The ancient city of Luoyang, which lies just south of the Yellow River in Henan Province, has a distinguished history as a dynastic capital second only to Xi’an. The Zhou dynasty established its capital here in 1027 BCE, and during the next 2,000 years the city served as the capital of nine dynasties.

Luoyang is best known for the Buddhist carvings of the Longmen Caves. Work began on the caves in the fifth century, when the Northern Wei established their capital at Luoyang, and continued until the ninth century, when persecution of the Buddhist faith led to the closure of monasteries and the end of the patronage of Buddhist arts. However, the area around Luoyang is also famous for its rich heritage of archaeological treasures. Significant art works, from Neolithic times until China’s early dynasties, have been unearthed in the region and put on display in the Luoyang Museum and at the Henan Museum. The latter is located in the provincial capital of Zhengzhou; classified as a ‘Key’ museum (containing national treasures) it is thus a highly desirable destination while en-route to, or coming from Luoyang.


Thirteen kilometres (eight miles) to the south of Luoyang, on the banks of the River Yi, lie the Longmen Caves. The craftsmen actually used the river-side cliffs to create these monumental 1,352 caves with more than 40 pagodas, and some 97,000 statues.

Carving of the caves began in the Northern Wei dynasty, when the Emperor Xiaowen moved his capital to Luoyang in 494. The Wei emperors were devout Buddhists, and they manifested their piety by commissioning the creation of these large-scale shrines. The caves are scattered in various locations, but there are six which are the most frequently visited: the Binyang, Lianhua and Guyang caves of the Northern Wei dynasty, and the three Tang dynasty caves of Qianxi, Fengxian and the Ten Thousand Buddhas (Wanfo Dong).

Many of these caves have been badly damaged by earthquakes, water erosion and looters (both Chinese and foreign), but most of what remains is still impressive. The sculptures from the Northern Wei dynasty are highly textured and dynamic in form. They include beautiful flying apsaras (Buddhist angels) who float through flowerand cloud-filled skies, trailing fluttering ribbons. In the Sui dynasty carvings, there is a more static feel to the sculptures, whose huge faces and foreshortened limbs create a deliberately imposing effect. In contrast, the Tang sculptures (particularly those in the Fengxian cave) have great freedom of form and a liveliness of expression. The sculptures seem to be independent of the rock face from which they are carved, and the torsos twist and move in dance-like postures.


Slightly more than 10 kilometres (six miles) to the east of Luoyang lies the White Horse Temple (Baima Si). This is considered to be one of the earliest Buddhist foundations in China, dating from the first century (Eastern Han dynasty), when the capital was at Luoyang. The surviving temple structures all date from the Ming dynasty, but many of the buildings have the original Han bricks. The temple is now a centre for Chan—better known by its Japanese name, Zen—learning.

A half-day drive southeast from the Longmen Caves, in Dengfeng County, the Songyue Temple Pagoda looms on Mount Song. As the earliest surviving brick pagoda in China, it has obvious value as an architectural rarity. It was built around 520, in Indian style, and rises 40 metres (130 feet) in 12 storeys. It was once part of a thriving monastery founded in the Northern Wei dynasty.

Also in Dengfeng County is the Shaolin Temple, a place known to all kungfu enthusiasts. Set up at the end of the fifth century, Shaolin was the earliest Chan Buddhist temple in China. The style of martial art associated with it was developed by a band of 13 monks at the end of the Sui dynasty. Since 1988 there has been a martial arts training centre attached to the temple.

Eighty kilometres (50 miles) southeast of Luoyang lies the Gaocheng Observatory. Built in the Yuan dynasty, it is one of a series established throughout China. An imposing brick structure, it looks like a pyramid with its top chopped off. The Yuan dynasty imperial astronomer, Guo Shoujing, worked here and in 1280 calculated the length of the year to be 365.2425 days—some 300 years before the same calculation was made in the West.