China’s Old­est Wooden Bud­dhist Tower

China Scenic - - Front Page - By Sang Die Pho­to­graphs by Lou Wei et al. Trans­la­tion by Nick Angiers (CAN)

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

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