Foguang Temple

Mt. Wutai (230 kilometers northeast of Taiyuan, 200 kilometers south of Datong, 300 kilometers southwest of Beijing) is one of Chinese Buddhism’s four most sacred sites. Long venerated by Buddhists, it is both a scenic mountain sight and the home of a group of temples set on five majestic peaks in a region known as the "Roof of North China." The highest peak, Yedou, is almost 10,000 feet high. Both the Green Hat and Yellow Hat Tibetan Buddhist sects worship here among the green pine trees. The other three sacred mountains in Chinese Buddhism are Emei Mountain in Sichuan, Putuo Mountain in Zhejiang, and Jiuhua Mountain in Anhui.

Mt. Wutai (Wutaishan, Mount Wutai, Wutai Shan) is regarded as the most important of China's four holy mountains. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009, it contains the highest point in Shanxi province and is known as the residence of the bodhisattva Manjusri, and as a result of this is a major Buddhist pilgrimage destination, with many temples and natural sights. Points of interest include timber halls located at Nanchan Temple and Foguang Temple that date to the Tang Dynasty (618−907) as well as a giant white stupa at Tayuan Temple built during the Ming Dynasty (1368−1644).

Situated in the northeast of Wutai County of Xinzhou City, WutaiMountain is a national scenic and historic interest area, a national forest park and a national geopark. It is comprised of geological formations that are 2.5 billion years old and has has five green terrace-like peaks,. Among those five peaks, 3,061-meter (10,042-foot) North Peak, called the “Roof of North China” and the highest point on the mountains. It is said the highly revered Manjusri Bodhisattva once performed Buddhist rites here. As the home of Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom, the mountain is famous not only in China, but also in Japan, India, Nepal and other Buddhist countries. Thousands of students and their parents flock to Wutai to pray for good luck and a bright future during the pre-exam season, especially before the National College Entrance Examination.

According to UNESCO: “Mount Wutai with its five flat peaks is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China. The temples are inseparable from their mountain landscape. With its high peaks, snow covered for much of the year, thick forests of vertical pines, firs, poplar and willow trees and lush grassland, the beauty of the landscape has been celebrated by artists since at least the Tang Dynasty (618-906) — including in the Dunhuang caves. Mount Wutai, literally, 'the five terrace mountain', is the highest in Northern China and is remarkable for its morphology of precipitous slopes with five open treeless peaks. Temples have been built on this site from the 1st century A.D. to the early 20th century.

In 2008, 2.8 million visitors came to Wutaishan and spent US$206 million according to government numbers. Website: Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Lonely Planet Admission: 168 yuan (US$26.55) per person (summer); 145 yuan (US$22.91) per person (winter)

Wutaishan Temples

Mt. Wutai embraces a sprawling complex of temples that house some of China's oldest Buddhist manuscripts. Its 53 monasteries house hundreds of monks and nuns. More than 150 temples, many just ruins, are scattered on terraced hillsides and remote mountain tops. The oldest temples dates back to the A.D. first century, when Buddhism arrived in China from India. The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) Shuxian Temple is a huge complex with 500 statues of Buddhist figures set among mountains and streams. Xiangtong Temple (A.D. 75), Foguang Temple A.D. 857), with life size clay sculptures, and Nanchan Temple (A.D. 782) are among China's oldest temples.

According to UNESCO: “ The cultural landscape is home to forty-one monasteries and includes the East Main Hall of Foguang Temple, the highest surviving timber building of the Tang Dynasty (618-906), with life-size clay sculptures. It also features the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) Shuxiang Temple with a huge complex with 500 ‘suspension’ statues representing Buddhist stories woven into three-dimensional pictures of mountains and water. Overall, the buildings on the site catalogue the way in which Buddhist architecture developed and influenced palace building in China for over a millennium. [Source: UNESCO]

“Two millennia of temple building have delivered an assembly of temples that present a catalogue of the way Buddhist architecture developed and influenced palace building over a wide part of China and part of Asia. For a thousand years from the Northern Wei period (471-499) nine Emperors made 18 pilgrimages to pay tribute to the bodhisattvas, commemorated in stele and inscriptions. Started by the Emperors, the tradition of pilgrimage to the five peaks is still very much alive. With the extensive library of books collected by Emperors and scholars, the monasteries of Mount Wutai remain an important repository of Buddhist culture, and attract pilgrims from across a wide part of Asia.

Wutaishan is special because: 1) The overall religious temple landscape of Mount Wutai, with its Buddhist architecture, statues and pagodas reflects a profound interchange of ideas, in terms of the way the mountain became a sacred Buddhist place, endowed with temples that reflected ideas from Nepal and Mongolia and which then influenced Buddhist temples across China. 2) Mount Wutai is an exceptional testimony to the cultural tradition of religious mountains that are developed with monasteries. It became the focus of pilgrimages from across a wide area of Asia, a cultural tradition that is still living. 3) The landscape and building ensemble of Mount Wutai as a whole illustrates the exceptional effect of imperial patronage over a 1,000 years in the way the mountain landscape was adorned with buildings, statuary, paintings and steles to celebrate its sanctity for Buddhists. 4) Mount Wutai reflects perfectly the fusion between the natural landscape and Buddhist culture, religious belief in the natural landscape and Chinese philosophical thinking on the harmony between man and nature. The mountain has had far-reaching influence: mountains similar to Wutai were named after it in Korea and Japan, and also in other parts of China such as Gansu, Shanxi, Hebei and Guandong provinces.

Traveling in the Wutaishan Area

Tony Perrottet wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: Wutai Shan’s otherworldly beauty is heightened by a blissful lack of pollution. From winding country roads that seemed to climb forever, I looked down at immense views of the valleys, then stared up in grateful acknowledgment of the blue sky. The summer air was cool and pure, and I noticed that many of the velvety green mountains were topped with their own mysterious monasteries. [Source: Tony Perrottet; Smithsonian Magazine, January 2017]

“ The logistics of travel were also reminiscent of an earlier age. Inside the rattling bus, pilgrims huddled over their nameless food items, each sending a pungent culinary odor into the exotic mix. We arrived at the only town in the mountain range, a Chinese version of the Wild West, where the hotels seem to actually pride themselves on provincial inefficiency. I took a room whose walls were covered in three types of mold. In the muddy street below, dogs ran in and out of stores offering cheap incense and “Auspicious Artifacts Wholesale.”

“I quickly learned that the sight of foreigners is rare enough to provoke stares and requests for photographs. And ordering in the restaurants is an adventure all its own, although one menu provided heroic English translations, evidently plucked from online dictionaries: Tiger Eggs with Burning Flesh, After the Noise Subspace, Delicious Larry, Elbow Sauce. Back at my hotel, guests smoked in the hallways in their undershirts; on the street below, a rooster crowed from 3am until dawn. I could sympathize with Lin Huiyin, who complained in one letter to Wilma Fairbank that travel in rural China alternated between “heaven and hell.” (“We rejoice over all the beauty and color in art and humanity,” she wrote of the road, “and are more than often appalled and dismayed by dirt and smells of places we have to eat and sleep.”)

Foguang Temple (Temple of Buddha’s Light)

Foguang Temple (five kilometers from Doucun, Wutai County,100 kilometers north-northwest of Taiyuan, 150 kilometers south of Datong) is a remarkable wooden Buddhist temple with large intact parts that back to Tang Dynasty (618–907). The major hall of the temple, the Great East Hall, was built in 857. According to architectural records, it is the third earliest preserved timber structure in China. It was rediscovered by the 20th-century architectural historian Liang Sicheng (1901–1972) in 1937. The temple also contains another significant hall dating from 1137 called the Manjusri Hall. In addition, the second oldest existing pagoda in China (after the Songyue Pagoda), dating from the 6th century, is located in the temple grounds. Today the temple is part of the Mount Wutai UNESCO World Heritage site and is undergoing restoration.

The famous Communist-era intellectuals and preservation advocates Lin Huiyin and Liang Sicheng found Foguabg after a great deal of searching. Tony Perrottet wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Their dream had always been to find a wooden temple from the golden age of Chinese art, the glorious Tang Dynasty (618-906). It had always rankled them that Japan claimed the oldest structures in the East, although there were references to far more ancient temples in China. But after years of searching, the likelihood of finding a wooden building that had survived 11 centuries of wars, periodic religious persecutions, vandalism, decay and accidents had begun to seem fantastical. (“After all, a spark of incense could bring down an entire temple,” Liang fretted.) In June 1937, Liang and Lin set off hopefully into the sacred Buddhist mountain range of Wutai Shan, traveling by mule along serpentine tracks into the most verdant pocket of Shanxi, this time accompanied by a young scholar named Mo Zongjiang. The group hoped that, while the most famous Tang structures had probably been rebuilt many times over, those on the less-visited fringes might have endured in obscurity. [Source: Tony Perrottet; Smithsonian Magazine, January 2017]

“The actual discovery must have had a cinematic quality. On the third day, they spotted a low temple on a crest, surrounded by pine trees and caught in the last rays of sun. It was called Foguang Si, the Temple of Buddha’s Light. As the monks led them through the courtyard to the East Hall, Liang and Lin’s excitement mounted: A glance at the eaves revealed its antiquity. “But could it be older than the oldest wooden structure we had yet found?” Liang later wrote breathlessly.

“In the morning, I haggled with a driver to take me the last 23 miles to the Temple of Buddha’s Light. It is another small miracle that the Red Guards never made it to this lost valley, leaving the temple in much the same condition as when Liang and Lin stumbled here dust-covered on their mule litters. I found it, just as they had, bathed in crystalline sunshine among the pine trees. Across an immaculately swept courtyard, near-vertical stone stairs led up to the East Hall. At the top, I turned around and saw that the view across the mountain ranges had been totally untouched by the modern age.

“In 1937, when monks heaved open the enormous wooden portals, the pair was struck by a powerful stench: The temple’s roof was covered by thousands of bats, looking, according to Liang, “like a thick spread of caviar.” The travelers gazed in rapture as they took in the Tang murals and statues that rose “like an enchanted deified forest.” But most exciting were the designs of the roof, whose intricate trusses were in the distinctive Tang style: Here was a concrete example of a style hitherto known only from paintings and literary descriptions, and whose manner of construction historians could previously only guess. Liang and Lin crawled over a layer of decaying bat corpses beneath the ceiling. They were so excited to document details such as the “crescent-moon beam,” they didn’t notice the hundreds of insect bites until later. Their most euphoric moment came when Lin Huiyin spotted lines of ink calligraphy on a rafter, and the date “The 11th year of Ta-chung, Tang Dynasty (618-906)” — A.D. 857 by the Western calendar, confirming that this was the oldest wooden building ever found in China. (An older temple would be found nearby in the 1950s, but it was far more humble.) Liang raved: “The importance and unexpectedness of our find made this the happiest hours of my years of hunting for ancient architecture.” Today, the bats have been cleared out, but the temple still has a powerful ammonia reek — the new residents being feral cats.

Nanchan Temple

Nanchan Temple (near Doucun on Mt. Wutai, 100 kilometers north-northwest of Taiyuan, 150 kilometers south of Datong) is a Buddhist temple. Its Great Buddha Hall, built in 782 during the Tang Dynasty, is China's oldest preserved wooden building. Not only is it important architecturally it also contains an original set of artistically-important Tang sculptures dating from the period of its construction. Seventeen sculptures share the hall's interior space with a small stone pagoda. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Great Buddha Hall of Nanchan Temple has been dated based on an inscription on a beam. It has endured and escaped destruction during the late Tang Dynasty Buddhist purges of 845, perhaps due to its isolated location in the mountains. Another inscription on a beam indicates that the hall was renovated in 1086 of the Song Dynasty, at which time all but four of the original square columns were replaced with round columns. In the 1950s the building was rediscovered by architectural historians, and in 1961 it was recognized as China's oldest standing timber-frame building. Just five years later in 1966, the building was damaged in an earthquake, and during the renovation period in the 1970s, historians carefully studied the structure piece by piece.

The Great Buddha Hall is a humble timber building with massive overhanging eaves and a three bay square hall that is 10 meters deep and 11.75 meters across the front. The roof is supported by twelve pillars that are implanted directly into a brick foundation. The hip-gable roof is supported by five-puzuo brackets. The hall does not contain any interior columns or a ceiling, nor are there any struts supporting the roof in between the columns. All of these features indicate that this is a low-status structure. The hall contains several features of Tang Dynasty halls, including its longer central front bay, the use of camel-hump braces, and the presence of a yuetai.

Nanchan Temple and nearby Foguang Temple contains original sculptures dating from the Tang Dynasty. The hall contains seventeen statues and are lined up on an inverted U-shaped dais. The largest statue is of Sakyamuni, placed in the center of the hall sitting cross-legged on a sumeru throne adorned with sculpted images of a lion and demigod. Above the large halo behind the statue are sculpted representations of lotus flowers, celestial beings and mythical birds. Flanking him on each side are attendant Bodhisattvas with a knee placed on a lotus. A large statue of Samantabhadra riding an elephant is at the far left of the hall and a large statue of Manjusri riding a lion is on the far left. There are also statues of two of Sakyamuni's disciples (Ananda and Mahakashyapa), two statues of heavenly kings and four statues of attendants.

The Great Buddha Hall also contains one small carved stone pagoda that is five levels high. The first level is carved with a story about the Buddha, and each corner contains an additional small pagoda. Each side of the second level is carved with one large Buddha in the center, flanked with four smaller Buddhas on each side. The upper three levels have three carved Buddhas on each side.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site;; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization),, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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