Chinese Architectures - Stupas and Pagodas

Stupas appeared in China with the import of Buddhism and, during a long history of well over a thousand years, have become a valued part of the national Buddhist art.

"Stupa", a word from ancient Sanskrit meaning a square or round tomb or a "soul shrine," was mentioned by old Chinese works under no less than half a dozen varying translations. In modern times, people call all tower-like Buddhist structures ta, which includes all types of stupas and pagodas.

In the beginning, the stupa was a reliquary for keeping the relics or ashes of a saintly Buddhist. It is said that bead-like crystals of white or some other color were often found among the ashes after cremation, and they are called Shelizi or "holy relics".

Small Wild Goose PagodaSmall Wild Goose Pagoda

Buddhists believe that when Sakyamuni, the founder of the faith, was cremated, 84,000 beads of holy relics were found. They were shared among the kings of eight nations, who built stupas to house them for worship. This was generally thought to be the origin of stupas or pagodas. Subsequently, they were built not only to bury the relics or ashes of venerable monks but also to safely keep holy scriptures and various ritual implements. They are, therefore, also called fota (Buddha's pagodas) or baota (treasure pagodas) and are objects of homage.

A Chinese proverb says, "To save a life is a holier deed than to build a stupa of seven stories." Pagodas are mostly seven or thirteen stories. This is because odd numbers were supposed to be masculine and auspicious in China, but this has nothing to do with the teachings of Buddhism.

Architecturally speaking, Chinese pagodas have special features of their own. A pagoda may be built of any of a number of materials, brick, wood, glazed tile, iron, or gold. In the plan figure, it may be round, square, hexagonal, or octagonal. In architectural style, it may be in one of a variety of forms, which will be discussed in the following pages.

Chinese pagodas, in short, are a significant part of the country's cultural heritage. With their beautiful shapes, basrelief carvings, Dougong brackets, and upturned eaves, they no longer serve religious purposes alone but are exquisite tourist attractions as well.

1. The Close-Eaved Pagoda

This is the earliest style of Chinese pagodas, typified by the Pagoda of Chongyuesi Temple in Dengfeng County, Henan Province. Built-in A.D. 523 in the Northern Wei Dynasty, it is also one of the oldest existing pagodas in the country.

The twelve-sided, 41-meter-tall pagoda is built entirely of blue bricks. The body is girdled around by 15 closely arranged eaves, which get smaller in beautiful proportions towards the tapering top. The inside of the pagoda is a structure of 10 floors, its octagonal rooms linked up by wooden stairs.

The Chongyuesi Pagoda is of great value in the history of Chinese architecture. Constructed in an age long before reinforced concrete was dreamed of, the all-brick structure, despite the ravages of wind and rain over 1,400 years, is still standing erect in testimony to the high level of skills at the command of the unknown ancient builders.

2. The Tower Pagoda

This is the most common type of pagoda seen in China, which visitors may climb up for a birdseye view of the surrounding country.

The world-famous Wooden Pagoda in Yingxian County, Shanxi Province, is a typical tower-like pagoda. Built-in 1056 during the Liao Dynasty, it is the tallest and oldest of its kind in the country. Standing on a two-tiered stone terrace and true to its name, the structure, 67.13 meters tall and 30 meters across at the bottom, is all wood. The ground story has double eaves, so the 5-storeyed octagonal building has 6 eaves altogether. The interior of the pagoda consists of nine floors, with four of them hidden from outside view.

Structurally, the pagoda was erected by stages with separate sets of columns, beams, and purlins in between every two stories. Joining these together are Dougong brackets of 50-60 kinds, which hold the huge wooden structure together in an integral piece, strong and magnificent, without the help of a single piece of metal. Visitors can scale the pagoda by the wooden stairs inside, which lead up to the top floor.

It is estimated that more than 3,500 cubic meters (or about 3,000 tons) of timber must have been used to build the pagoda.

The 900-year-old Wooden Pagoda, during its long life, has been weathered by the elements. shelled on by warlords' firearms and shaken by strong earthquakes. Though slightly tilted, it still stands majestic today - an architectural marvel not only for China but for the whole world.

Wutasi (the Five-Pagoda Temple) is situated near Wuta Temple Street, Yuquan District, Hohhot (capital of Inner Mongolia)City.

3. The Diamond-Throne Pagodas

This type of religious architecture has its origin in India and is not often seen in China. Prominent examples are the group of pagodas in Beijing's Zhenjuesi Temple, popularly known as Wutasi (the Five-Pagoda Temple), and another group of Sarira-Stupas on a diamond throne in Huhhot, Inner Mongolia. This type of pagoda has a common feature: five smaller pagodas being built on a high and solid square base called the "diamond throne." The arrangement of the five pagodas, for instance, those in Beijing, is one at the center and one each at the four corners of the base, dedicated to the Buddhas of all quarters. The lower parts of the pagodas and the sides of the diamond throne are carved with bas-relief images of Buddha, considered to be of high artistic value.

Recorded history tells us that, early in the Yongle reign (1403-1423) of the Ming Dynasty, a venerable monk named Bandida came from India to Beijing and presented to the Emperor five gold statues of Buddha and a plan for a diamond throne. The emperor bestowed on him the title of "National Master" and ordered a temple with pagodas to be built according to his plan. The resultant structure was basically after the Indian design, with some Chinese modifications. The base was enlarged to be 1.78 meters high, while the five pagodas were reduced to about 6 meters tall. Furthermore, a Chinese pavilion of glazed tiles with a round roof and double eaves was erected in the midst of the pagodas on the platform base. It became an Indian religious structure with pronounced Chinese features early example of the happy integration of Chinese and Indian art.

4. The Dagoba

The dagoba is a pagoda of Tibetan style, and its most remarkable example is the White Dagoba in Beijing's Miaoyingsi (Temple).

The Mongolians of China were believers in the Lamaist school of Buddhism, which originated in Tibet. When Kublai Khan (Emperor Shizu) of the Yuan Dynasty united the country in 1260 he set about rebuilding a large Liao Dynasty dagoba in Beijing into the symbol of the Mongolian regime blessed with divine power to keep the capital's inhabitants and the nation in peaceful submission.

The project took eight years and was completed in 1271. The 731-year-old dagoba is like a nectar vessel or divine vase rising 50 meters towards the clouds, towering and dignified.

The dagoba consists of three parts: the base, the body, and the crown. The base, covering 1,422 square meters, is a huge platform of brick representing the "throne of Mt. Sumeru." The main pan of the body is in the shape of an upturned alms bowl more than 18 meters across. Higher up is the part like a truncated tapering column bearing the sign of the Buddhist wheel. It carries on its top a canopy 9.7 meters across like a huge, opened umbrella. Hung from the edge of the canopy is a ring of 36 bronze bells, which tinkle in the wind. The crown of the dagoba, on the plate of the canopy, is a smaller pagoda of 4 meters, glistening with its gold plate in sunlight.

Chinese dagobas were patterned after Nepalese prototypes. The Beijing pagoda just described was designed by a Nepalese engineer known in Chinese as Anigo. So it shows in its appearance an obvious foreign artistic style. It remains an eloquent symbol of the enduring friendship between China and her Himalayan neighbor.

5. Mother-and-Children Pagodas

The "mother-and-children pagodas" are an architectural complex rarely seen in China. The best-known example is the Manfeilong White Pagodas at Damenglong in Jinghong County, a district populated by the Dai nationality in Xishuang Banna, Yunnan Province.

They were built in the year 565 of the Dai calendar (A.D. 1204) as a group arrangement of nine pagodas. The one in the middle is the "mother," erect and elegant with a height of 16.29 meters. Standing around her at what would be the corners of a regular octagon are her "children," eight smaller pagodas 9.1 meters high. The bottoms of the pagodas consist of niches containing statues of Buddha. Viewed from above, the group resembles a lotus blossom with its petals open. The pagodas have snow-white bodies and golden tips and, seen through the green foliage of trees, also look like new bamboo shoots after a rain, a familiar sight to the local people, so Dai also calls them by the pet name "bamboo-shoot pagodas."

Legend has it that Sakyamuni, founder of Buddhism, once came to sermonize at Damenglong and left a huge footprint, 58 cm by 85 cm, on a blue rock. In commemoration of this important event, local followers built a group of nine pagodas on the same rock where he had stood. For this association, they are held in high esteem by Buddhist circles, and many pilgrims come here from different quarters to pay homage.

The Manfeilong Pagodas are noted for their peculiar shape and beautiful style, and also for the pronounced Dai flavor shown by the bas-relief carving and sculpture. They are, therefore, a cultural marvel in the southwestern region of the country.

6. Forest of Pagoda

As a pagoda is the burial place of monks, a "forest of pagodas" may be said to be the graveyard of Buddhists.

One such forest belongs to the famous Shaolin Monastery in Dengfeng County, Henan Province. With its 220 brick pagodas, it is the resting place of the abbots and senior monks of the monastery who lived at various times under several dynasties, from the Tang to the Qing, spanning a thousand years. It is the forest of pagodas of the largest scale and built over the longest stretch of time.

The pagodas, mostly decorated with carvings and inscriptions, are generally three to seven stories and of varying heights up to 15 meters. They are of different forms: square or hexagon in cross-section, a column, a cone, or a vase in shape, with straight or curving lines.

Another rare "forest of pagodas" lies in the vicinity of Lingyansi (Temple) in Shandong Province. It comprises 176 pagodas of a variety of attractive forms, also built at different times since the Tang Dynasty.

These pagodas, in Henan, Shandong, and elsewhere, are a valuable storehouse of information about various sects of Chinese Buddhism and about the arts of sculpture and architecture of different ages.

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