The earliest rock carvings in Dazu County date back to AD 650, in the early years of the Tang dynasty, but the main period began in the late 9th century.
In 892 Wei Junjing, Prefect of Changzhou, pioneered the carvings at Beishan, and his example was followed after the collapse of the Tang dynasty.
The creation of rock carvings ceased during the early years of the Song dynasty, and was not to resume until 1078, in the reign of Emperor Yuan Feng of the Northern Song dynasty.
Work began again at Beishan, continuing until 1146, and the groups at Nanshan and Shimenshan were carved.
There are 264 niches with statues, 1 intaglio painting, and 8 inscribed pillars; in all there are over 10,000 carvings at Beishan.
More than half the carvings represent Tantric Buddhism and the remainder relate to the concepts of the Trinity and Sukhavati.
Over one-third of the Beishan carvings date from the mid-10th century and are characterized by their small and pretty figures, varied postures, natural and unrestrained features, and delicate dress ornamentation.
Shimenshan carvings, from the first half of the 12th century, cover 72 m.
They demonstrate the integration of Buddhist and Taoist subjects, the latter being the most characteristic.
The 92 statues in the Cave of the Gods and Goddess of Mount Tai reflect the important role of the Taishan Family among the Taoist divinities between the 10th and 13th centuries.
There are over 50,000 sculptures at Dazu, accompanied by over 100,000 Chinese characters of inscriptions and epigraphs.
All the rock carvings can be viewed in natural light and are connected by walkways and paths.
The two main sites are Bei Shan, just outside the town of Dazu, and Baoding Shan, 16km to the northeast.
Midway around the site, visitors come upon a 20-meter-long Reclining Buddha inset into the cliff face, fronted by realistic portraits of important donors.
The following two panels, Parental Kindness and Sakyamuni’s Filial Piety, interestingly use Buddhist themes to illustrate Confucian morals.
Next is the Eighteen Layers of Hell, a horrific scene interspersed with amusing images like the Hen Wife and the Drunkard and His Mother.
These Dazu carvings are considered to be the best representatives of the latest phase of rock art in China.
They clearly demonstrate the ingenuity and craftsmanship of their artists with respect to carving techniques and subject matter.
A local tantric Buddhist by the name of Zhao Zhifeng (b. 1159) devoted his life to this elaborate monument which is now a World Heritage Site, and one of the reasons Baodingshan is such a useful site is because Zhao Zhifeng divided the cliff face into particular themes such as Huayan Buddhism, visions of the Pure Land and, most significantly for us, the courts of hell.
Uniformly seated in a row, the ten hell kings preside over all manner of physical retribution as sinners are beaten, boiled, crushed and dissected.
The inscribed texts warn the viewer to embrace virtue and study the dharma lest this nightmare become realized for them.
And amidst these horrors stands a life-sized Zhao Zhifeng himself with his eyes closed and his hand pointing back toward the carnage.