Jesus Caves underneath Chonqing

Today I explored dozens of caves and miles of tunnels underneath Chongqing, a major metropolitan city of 20 million people. Chongqing sits on a massive limestone ridge. The backbone of this ridge runs about 20 miles  along the center of the penninsula to where the Yangtze and Jiaotong rivers meet. These caves were the target of the Japanese during Second Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945). Factories and military nerve centers were hid in these caves. Also the entire city population hid in these caves during massive air strikes.

Some of these caves date back to neolithic times, 1100 BC, when the Ba people occupied the region. Today Many of these caves have been converted into shops, auto repair facilities and antique shops, and even in the nearby Fuling  district there is a nuclear facility named 816 and a guide told me it is the world’s largest man-made cave in the world. ( I believe the CERN accelerator underground facility in France and Switzerland is larger). This facility was opened to the public this year on April 26.

Nuclear rod storage area for 816

I was interested in finding caves that were used for religious purposes and especially caves and underground structures that might relate to the Tang Dynasty. I must have asked one hundred people today for the locations of these caves. Most people know of these caves as part of the history of WWII but little else. Finally I ran into a professor who told me he knew of a  temple that was underground. We walked to a street called “Arhat” which I knew meant “angel” in Middle Persian. This was a great clue because most Christians who came to China during the Tang Dynasty would have used this term for angels. We walked up a small hill and were blocked by three fire engines who had just put out a fire. (Maybe there were fiery angel somewhere nearby.)

Originally built about 1,000 years ago (Song Dynasty) and rebuilt in 1752, and again in 1945, the Luohan Temple is a popular place of worship and a small community of monks is still active here. One of the main attractions is the 500 lifelike painted clay arhats—Buddhist disciples who have succeeded in freeing themselves from the earthly chains of delusion and material greed.

We finally got in and I was immediately disappointed. New stones and recent stone carving lined the walkway. Then I looked over a railing and down into a series of caves. I saw a tiny, elderly lady, I presume a nun, was sitting below in one of the cave alcoves knitting a sweater. She was seated by a figure of Guan Yin but it was too dark. I climbed down into the cave entrance and she began chatting away in Chinese explaining that I was to bow three times. As my eyes adjusted I saw an extraordinary figure of Guan Yin. It was the oldest sculpture I have seen yet in a cave. I estimate it was 3rd or 4th century AD. It had no Chinese features. I clearly was Indian in it’s style and pose.

Buddhism came to China in the 1st century AD and statues did not begin to acquire Chinese features until the 7th and 8th centuries when Empress Wu began to commission Buddhist sculptures often caved by Nestorian-Christian masons from Tur Abdin on the upper Tigris River in the Middle East.

The pose of the 3/4 life size figure was in the relaxed Indian style with one knew bent and folded against the body with the foot flat on the ground and the other leg of the seated figure folded to the side with the sole of the foot exposed. The right arm rested upon the upright knee.

The facial features are of a man or androgenous which was the character of Guan Yin when she came out of India and into China. The facial features were no exactly India so I suspect that syncretism with the Chinese body type was already beginning to occur when this was carved. Also Guan Yin is not holding a vase or willow branch which were later characteristics of Guan Yin in China. Therefore, because of these clues and characteristics I date this as a scuplture no later than the Sui period.

I consider this a Jesus Cave in the sense that it was a seminal iconic force that shaped the development of Guan Yin who was later adopted by Chinese Christians, becoming the syncretistic image of the Virgin Mary.

There were several of these images carved into the limestone formation over which is a relatively new temple.

The discovery of these images left me glowing and it wasn’t from the nuclear reactor I saw earlier in the morning.

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About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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