of “Il Milione” by Marco Polo, about his adventures along the historic Silk Road that crosses all of Asia all the way to China, a country which at that time was so far off and unknown to Westerners that only a few legends were known about it. Never in my life would I have believed that I would be living in this place that represented the main destination along this long road that merchants have been traveling for centuries, often risking their lives.
I lived for a year in the city of Lanzhou, chief city of the Gansu region, and presently a growing metropolis: today skyscrapers sprout like mushrooms along the banks of the Yellow River, the main river of northern China that a long time ago was the mythical site of those legendary stories that were told along the Silk Road.
Marco Polo passed through Lanzhou, also stopping in Zhangye and Dunhuang, another two large cities in this arid Chinese region in the northwest.
Not only did precious merchandise like silk, gems and spices circulate on the Silk Road, but also ideas, cultures and various religions: Buddhist monks from India walked the same roads traced by caravans of merchants, bringing with them statues and amulets, objects and symbols that soon became the first tools in the spread of the Buddhist religion in China.
This religion coming from afar then planted its roots in China, slowly taking a new form and interpretation based on the Chinese culture.
The Silk Road, like a raging river, left a mark of its passage and Buddhism started sprouting along this trafficked trade route: and so some of these arid backdrops became the cradle of this religion in China with the construction of many rocky caves designed for Buddhist worship and prayer. These types of caves were carved from the rock to be used as places of prayer for monks and a pilgrimage for the faithful traveling the Silk Road.
The site of Mogao is one of the most famous and important of this type of cave, but I, without getting too far from Lanzhou went off to discover a less famous place for us Westerners but just as evocative: Bingling Caves.
Binglingsi (炳灵寺) – which literally means “cave of the thousand Buddhas” – is a complex of rocky caves located about 80 kilometers from Lanzhou, near a town called Liujiaxia.
The Bingling complex is made up of 34 caves and 149 alcoves for private meditation, but this place is particularly famous for the gigantic statue of Buddha Maitreya, that is Buddha of the future, which dominates the whole complex at a tall and beautiful 27 meters.
According to an inscription found inside one of the caves, the first constructions go back to 420 A.D., namely the time when China was living through a tormented period of division and wars, a period known as the “Chinese Dark Ages”.
In those years of political and ideological upheaval, Confucianism, which to that point was the dominant political ideology in China, allowed room for a religion from India, Buddhism.
Buddhism presented itself as a new faith open to the masses and not just the elite and literate, and soon also found consensus among rulers that embraced the new religion, finding in it a new useful ideology for their political affirmation.
Work on Bingling continued over the years, with the construction of new caves and the restoration of older ones, before being interrupted under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), to be rediscovered again in 1969.
These caves were dug in a canyon that hugs the Yellow River, and even today they are isolated from the emerging chaos from the Chinese metropolises, reachable only by water.
Traveling toward Bingling
My adventure toward Bingling began one morning at the end of September, when I improvised a day tour with the little information that I managed to find about the place on the internet.
After taking a bus at around six in the morning from the Lanzhou West Station (a ticket for the two and a half hour trip cost me 20 Yuan), I arrived woozy and tired at the Liujiaxia bus station where I never had the time to figure out how to get to Bingling, because before getting off the bus various people arrogantly got onto the vehicle, offering all passengers transportation to the Buddhist caves.
At the time my Chinese wasn’t the best, but when it comes to negotiating a price there is no language barrier. I joined in with a group of touring Chinese headed to the caves and for 500 Yuan for a group of 5-6 people I was offered transportation by car until reaching a motorboat for the return trip.
Getting in the car, the lady driving right away revealed herself as reckless, overtaking other cars along curves at high speed, causing me to have a few strokes. The trip by car was pleasant all the same for admiring the surrounding landscape: we crossed an arid periphery with various broken down huts, many of which I believe were without running water or electricity; shepherds with goats and farmers working arid plots of land, curiously looking at the car zooming by at high speed while covering their eyes from the sun and dust kicked up by its passing.
Arriving at the ferry, I found myself in front of a moon-like landscape of sharp red rocks punctuated now and then by a few green shrubs. The motorboat was so small compared to the enormous size of the river that I didn’t hesitate for a second to put on my life preserver.
The ride on the water lasted for about twenty minutes, but for me time flew as I was enchanted by the surrounding scenery: the red canyon hugging the Yellow River truly offers a unique landscape, which looks as if it is out of some kind of space film. The motorboat went up and down, fighting the river’s current, and between the spray and slight nausea we finally arrived at the site of the caves.
As soon as I stepped foot on dry land several vendors approached me, likely drawn by one of the few Western faces in the middle of nowhere, mine.
They were selling various Buddhist amulets, necklaces and bracelets or the typical fire-cooked potatoes of the region. Besides those few vendors and the people working at the ticket office, the place was completely uninhabited and un-touristy, something to be appreciated in China since anyplace with something interesting to visit is transforming into a sort of Disneyland.
After buying an entrance ticket for 50 Yuan, I was finally able to admire the enormous statue of Buddha Maitreya, which has its long eyes and impassible expression fixed on the Yellow River, as if it was absorbed in meditation contemplating the marvels of nature. This statue is one of the largest Buddha statues remaining in China, and having been built under the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when Buddhist art reached its apex, it is a true masterpiece.
From afar the rocky walls dominated by the gigantic Buddha Maitreya looks like a beehive due to its numerous caves connected by precarious wooden ladders.
It’s not possible to visit all caves in the complex without a special permit, so I limited myself to poking around in the lowest ones, looking at a few partially intact wall paintings with colors that at one time I imagine must have been very bright, so as to provide the right atmosphere for the prayers and meditation of the monks and faithful.
The caves at this site are a real time map that describes the evolution of Buddhist art from its beginning with strong Indian influences; later Buddhist art, over the centuries, has instead undergone a strong “Sino-ization” of its contents, becoming an integral part of Chinese culture.
Moving in between the rocks, immersed in the silence of the canyon’s nature, I perceived the sacredness that is still preserved today: it may also be for this reason that walking through Bingling was so very pleasant, both for the sacred atmosphere in this place of worship left undisturbed for years, and for the nature that even today appears intact and uncontaminated by modernity.
It’s strange to think that Bingling, which seems forgotten today, was once a bustling trade route as well as a Buddhist place of worship.
When I arrived in Gansu for the first time, I thought that there was nothing to see and regretted not having gone to Beijing or Shanghai as some of my ex-classmates had done, but very little was needed to make me come around: Gansu has lots of stories to tell and one of these is the story of the Bingling Caves.
Photo Credits: Photos by Camilla Fatticcioni