If there is one sight that you should not miss while coming through Datong, it is the Yungang Caves. This masterpiece of early Chinese Buddhist cave art was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. The story behind the grottoes is an interesting one and begins in the Wei Dynasty. The first two Wei emperors, Tuoba Gui and Tuoba Si, were both Buddhists.
However, the third emperor, Tuoba Tao, known as "Taiwu," was a Taoist, as was his Prime Minister Cui Hao and Hao’s teacher, Taoist monk Kou Qianzhi. All three abhorred Buddhism’s supplanting of the local religion. While sacking the enemy stronghold of Xi’an, Cui Hao discovered some rebel arms in a Buddhist temple and found the justification he needed to initiate a massive anti-Buddhist pogrom, now known as the Taiwu Suppression of Buddhism.
During this 6 year holocaust, Buddhists were severely persecuted, temples were razed, monks were killed, and books were burned. Regretting the severity of his action and judging Cui to be a treacherous minister, Emperor Taiwu, while on his death-bed, ordered the execution of Cui Hao and his 100-strong family clan. The emperor later died, as did Cui’s teacher, Kou Qianzhi.
Judging these deaths to be a sign of the gods’ displeasure, Emperor Wencheng ordered the restoration of Buddhism upon his enthronement and had the Yungang grottoes built. What we now find still enduring is a series of 53 caves that stretch a kilometer east to west containing over 51,000 magnificent statues ranging from three centimeters tall to over 17 meters in height.