A total of 635 grotto temples have been newly found across China in the first nationwide investigation on the status of these ancient sites, the National Cultural Heritage Administration said on Friday.
According to the study, which was launched in September 2020, there are 5,986 grotto temple sites in the country.
In the list, 288 sites have been registered as national-level key heritage sites, and 417 were under provincial-level protection.
The investigation was conducted by over 2,400 researchers in 28 provincial-level regions.
Grotto temples, which are religious sites carved into mountains or rock, were introduced to China along the ancient Silk Road in the 3rd century, and gradually became a key form of Chinese Buddhist art in the following millennium.
In 2019 and 2020 on various occasions, President Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of the study and preservation of such sites to demonstrate their philosophy and values, as well as the history of Sinoforeign cultural communication.
In October last year, the State Council released the country's first national-level guidance for the protection of grotto temples. A blueprint to protect and study grotto temples in China during the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) was released by the National Cultural Heritage Administration earlier this month.
According to Li Qun, director of the national administration, 14 provincial-level administrative regions had also drafted their own detailed plans for the protection of grotto temples since 2020. A group of new institutions and academies overseeing the sites had been newly established in provinces such as Sichuan and Shaanxi.
"Grotto temples are a key part of Chinese cultural heritage," Li said during an online conference on Friday. "Grotto temples are widely distributed on a large scale. They form a complete system with rich historical and cultural value."
He highlighted the pivotal role of these sites in reviving traditional Chinese culture.
Sichuan has the most grotto temples, with 2,134 reported during the investigation.
The wide geographic distribution of the sites, many of which are in remote areas, and their age make the efforts to protect them all the more challenging.
For example, in Sichuan, over one-third of the province's grotto temples face the potential hazard of unstable rocky foundations.
A lack of facilities and personnel taking care of and studying these sites is another problem. In Sichuan, research academies have been established to deal with just five sites, and only 112 grotto temples across the country have dedicated security facilities.
In most provinces, no more than 10 percent of their grotto temples are regularly supervised by teams of professionals.
As many as 3,361 grotto temples, over the half of the total, have not been registered as any level of key protected units.
Li vowed that the protection and conservation of the medium- and small-scale grottoes will be a focus during the 14th Five-Year Plan period. A national-level database to oversee the registered sites is also due to go online.
In addition, protection of these sites can also be part of the broader effort to revitalize rural areas through tourism.
Li also projected that closer links will be forged between Chinese grotto temples and their overseas counterparts along the ancient Silk Road.
"This would improve people-to-people connectivity," he added.
Earlier this year, the national administration signed cooperation agreements with its counterparts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran to improve cross-border exchanges on the conservation of grotto temples.
Li also called for more work on the repatriation and digitized display of relics from Chinese grotto temples which were lost to overseas looters.
Many Chinese grottoes were hit by such foreign "explorers" in the early 20th century. The return of a Buddha head statue from Japan to the Tianlongshan Grottoes in Shanxi province in December last year set an example in the repatriation of relics.