China’s Oldest Wooden Buddhist Tower
The Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogong Temple, located in Yingxian County, Shanxi (also known as the Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County), is China’s tallest and most ancient existent wooden tower structure. Both in terms of its architectural artistic significance and importance in Chinese Buddhism, this completely wooden tower, which has stood for almost a millennium, is of utmost value.
The overall structure of the Sakyamuni Pagoda of Foguang Temple (the Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County) was designed and constructed in accordance with the Buddha’s Talk on Measures of Buddha’s Statue (a classic in Buddhism on the standards for building Buddhist statues). There are statues in each storey of the pagoda, with 26 statues in total, according to Professor Lai Xiangxing, a Buddhist expert, and these statues form an integral picture of “Buddha Attained Enlightenment.”
Structures remaining from China’s Tang Dynasty (618– 907 AD) are very few in number; however, many structures of the following Liao (916–1125 AD) and Song (960–1279 AD) dynasties carried on the architectural customs and styles of the Tang, providing scholars of Tang Dynasty architecture with more information on what they do have from the Tang Dynasty, which is why many researchers hold the structures of the Liao Dynasty in such high regard. The Sakyamuni Wooden Pagoda of the Fogong Temple, located in northwestern Yingxian County, Shuozhou City, Shanxi Province, is one of the few Liao Dynasty structures standing today, thus it is of extreme importance to scholars of ancient Chinese architecture.
A Miraculous Wooden Structure
The Yingxian County Wooden Pagoda is 67.31 m in height, as tall as a modern 20-story building, 7000 tons or so in weight, and has been standing for more than 900 years. Ancient wooden Chinese structures of such a large scale are extremely rare today, but the scant documents we have pertaining to its history render its origins quite unclear. Regarding when the tower was constructed, there are two main theories: the first is during the Emepror Gaozu of the Later Jin Dynasty (936–943 AD), and rebuilt during the Yelü Hongji period of the Liao Dynasty (1055–1064 AD); while the second theory says that it was fund-raised and constructed by a man named Tian Heshang under imperial decree in 1056 AD, with two expansions in the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234 AD).
The board inscribed with “释迦塔” (lit. The Sakyamuni Pagoda), hanging below the eaves of the third flower, is the oldest and most precious among all the boards of the pagoda, with a history of more than eight hundred years.
Although the two theories have a difference of only 100 years, they put the tower in different dynasties. The first theory would put the tower’s construction in the Five Dynasties period (907– 960 AD), an era of China’s history that saw the splitting among states on a very large scale. The “Five Dynasties” refer to five short periods of rule following the fall of the Tang Dynasty in 907, and since the name of each dynasty used that of a previous major dynasty, the prefix “later” is attached to each, respectively the Later Liang, Tang, Jin, Han and Zhou dynasties. The instability and constant warring of this era would have rendered the construction of an enormous wooden tower highly unlikely; therefore, the latter theory, placing the tower’s initial construction in the Liao Dynasty (1056 AD), is somewhat more believable.
The founders of the Liao Dynasty were the Khitan people, an ancient nomadic tribe originating from northeastern China. In the beginning of their rule they did not follow Buddhism, but toward the end of the Tang Dynasty a tribe leader named Yelü Abaoji set his sights on absorbing the culture of the Han people, so that he could eventually conquer and rule over them. At the same time, Chai Gui (the founding emperor of the Later Zhou dynasty, 921–959 AD) decreed a policy to abolish Buddhism; as a result, many senior monks fled to the Kingdom of Liao. Yelü Abaoji’s conquest to overcome the Han people and Chai Gui’s determination to abolish Buddhism, along with the Kingdom of Liao’s policy of utilizing skilled persons, gave rise to an influx of talent, compensating for the lack of Liao’s architectural traditions, and Buddhism enjoyed widespread popularity among royal family and officials alike, with many Buddhist monks even rising high in the ranks. This eventually led to what Kublai Khan referred to as “the fall of the Liao Dynasty due to Buddhism”.
The Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County is the most creatively and innovatively constructed wooden pagoda in China’s history, on which the dougong structure is most widely used. There were a total of 54 different types of dougong brackets used in these wooden structures, which were basically like 54 kinds of burr puzzles, an ancient three-dimensional toy of the Han people, usually consisting of six rods fastened together, which is said to have originated from the mortise and tenon joint architecture of the ancient Chinese people. Each bracket of a structure fixed a portion of the tower in place, forming an eight-sided hollow structural layer on each floor. The pagoda has a stone foundation consisting of two square-shaped layers, a total of 4.4 m in height, atop which sits the octagonal body of the tower, so that although it appears to have five floors and six eaves, there are additional floors hidden between floors one to four, for a total of nine floors. The tower structure features pillars both inside and outside the eaves, forming a two layers of sleeves, one inside the other, then on each floor the beams and dougong brackets connect to one another, achieving a high degree of integrity, and a structure which is very similar to modern skyscrapers, of which this kind of tower could be said to be the predecessor of today’s “tube-in- tubestructure”in architecture. Each of the exterior pillars of the tower’s visible floors are set upon the beams of the floors below, and contracted toward the center of the tower by about the length of half the pillars’ diameter. The entire tower is designed using only these mortise and tenon joins, without a single nail, yet the tower has withstood almost a millennium of the elements, natural disasters and war; for such a large-scale tower to have stood for so long is truly a miracle of world architecture.
A Secret Treasure
Up until one day in 1966, the Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County was merely regarded as an enormous yet intricately crafted pagoda, of immeasurable value to architecture scholars, and of holy Buddhist protective qualities to the common people. But no one had stopped to think of another of its purposes: pagodas were built as a place to enshrine and worship Buddhist treasures. Despite this important function,
throughout the history of pagodas we only have a series of documents pertaining to their maintenance, with virtually no materials telling us about the treasures stored within.
Inside the first floor of the Yingxian County Wooden Pagoda, there are three donor portraits on the inscribed board hanging above the Nanbei door. The donors were three empresses and three princes from the royal family of the Liao Dynasty. According to court ranking, the portraits of the three empresses were painted on the front of the board, while the three princes are on the back. Photo/ Zheng Yunfeng
This was an otherwise very normal day, June 18, 1966, when on the third floor of the tower someone found a decorative silver box of unknown origin. Then on July 28, 1974, when specialists were investigating the state of the statue remains on each floor, they stumbled upon a large collection of Liao Dynasty treasure hidden within the main Buddha statue on the fourth floor, thereby clarifying the origin of the silver box. After a thorough investigation of the bead-shaped objects found within the box, the scholars determined that these were not typical Buddhist treasures or Liao Dynasty artifacts, they were extremely important Buddhist relics known as Śarīra. Two months later, inspectors discovered that the main statue on the second floor had been broken open, the relics inside all stolen. Police investigators determined that the thief was a maintenance carpenter, and that he had stolen a similar silver box, which he had already sold. The box was later recovered by authorities.
Inside the first silver box was a set of the “seven treasures”, seven items usually in the form of tablets made from different materials, as well as “Buddha’s teeth relics (Śarīra)”, small, white tooth- shaped treasures, and three scrolls of Sakyamuni Teaching Scene Painting. The box that was recovered by the police also contained the seven treasures and Buddha’s teeth relics. It was four years before the relics had been organized and appraised, before being revealed to the public. In July, 1979, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage asked the Museum of Chinese History and Cultural Relics Bureau of Shanxi to organize a “Yingxian County Wooden Pagoda Liao Dynasty artifact arrangement team”, to provide an evaluation with national- level authority on the Buddha’s teeth relics.
This is an 11 m tall statue of Shakyamuni. The Liao Dynasty Buddhist sculptures commonly feature a firm body and wide, thick shoulders, bearing an imposing manner, which was an inherited the legacy of Tang Dynasty statue art. Photo/ Zheng Yunfeng
Rongbaozhai, a time-honored Beijing writing supply and calligraphy store, took on the task of restoring the artefacts, among the team of which 77-year-old calligrapher and seal-cutting expert Xu Zhiqian wrote a detailed assessment certificate of the silver box: “In summer of 1966, from within the square- shaped groove of the wooden frame inside the chest of the tower’s fourth- floor main statue, a hexagonal silver box was recovered, inside which was a set of the seven treasures and Buddha’s teeth relics.” The seven treasures, also known as the seven priceless items, consist of seven precious articles of varying sizes; the seven treasures found in the Yingxian County Wooden Pagoda were a gold tablet, a silver tablet, a copper tablet, a fragrant earth tablet, a crystal glass tablet, an agarwood tablet, and a rosin tablet.
In The Great Tang Records of the Western Regions - Kasmira, the great monk Xuanzang wrote that in while India he had paid worship to Buddha’s tooth relics, which he describes as being as long as 1.5 cm or so, and gloriously sparkling. Based on this description, the two Buddha’s teeth relics found in the Yingxian County Wooden Pagoda, in terms of coloration, size and shape, are exactly the same as those described in the classical Buddhist scriptures.
“All auspicious signs are difficult to describe in full detail; I can only say that I am beside myself with joy.” This is how well-known Taiwanese master monk Huili described his emotional state upon laying eyes on the pair of Buddha’s tooth relics within the silver box. He also affirmed the fact that they were true relics (Śarīra) from Sakyamuni’s body. As for the original name of the tower, namely the Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogong (Buddha Palace) Temple, he holds that this name signifies “the
palace of Buddha, the pagoda of Sakyamuni”, namely that Fogong Temple is the palace of Sakyamuni, while the pagoda was built to worship the true Śarīra found within. This is the only temple in the world of which the temple is named after Buddha, and the pagoda named after Sakyamuni.
Two of the eight guardians under the seat of Shakyamuni. Photo/ Zheng Yunfeng Debate over the Tower’s Repair
Throughout the more than 900 years of the pagoda’s life it has been subjected to earthquakes, wars and damage from all sorts of other natural and human causes, but none of these has had a significant influence on the tower. However, what did vitally harm the tower was its own design. To create its intricate dual sleeve structure, the beams of the inner and outer octagonal rings were connected to each other; this ingenious network lowered the tower’s overall center of gravity, redirecting it toward the center of the tower, thereby increasing the tower’s stability. However, there were 24 pillars on the outer ring, while only eight on the inner ring, so each of the inner pillars was subjected to the pressure of three of the outer ones. This directly resulted
in inconsistent application of pressure on the inner and outer rings, so that the inner pillars eventually became damaged, with the second and third floors, bearing the most weight, being the most seriously affected. Thus began the history of the tower’s repair, along with a series of experiments and debates which would last for years.
Samantabhadra: One of the eight Bodhisattvas on the fifth floor of the pagoda. Photo/ The Xinhua News Agency Jiang Hongjing
With a pair of black glazed eyes, peaceful and insightful, the Samantabhadra has an expression of compassion and mercy. Photo/ The Xinhua News Agency Jiang Hongjing
The tower was repaired at numerous points throughout history. The late architect Mr. Chen Mingda performed a systematic study of wooden towers, and in his book The
Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County combines his observations and analyses of the tower’s structure. He believes there were two reparations that involved the structure of the pagoda, the first being during the rule of Emperor Zhangzong of the Jin Dynasty (1191– 1195 AD). “Components were added later that greatly increased the strength of the tower’s structure. Damage was present throughout the tower, including split pillars and crushed beams, which was likely the result of one particularly serious instance of damage about a century after the tower’s construction. It was also the reason for the necessary enforcing and repair during the rule of Emperor Zhangzong of Jin (1190– 1196 AD).” The second major repair was in the Ming Dynasty, in the third year of Emperor Zhengde’s rule (1508). From the methods and results of these two major repairs, not only did the architects correctly determine the cause of the tower’s self- inflicted damage, they also managed to use simple yet effective means to repair the tower, so that the structure’s original appearance could be kept intact.
Statues of Sakyamuni, Manjuist, Samantabhadra and two retinue Bodhisattvas on the second floor. Photo/ The Xinhua News Agency Jiang Hongjing
Four Buddhas of the four directions on the third floor: the Aksobhya Buddha of the East, the Ratnaketu Buddha of the South, the Amitābha Buddha of the West, and the Amoghasiddhi Buddha of the North. Photo/ The Xinhua News Agency Jiang Hongjing
Later there was also a repair that actually damaged the wooden structure, which took place in 1936. According to sources, this major repair was performed by a fengshui master from Yingxian County, using funds donated by the abbot Da Xing and his disciples of the temple. The project involved removing all of the clay-filled walls within the tower, and replacing them hinged doors. According to the fengshui master, the reason for this change was the pagoda was originally a linglong tower, a special kind of Buddhist pagoda, but in the Kangxi era of the Qing Dynasty (1662–1722 AD), Yingxian County subprefectural magistrate Zhang Hong replaced the doors inside with clay-filled walls, in order to intentionally ruin the fengshui of Yingxian County. To fashion it into a linglong tower once again, the doors would have to be placed back in their original locations. In fact, the accusation of the fengshui master was vague and not necessarily believable, which did not match the record of the two reparations. In the end, instead of repairing the tower, by filling the walls with clay he greatly reduced the tower’s architectural strength, as damage from later earthquakes and cannon fire accelerated the tower’s deformation.
In June, 2002, seven academicians and experts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering held a consultation to discuss the preservation of the Wooden Pagoda of Ying County. Photo/the Xinhua News Agency Chi Maohua
Due to the deformation of the body, the tower can only bear the weight of 20 tourists at a time. Adding one more person may severely displace the tower’s mortise and tenon joints, creating risks of new damage. Photo/ Liu Guomin
In recent years, driven by the spread of artefact protection knowledge and tourism development, the Yingxian County Wooden Pagoda has been addressed on the agendas of related government departments. Among the solutions proposed for the tower’s repair, aside from merely strengthening the current structure, all other options
involve first tearing down a portion or even the entire structure, which from the standpoint of heritage protection would be a regrettable decision. The experts involved with the case have greatly differing views on how the tower’s repair should be dealt with, and there have been opposing voices toward virtually all propositions, resulting in the debate on the tower’s repair that had been going on for 18 years, until, in 2007, the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage was chosen as the lead technical team for repairing the Yingxian County Wooden Pagoda, and set out to monitor and conserve the tower. Currently the team has chosen rather conservative repair methods, deciding to strengthen the current structure, and the repair debate can finally be put to rest for the time being. No one has disassembled this giant burr puzzle, and it still stands the same way it has for over nine centuries, showing the possibilities of wood architecture for all the world to see.
The Wooden Pagoda of Ying County written by Chen Mingda, an eminent architect and architectural historian, opens with the depiction “Ying County is a small place.” Since ancient times, the Ying County Wooden Pagoda has been the loftiest building in the county. Its architectural design and building methods fully manifest the characteristics of Liao Dynasty architecture, making it the most grandeur masterpiece of existing Liao Dynasty constructions. photo/ Zhu Haihu