The Oldest Wooden Pagoda in China: A Miracle of Wooden Architecture

The Sakyamuni Pagoda is located in the Fogong Temple in the northwest of Yingxian County. Commonly known as Yingxian Wooden Pagoda, it was built in the second year of Qingning of Liao and renovated and expended in the sixth year of Mingchang of Jin. 2017-09-14

The Sakyamuni Pagoda is located in the Fogong Temple in the northwest of Yingxian County. Commonly known as Yingxian Wooden Pagoda, it was built in the second year of Qingning of Liao (1056 A.D.) and renovated and expended in the sixth year of Mingchang of Jin (1195 A.D.). It is the oldest wooden pagoda existing in China, and an important heritage site under state protection.

On a four-meter high stone platform, the octagonal pagoda stands 67.31 meters high, with a diameter of 30.27 meters at the bottom. The first story has two sets of rooftop eaves. From the second story there is only one sets of eaves. There are five stories and six sets of eaves. But between each story of the pagoda is a mezzanine layer, and it actually has nine stories in total. Because of the two sets of eaves in the first story, it appears the pagoda has six sets of eaves from the exterior. Each story is supported by an interior and an exterior ring of wooden columns. The exterior ring has 24 columns and the interior ring has eight. Between those columns are many bracings, crossbeams, square columns and short pillars that form a wooden framework with multiple crossbeams in different directions. It is calculated that the whole pagoda uses 3,000 cubic meters of red pine wood (roughly 2,600 tons), with proper proportion, magnificent structure, exquisite design, and stable, solemn appearance.

There are a south door and a north door in the first story. From the second story there are rails and wooden stairs for people to climb all the way to the top. From the second to the fifth story, each story has four doors covered by wooden screens, ensuring abundant light. When you walk out of the door and look far away, you can see Mount Hengshan in the background, and the Sanggan River like a band, all within your sight, which is refreshing. Each story holds Buddhist statues. The first story has the 11-meter tall Sakyamuni statue, with a peaceful face and easy expression. Above the statue is a beautiful caisson. Interior walls have six paintings of Tathagata Buddha. On both sides of the doorway are Buddha’s warrior attendants, heavenly kings, disciples, etc. with bright colors and vivid figures. The platform is square in the second story, and there are a Buddha, two Bodhisattvas and two more Bodhisattvas on the side. The third story is octagonal and holds the statues of the four Buddhas from the four directions. The fourth story has statues of Ananda, Kasyapa, Manjusri and Samantabhadra. The fifth story holds Vairocana and the Eight Bodhisattvas. Every statue is made in detail with distinctive looks and high artistic value.

The top of the pagoda is pyramidal and octagonal, with an iron decoration. It is finely made and a perfect match with the pagoda, enhancing its magnificence. Under each eave are wind chimes that sing beautifully in the breeze.

The design of Yingxian Wooden Pagoda boldly borrows the multiple eaves form with distinctive national features from Han and Tang dynasties. Traditional construction skills were employed, and bracket arms were extensively used. The whole pagoda has 54 different kinds of bracket arms, and each of them has a kind of combination, with some combining crossbeams and pillars. Each story has an octagonal hollow structure. The design is tight and scientific, the structure is perfect and delicate. It is a pagoda featuring Chinese style and characteristics, and it meets the requirements of religion, representing the highest level of ancient Chinese architecture. Even now, it still has high research value.

After the construction of the pagoda was completed, celebrities offered tablets with their own calligraphy with great meanings and strong brushstrokes, which have added to the beauty of the pagoda. In particular, Emperor Zhu Di of Ming Dynasty led an army northward in the fourth year of Yongle (1406 A.D.) and stayed in Yingzhou (Yingxian County). As he climbed the city wall, he wrote the tablet of “Magnificent Work”. Emperor Wuzong or Zhu Houzhao led an army to Yanghe (Yanggao County of Shanxi) in the third year of Zhengde (1508 A.D.) to fight an invading Tatar prince. When he climbed the Wooden Pagoda and rewarded the generals who performed well, he wrote the tablet of “Amazing View Under Heaven”. There are now a total of 54 pieces of tablets from Ming and Qing dynasties and the Republic of China era. There are excellent couplets too, like “A pagoda rises among the mountains and the clouds, and the lights of ten thousand households connect it to the sky, along with the wind and the moon.” and “Through the clouds I see the western cave in Yanmen Path small, and under the sky I found the southern peak of Dragonhead low.” In addition, we found a batch of precious cultural relics of Liao from inside the pagoda, which are as famous as the pagoda itself, especially the colored seal of Liao that filled a gap in the history of printing technology of China. A major part of the relics are Buddhist scripture rolls. There are hand-copy versions, block printing versions, and some 30-meter long strolls. These relics are rare in China, and provide valuable information for the study of politics, economy and culture of Liao.

The Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogong Temple has been through over 900 years of weathering, erosion, earthquake, wars, and remained integral today. Besides its stable foundation and tight structure, continuous repair and maintenance throughout different dynasties is an important reason why the pagoda is still in good shape. After the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, we have conducted systematic repair and management. In 1953, China established the Cultural Relics Administrative Office. From 1974 to 1981, the country granted generous special funds to have the pagoda fully repaired with the best wood. As a result, the best protected ancient high wooden pagoda with the most genius structure and most magnificent appearance has been refreshed and is still standing. With its long history, unique artistic style and superb construction techniques, the pagoda keep attracting tourist from home and abroad.

The Liao statues in the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda are different from other statues in that they are not using the suspending statues to enhance the three-dimensional sense in a two-dimensional space. Rather, they are using symmetric and sound arrangement and simple but strong individual statues, combined with the five stories of the pagoda and the Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya and Dharmakaya of Buddha, creating an upward trend with the increase of the stories, and finally presenting the nine Buddha statues and the Mandala symbolizing the universal truth. As people climb up the pagoda, they are embarking on a journey of enlightenment and transition from an ordinary man to a Buddhist saint.

In recent years, Shanxi Province have initiated transformation and relocation of the old city around the pagoda, improving the environment of the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda scenery and developing tourism industry rapidly.

Yingxian Wooden Pagoda was built in the second year of Qingning of Liao, or 1056 A.D. It is the highest existing wooden Buddhist pagoda in China and the world. Its unique architectural art and magnificence have become lingering memories for the tourists.

Yingxian Wooden Pagoda is located in the Fogong Temple in the northwest of Yingxian. It is the main architecture of the Fogong Temple. It is the oldest and highest existing wooden pagoda, the treasure of ancient Chinese architecture, and the epitome of wooden structures in the world. As one of the first batch of important heritage sites under state protection, the pagoda can be regarded as one of the three famous towers, along with the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy and the Eiffel Tower in France in terms of construction techniques and building materials.

Yingxian Wooden Pagoda was built in the second year of Qingning (1056 A.D.) and it has a history of nearly 1,000 years. The pagoda is 67.34 meters high, with a diameter of 30.27 meters at the bottom and a total weight of about 7,400 tons. The whole architecture consists of the base platform, the body and the top decoration. The base platform has a lower square layer and an upper octagonal layer. The platform of the body is also octagonal. There are actually nine stories including five exterior stories and four interior and hidden stories. The top decoration consists of the base, the upward lotus, the phase wheel, the upward moon, the precious canopy, and the valuable pearl. The whole decoration rise up toward the sky.

The Wooden Pagoda features genius design and construction, and adopts the double-layer circular cylinder space framework. The bottom of the upper pillar is inserted into the square wood on top of the lower pillar, and it gets narrower from the upper pillar to the lower one, creating a beautiful shape. Not a single nail was used in the whole pagoda, and everything is connected with mortise and tenon. The interior and exterior columns are connected with bracings in the hidden stories, creating an octagonal cylinder framework with interior and exterior columns that enhance the integrity of the components. There are a total of 54 different forms of bracket arms, which is rare in the whole country. That is why the pagoda is called the “Museum of Bracket Arms”.


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