Won­drous de­lights in NW Shanxi

Rare visit to Hang­ing tem­ple, vil­lage, and coffins bring three mys­te­ri­ous sights in one day, as

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North China’s Shanxi prov­ince has plenty of won­der­ful sites and sights, but three par­tic­u­larly un­usual an­cient relics and strange bits of ar­chi­tec­ture that have been around for hun­dreds of years are a cliff tem­ple, hang­ing coffins, and a vil­lage built on the face of a cliff in the Luya Moun­tain Scenic Area of Ningwu county, that can all be vis­ited within a day.

The three are a great choice, even com­pared to the rest of the de­lights the coun­try has to of­fer and are lo­cated on a some­what re­mote moun­tain but have good ac­cess.

They’re within an hour’s drive, about 30 kilo­me­ters, of down­town Ningwu and 180 km to the north­west of the city of Taiyuan, the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal.

That drive from Taiyuan is it­self in­ter­est­ing as it takes you through small towns and vil­lages through some un­du­lat­ing coun­try­side cut with steep ravines in the loess soil and end­less fields of green planted with corn and other veg­eta­bles grow­ing on plots of vary­ing sizes.

The hang­ing tem­ple was built with the help of an in­ter­est­ingly in­ge­nious plank road no more than 2 me­ters wide that dates back to the Zhenyuan pe­riod (785-805) of the Tang Dy­nasty (618-907), a pros­per­ous and fer­vent pe­riod for Chi­nese Bud­dhism. It was con­structed out of wooden poles in­serted into bore holes in the prac­ti­cally ver­ti­cal cliff then cov­ered with wooden planks, more than 100 me­ters above the ground.

It ran for more than 21 km in the olden days, and con­nected a num­ber of tem­ples and pago­das, the lo­cals told us, but few of those tem­ples and pago­das re­main to­day.

There is, how­ever, a unique one built into a cave on the cliff, dur­ing the Tang dy­nasty, sup­ported by wooden pil­ings.

It took mem­bers of our group more than 20 min­utes to climb the steep steps to the hang­ing tem­ple, which has two floors.

It gained its name from its lo­ca­tion and, in­ter­est­ingly enough, the

in Ningwu dates back to the Tang Dy­nasty (618-907). It was built via a nar­row ac­cess path that uses wooden poles in­serted into holes in the prac­ti­cally ver­ti­cal cliff, cov­ered with wooden planks, more than 100 me­ters above the ground. Wang Run­quan, tem­ple is not only for Bud­dhists but also for devo­tees of Con­fu­cius, mak­ing it some­what of a rar­ity. The sim­ple lo­cal folks wor­ship dif­fer­ent gods in hopes of im­prov­ing their lives.

There is a sim­i­lar but more fa­mous tem­ple in Hun­yuan county, about 180 km to the north of Ningwu, which was built in North­ern Wei Dy­nasty (386-534). But, dur­ing the pop­u­lar sea­son it sees many tourists flock­ing there and mak­ing the stair­way, which is nar­row, ex­ceed­ingly crowded.

This tem­ple in Ningwu, which is less known, pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity to en­joy the tem­ple view in a much more re­laxed way even if it can be some­what un­nerv­ing for some to be up there on the nar­row cliff face.

The tem­ples got their name, xuan kong si, be­cause of a dream the em­peror had of hav­ing a tem­ple up in the clouds, with the added ben­e­fit that it can rep­re­sent the heav­enly, no­ble thoughts con­tained in the su­tras.

Per­haps an even more un­usual sight is the num­ber of hang­ing coffins at some 200 sites, mak­ing them a stand­out in China in terms of their num­bers.

They also rank high as an­tiq­ui­ties be­cause of the va­ri­ety of po­si­tions — some are in a cave; but oth­ers hung there on the cliff face sup­ported by wooden poles or se­cured by lines.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists have put forth many pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tions for these cu­ri­ous coffins, one of which is re­lated to the par­tic­u­lar ge­o­log­i­cal lo­ca­tion.

Ningwu was a hotly con­tested site with many bat­tles for hun­dreds of years, in­volv­ing govern­ment armies, in­vaders, rebels, or other eth­nic groups, and many sol­diers lost their lives. To pre­serve them, their fel­low sol­diers sus­pended them up on the cliff.

Also, for strate­gic rea­sons, a hang­ing vil­lage was built in the area at the end of the Ming Dy­nasty (13681644).

It is about 30 km from Ningwu Pass, the last pass be­fore en­ter­ing the Chi­nese cap­i­tal, Bei­jing, dur­ing the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties (1368-1911). When a rebel leader, Li Zicheng, took the Ningwu Pass from the Chongzhen em­peror (1628-1644) of the Ming, de­thron­ing him, the em­peror sought to save his fourth son by hid­ing him in a tem­ple in the re­mote moun­tain area, while search­ing for a way and a chance to re-take the strate­gic pass.

The sol­diers who were as­signed to pro­tect the son and the area, which is about 2,300 me­ters above sea level, all changed their fam­ily names to wang and the vil­lage got the name Wanghua. Un­for­tu­nately, the fa­ther com­mit­ted sui­cide and the son died only a few years later out of grief, but the vil­lage stayed on the re­mote moun­tain.

It was a bit hard to find and, even af­ter the found­ing of the New China, govern­ment lead­ers still con­sid­ered the re­mote moun­tain area a dif­fi­cult place to lo­cate so they used it as an arse­nal, although that’s long aban­doned.

One 69-year-old vil­lager, Wang Run­quan, told China Daily that he’s been de­lighted to see more tourists in the area in re­cent years and the lo­cal govern­ment doesn’t im­pose taxes on them if they open tea­houses or restau­rants to serve the vis­i­tors.

At the same time, sadly, many of the 160 vil­lagers who pre­vi­ously lived there mi­grated to cities look­ing for a bet­ter life, leav­ing be­hind mostly el­derly peo­ple amount­ing to not much more than 20 and the youngest of them is above 40.

Wang said: “Most of the houses are empty and the land is over­grown with weeds, so it’s re­ally for­tu­nate to see a grow­ing num­ber of tourists. They like the vil­lage’s his­tory, the mys­tery of the nearby coffins and the rarely seen hang­ing tem­ple, and it’s a great place for them to stay, here in our sim­ple vil­lage.”

Sun Ruisheng, Yang Cheng Roger Brad­shaw Vis­i­tors like the vil­lage’s his­tory, the mys­tery of the nearby coffins and the rarely seen hang­ing tem­ple.”

a 69-year-old vil­lager in the Hang­ing Vil­lage in Luya Moun­tain, Ningwu county, Shanxi prov­ince

Hang­ing Tem­ple


Res­i­dents trans­port vis­i­tors by horse to the Hang­ing Vil­lage, with the Hang­ing Tem­ple seen just above their heads. Hang­ing coffins on Luya Moun­tain are said to be the re­mains of sol­diers killed in early wars.


For­eign vis­i­tors get a look at the Hang­ing Tem­ple from down be­low and won­der whether to make the climb up to get a closer look at the in­side of the two-tier tem­ple.


Hang­ing Vil­lage in a moun­tain­ous area in Ningwu, Shanxi prov­ince, is 2,300 me­ters above sea level.

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