China # 17 – The amazing Sakyamuni Pagoda, Shanxi Province – September 2014

August 25, 2018

Certainly one of the amazing pleasures of traveling across a country like China is discovering the “amazing”. The Terra-Cotta Warriors, amazing. The Great Wall of China, amazing. Driving out of Pingyáo and smiling at the angry looking turtles straining under the lamp posts, we were prepared for something else amazing, the Sakyamuni Pagoda of the Fogong Temple of Ying County, Shanxi Province.

The almost 1,000 year old wooden
Sakyamuni Pagoda of the Fogong Temple

Built in 1056 (that’s almost one thousand years ago!) during the Khitan-led Liao Dynasty, the Pagoda was commissioned by Emperor Daozong of Liao at the site of his grandmother’s family home. Some records show it was funded and erected by a Buddhist monk named Tian.

Yes, even we take the occasional tourist souvenir shot.

Yes, even we take the occasional tourist souvenir shot.

Standing on a 4 m (13 ft) tall stone platform, its steeple is 10 m (33 ft) tall, and its top reaches a total height of 67.31 m (220.83 ft). 

The nine stories tall Sakyamuni Pagoda is the oldest existing fully wooden Pagoda still standing in China.

From the exterior, the Pagoda seems to have only five stories and two sets of rooftop eaves for the first story, yet the Pagoda’s interior reveals that it has nine stories in all. The four hidden stories can be seen from the exterior by the Pagoda’s terraced balconies. The windows on the eight sides of the Pagoda provide views of the countryside. More amazing is how it was built. It features fifty-four different kinds of bracket arms in its construction. Between each outer story of the Pagoda is a mezzanine layer where the bracket arms are located on the exterior.

Dougong Construction
A complex set of interlocking wooden parts

The technique is called Dougong, a complex set of interlocking parts. It was widely used in the ancient Chinese During-the-Spring-and-Autumn-Period (770–476 BC) and further developed to its peak in the Tang and Song periods. The pieces are fitted together by joinery  alone, without glue or fasteners, thanks to the precision and quality of the carpentry. No nails were used! “amazing

This fierce looking guard was protecting the entrance.

This fierce looking guard was protecting the entrance.

Walls in these structures are not load-bearing. Curtain walls were sometimes made of latticework, mud or other delicate material. Walls functioned to delineate spaces in the structure rather than to support weight.

Multiple interlocking bracket sets are formed by placing a large wooden block (dou) on a column to provide a solid base for the bow-shaped brackets (gong) that support the beam or another gong above it. The function of dougong is to provide increased support for the weight of the horizontal beams that span the vertical columns or pillars by transferring the weight on horizontal beams over a larger area to the vertical columns. This process can be repeated many times, and rise many stories. Adding multiple sets of interlocking brackets or dougong reduces the amount of strain on the horizontal beams when transferring their weight to a column. Multiple dougongs also allows structures to be elastic and to withstand damage from earthquakes.

Sakyamuni Pagoda
(Almost) Earthquake-proof Construction

Between the years of 1056 and 1103 the Sakyamuni Pagoda suffered through seven earthquakes with only minor damage. Repairs were needed after Japanese soldiers shot more than two hundred rounds into the Pagoda during the Second Sino-Japanese War. 

Hope you are as amazed by this Pagoda as you look at these photos from the outside and the inside. Our next stop was only a short drive away. Climbing into the multi-layered Wuzhou Shan mountains, we were anticipating the famous Yungang Grottoes, also quite “amazing”!


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