Buddhist Art of Salvation: The Medieval Dazu Rock Carvings at Mt. Baoding

Entrance to the Great Buddha Bend, Mt. Baoding, Dazu, Southern Song Dynasty (photo: G41rn8, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The complex served as the major cult center dedicated to the enigmatic saintly figure Liu Benzun.

By Clara Ma
PhD Candidate, History of Art and Architecture
University of Virginia


The monumental sculptural complex at Mt. Baoding, Dazu, Sichuan province, China consists of nearly 10,000 painted and gilded images of Buddhist deities and narrative scenes carved out of sandstone. Mt. Baoding is the richest repository of sculpture of the Southern Song Dynasty which ruled from 1127 until it fell to the Yuan (Mongols) in 1279 C.E.

Map showing the location of Mt. Baoding in Dazu, China (underlying map © Google)

The complex served as the major cult center dedicated to the enigmatic saintly figure Liu Benzun 柳本尊 and was constructed under the leadership of Zhao Zhifeng 趙智鳳, a 12th century Buddhist who lived in the area and who claimed to be a devoted follower of Liu Benzun (who lived several centuries earlier). Mt. Baoding’s many images offer an innovative local perspective on Buddhism—one that promoted Liu’s sacred persona, and showed an interest in a mix of popular Buddhist subjects.

The Cultic Identity of Liu Benzun

Liu Benzun was an enigmatic figure in Chinese Buddhism and little is known about him. The only biographical accounts of him are found in the Song Dynasty inscriptions in Mt. Baoding. According to these inscriptions, Liu was a native of present-day Sichuan and active in the area in the mid-ninth century. Throughout his life, Liu observed monastic vows and practiced austerities, as well as incantations inspired by esoteric Buddhist masters. He was recognized as an incarnation of a bodhisattva, a manifestation of Buddha Vairocana (the Buddha from which all Buddha emanates), and famous for using incantations to subjugate evil spirits and cure illness, and he performed self-mortification to relieve the suffering of the masses. These miraculous deeds had made Liu a renowned wonder-worker and ascetic, and attracted a large base of lay followers, including local gentry and rulers in Sichuan.

Buddhism during the Song Dynasty

The development of Mt. Baoding was rooted in the expansion of Buddhist traditions and practices among common people during the Song Dynasty. Buddhism was introduced from South Asia and Central Asia to China via trade routes since the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 C.E.) and spread across the Chinese religious landscape. Although the Song imperial court mainly promoted Confucianism and Daoism, laymen and officials continued to participate in Buddhist practices and commissioned Buddhist images across China. The printing and translation of Buddhist texts also thrived at the beginning of the Song dynasty.

Parinirvana (the death of Shakyamuni attended by bodhisattvas), Mt. Baoding, Southern Song Dynasty, Dazu, China, 102′ long (photo: G41rn8, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Religious movements that orient people towards individual salvation such as Ch’an, Pure Land, and esoteric Buddhism sprang up and came to dominate Song Dynasty Buddhism. Importantly, these traditions did not exist independently, but often overlapped. Both monks and lay individuals were often familiar with these various teachings and were involved in activities including meditation, recitation, and incantation. The artists and patrons of the rock carvings were aware of these parallel traditions and often depicted them next to each other.

New Developments in Chinese Cave Temple Art

Layout of Mt. Baoding, Southern Song Dynasty, Dazu, China. After Kucera 2016, figure 3. 

The layout and construction of the sculptural complex at Mt. Baoding play a significant role in helping the viewer recognize the localized Buddhism that revolved around Liu’s sacred persona. The carvings at Mt. Baoding date to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and comprise two major rock-cut areas that together form a U-shape: Little Buddha Bend (Xiaofowan in Chinese), and Great Buddha Bend (Dafowan in Chinese). Great Buddha Bend consists of thirty-one groups of monumental reliefs that were carved and painted on the cliff surface. The 500-meter long carving flows from one composition to another, and is punctuated by two caves. These compositions are sometimes referred to as niches or tableaux.

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, Shanxi province, Jin Dynasty, dated 1195. Wood with pigment. H. 75 in. (Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto)

This large-scale project was at the heart of the growing image-making activity in southern China during the Southern Song Dynasty. Stylistically, the figures at Mt. Baoding differ from the Northern Song and Jin Dynasty sculpture of northern China, such as the standing Avalokitesvara now in the Royal Ontario Museum, which features a heavy body and a plump face. The figures at Great Buddha Bend are comparatively less plump and fleshy than their northern counterparts and are characterized by deeply carved and naturalistic rendering of drapery. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas wear tall crowns made of intricate floral patterns and elaborate necklaces, with multiple strands of beads over their chests. Other figures feature dramatic facial expressions and engage in lively dynamic movement.

Detail of reclining Buddha, Parinirvana (the death of Shakyamuni attended by bodhisattvas), Mt. Baoding, Southern Song Dynasty, Dazu, China, 102′ long (photo: Mulligan Stu, CC BY 2.0)

These sculptural features, as seen in the Great Buddha Bend, represent a new development of Chinese cave temple art. Historically, the large rock-carved sites in China display multiple niches or cave-temples on the cliffs such as the grottoes at Yungang. [1] Each niche or cave is an individual unit and has its own arrangement and decoration. In addition, the design and layout of each niche or cave differ stylistically as these sites were constructed over centuries. At Great Buddha Bend, in contrast, the layout and uniform stylistic features of carvings enable devotees to encounter its elements as a unified whole. This creates a distinctive visual character for the cult center.

A Synthesis of Buddhist Teachings

Despite their regional character, the carvings at Mt. Baoding contain iconic figures and narrative elements inspired by popular Buddhist scripture and teachings. By the time of the Song Dynasty, the use of visual representation as a means of visualizing Buddhist scripture had been long developed in murals, illustrated manuscripts, and rock carvings.

Artists built upon these existing visual and iconographical traditions, and integrated inscriptions within the sculpted scenes to explain the diverse subject matter.

The Ox Herding Story

Ox herding story (scenes 1–10; 11 is not pictured here), Niche 30, Southern Song Dynasty, Mt. Baoding, Dazu (photos: G41rn8, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Located at the eastern end of the Great Buddha Bend, the ox herding tableau, shows a herdsman taming a disobedient ox—a traditional metaphor for the path to self-enlightenment and a popular theme among Ch’an Buddhist monks and painters in the Song Dynasty. The tableau is made up of eleven vignettes arranged horizontally along a 27-meter cliff wall.

Ox herding story (scene 1–2), Niche 30, Dafowan, Mt. Baoding, Dazu. Southern Song Dynasty (photos: G41rn8, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The first three vignettes each depict a lively interaction between a herdsman and an ox in a landscape setting. The herdsman represents the Buddhist practitioner while the ox refers to the practitioner’s potential to become a Buddha. As the ox turns its body away, the stocky herdsman uses force, grass, and a stick to tame the ox. The verses accompanying the scenes further recount these struggles.

Herdsmen embracing in the ox herding story (scene 5), Niche 30, Dafowan, Mt. Baoding, Dazu. Southern Song Dynasty (photos: G41rn8, CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the fourth and fifth vignettes, the ox is finally brought under control. The herdsman, featuring a wide, joyful smile, wraps his arms around his fellow herdsman while holding on to the ox with the rope in his hands. Without the need to forcefully control the ox, the herdsman rests his back against a rock, plays his flute, and sleeps contentedly in the following three vignettes (7–9).

Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara carries a fly whisk and a bowl behind the upper balustrade. In front of them are bodhisattvas and figures in different states of rebirth. Western Pure Land, Niche 19, Mt. Baoding, Dazu. Southern Song Dynasty (photo: G41rn8, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Further, the narrative shows a small niche enclosing a figure of a Buddhist monk sitting in meditation (not pictured here), and ends with a relief depicting a full moon resting upon a blossoming lotus.

Visions of the Afterlife and Tribulations of Hell

Souls being born into the Pure Land (detail), Western Pure Land, Niche 19, Mt. Baoding, Dazu, Southern Song Dynasty (photo: Clara Ma)

In addition to this Ch’an Buddhist theme, the carvings at Mt. Baoding show a strong interest in Chinese Buddhist visions of the afterlife, including the Pure Land and the tribulations of hell. Pure Land refers to a realm presided over by a Buddha and purified of suffering. Buddhists aspire to be reborn in the Pure Land as it is an ideal way station to attain enlightenment.

Located across from the Ox herding tableau, the tableau of Western Pure Land shows the monumental Buddha Amitabha flanked by two bodhisattvas (beings who have not yet attained enlightenment) at the center of an extraordinary paradise realm known as the Western Pure Land. In front of the balustrade, several bodhisattvas are welcoming new souls being reborn into the Pure Land from blooming lotuses. 

Buddhism recognizes that there is a causal relationship between one’s actions and intention (in Sanskrit this is called karma), as well as its results, which needs not manifest in the present time. Applying this principle to the belief of afterlife, one’s afterlife destiny is based on one’s karma. Even if a person has a bad rebirth and falls into hell due to bad karma, they are not damned for eternity and would be able to enter a better place through the assistance of other enlightened beings and the accumulation of merits in Buddhist rituals. Bodhisattva Dizang (in Sanskrit, Kṣitigarbha), known as the savior of the dead, is one of these prevalent enlightened beings who helps devotees to avoid a cruel afterlife and release those in hell from punishment. Dizang’s cult was prevalent in medieval Chinese society and generated a large number of images.

Niche 20, Dafowan, Mt. Baoding, Dazu. Southern Song Dynasty (photos: Truthven, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Detail of Dizang. Niche 20, Dafowan, Mt. Baoding, Dazu

Next to the tableau of Pure Land, a monumental tableau illustrates gruesome tortures in hell with an iconic figure of bodhisattva Dizang sitting on a lotus throne at the center. On both sides of Dizang, the composition is divided into four horizontal registers. On the top, each of the Buddhas of the Ten Directions (Buddhas throughout time and space) sit within a round niche.

To the left of Dizang are five of the Buddha of the Ten Directions, and five of the Ten Kings. Each king sits behind an individual desk and flanked by an attendant. At the bottom, deceased receive various types of punishment in the Sword Tree Hell, the Freezing Hell, the Boiling Cauldron Hell, and the Knife Mountain Hell. Details of the Hell Tableau, Niche 20, Dafowan, Mt. Baoding, Dazu. Southern Song Dynasty (photos: G41rn8, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Below them, Dizang is flanked by the Ten Kings of Hell (5 kings on each side plus an officer), who weigh the karma of the dead. The kings are dressed as Chinese bureaucrats and sit behind draped desks, with inscriptions stating each of their titles and explaining how one ends up in hell—as well as how one can be released from hell through devotional practices. At either side of the seated kings, sit individuals who wear black caps with horizontal flaps. These are the Officers of Immediate Retribution and Rapid Recompense, who record the judgment and rebirth of every individual. 

(From left to right) Scenes showing a deceased person (floating in pool of feces and filth), and, at lower right (), a warden coercing a half-naked sinner with a halberd. The hells of feces and filth express the didactic and narrative functions of the tableau by depicting the cause of the punishment. An inscription notes that “those who eat meat fall into the hell of feces and filth.” [2] Niche 20, Dafowan, Mt. Baoding, Dazu. Southern Song Dynasty (photos: G41rn8, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Depending on the judgement of the Ten Kings, the deceased will be redeemed or receive punishment in hell. Although Buddhist scriptures do not describe hell in great detail, the artists and patrons of Great Buddha Bend were interested in these themes. They incorporated the conventional depiction of Dizang and the Ten Kings with inscriptions and elaborate scenes of punishment of the Eighteen Hells on the two lower registers of the tableau.

The scenes show animal-headed wardens either punishing sinners by exposing them to extreme cold, splitting up their bodies, or boiling them. Unlike the well-ordered and static figures in the upper two rows, these figures, who are closer to the viewer, have expressive facial features and engage in dynamic, lifelike action. The inscriptions identify the name of each hell with its chief punishments, but also offers a solution and provides the name of the deity who can intercede on behalf of the deceased.

Detail of the Hell of the Boiling Cauldron, and the Freezing Hell. Niche 20, Dafowan, Mt. Baoding, Southern Song Dynasty, Dazu, China (photos: G41rn8, CC BY-SA 4.0)

For example, in the Hell of the Boiling Cauldron, sinners bob up and down in a large boiling pot while a horse-headed warden is stirring them with a long stick. Behind the cauldron, another warden with bulging eyes and a ragged face drags a deceased’s head (by pulling the figure’s hair) toward the cauldron. Below the boiling cauldron, an inscription states that one can chant the name of the Medicine Buddha and cultivate the Pure Land to avoid falling into hell. 

Liu’s Religious Life

The austerities of Liu Benzun, Niche 21, Mt. Baoding, Southern Song Dynasty, Dazu, China (photo: Clara Ma)

Visual representations of Liu’s religious life, particularly ten episodes of his self-mutilation and his shared identity with Buddha Vairocana (the Buddha from which all Buddha emanates), were prevalent in eastern Sichuan. At Great Buddha Bend, niche 21 depicts Liu as the largest figure at the center. Liu appears dignified and is dressed in the garb of a Chinese official. His body is stocky and square. Noticeably, his right eye is blinded and part of his left ear and left arm are missing due to his self-mutilation.

Detail of Liu Benzun, Niche 21, Mt. Baoding, Southern Song Dynasty, Dazu, China (photo: G41rn8, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Within his headdress is a seated Buddha Vairocana. Placing a deity within a figure’s headdress is a common motif to mark the spiritual lineage of the figure. In this way, the placement of Buddha Vairocana in niche 21 marks Liu’s connection to the Buddha and affirms his spiritual legitimacy.

Detail of Liu Benzun setting his genitals on fire, Niche 21, Mt. Baoding, Southern Song Dynasty, Dazu, China (photo: G41rn8, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Visual representations of biography have a long history in Buddhist art, such as the representations of the many lives of the Buddha (jataka tales). This type of biography usually serves the didactic purpose of showing that the Buddha’s life offered a model of moral and religious behavior for a worshipper to follow.

Detail of Liu Benzun cutting his ear, Niche 21, Mt. Baoding, Southern Song Dynasty, Dazu, China (photo: G41rn8, CC BY-SA 4.0)

At Great Buddha Bend, the narrative tableau of Liu’s religious life functions similarly and celebrates his intent to relieve the suffering of the masses through acts of self-mutilation.

The Afterlife of the Dazu Rock Carvings

The rock carvings at Great Buddha Bend, Dazu represent innovative Buddhist image-making during the Southern Song Dynasty. The stylistic features and subject matter demonstrate a local Buddhist cult that was interested in a variety of popular Buddhist teachings as well as the devoted acts of a charismatic Buddhist. After the invasion of the Mongols in the mid-thirteenth century, the cult of Liu and the image-making activity in Dazu gradually came to a halt. However, by the fifteenth century, the site again attracted Buddhist visitors, travelers, and literati, who supported restoration projects and erected a number of steles to record their activities on site.



  1. Karil J. Kucera, Ritual and Representation in Chinese Buddhism Visualizing Enlightenment at Baodingshan from the 12th to 21st Centuries (Amherst: Cambria Press, 2016), 8.
  2. Kucera, 148–150.

Additional Resources

Originally published by Smarthistory, 01.18.2021, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.



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