Maijishan, literally translating as “Grain Stack Mountain”, is a hillside of purple-red sandstone and the site of a series of 194 grottoes carved into the hillside itself. The mountain is located in north west China, in Gansu province, and comprises exquisite rock-cut art and architecture, spreading over 1,000 square metres of murals. There are also over 7,200 Buddhist statues and sculptures at the site.
The caves were originally built during the Jin Dynasty (265-420) by a small community of monks established between 420-422 BC by Tanhung, a monk who had initially been living in the capital at the time, Chang’an (now called Xi’an), but had moved to Maijishan following the invasion of Chang’an by the Liu Song Dynasty (420-479). The community eventually grew to a size of about 300 monks.
The sculptures are similar to those of other cave art found in north west China, typically depicting a seated Buddha surrounded by his attendants. Statues of the Amitabha Buddha are the most commonly seen Buddha figure at the Maijishan Grottoes, probably due to the immense popularity of this sect of Buddhism at the time. When sculptures at the site are not carved from the rock itself, they are usually formed of clay, but sometimes other stone. This is often sandstone, but investigations have shown that the sandstone used is not the sandstone of the original site, indicating the statues were imported from elsewhere. Their origin or the methods used to raise them into the caves, however, is not known.
The People’s Bank of China issued a set of three coins in 2004 to celebrate this magnificent example of Chinese cave art. The set comprises two gold coins and one silver coin, of which the 5 oz gold coin is particularly noteworthy, having a mintage of only 288. Other cave art has also been celebrated similarly through the production of collectable coin sets, including sites at Dunhuang, Yungang, and Longmen.