SHANXI PROVINCE: DATONG AREA, HENGSHAN AND THE HANGING MONASTERY

SHANXI PROVINCE

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SHANXI PROVINCE is a fertile but dry region nourished by the same rich yellow loess that gives the Yellow River its color and supports farms in neighboring Shaanxi province, where the light granular loess originates and is carried to Shanxi by prevailing westerly winds. To takes advantage of this rich soil in every conceivable place, many of Shanxi's mountains and hills have been transformed into green terraces irrigated with water from the Yellow River and its tributaries.

Shanxi Province (not to be confused with Shaanxi Province, the home of Xian) is located in north central China. It covers 156,000 square kilometers (60,000 square miles),and has a population density of 220 people per square kilometer. According to the 2020 Chinese census the population was around 35 million, about 1.5 million less than 2010. About 58 percent of the population lives in urban areas. Taiyuan is the capital and largest city, with about 3.7 million people. Han Chinese make up 99.7 percent of the population. The largest minority, the Muslim Hui, make up only 0.2 percent of the population.

The population of Shanxi was 34,915,616 in 2020; 37,022,111 in 2010; 32,471,242 in 2000; 28,759,014 in 1990; 25,291,389 in 1982; 18,015,067 in 1964; 14,314,485 in 1954; 15,247,000 in 1947; 11,601,000 in 1936-37; 12,228,000 in 1928; 10,082,000 in 1912. [Source: Wikipedia, China Census]

Shanxi is very important to China's history. It is where Buddhists created great works of art and monuments, and where the Mongols raided with impunity even though Great Wall runs across it north.. It is also the home of lovely courtyard mansions, like the one used in the film Raise the Red Lantern, and old fortress towns. According to the imperial encyclopedia of the 14th century, there were 4,478 walled fortress towns in China at one time. In the 1930s, there were still dozens of them scattered across the Shanxi plains but one after another one their walls were knocked down after the Communist takeover 1949 as symbols of the feudal past. Pingyao survived only because authorities in the poor district lacked the resources to topple its particularly formidable fortifications, Shanxi is known as "China's museum of ancient culture" due to its numerous historical sites, The classic Chinese folk song "Beautiful Scenery of Shanxi" tells the beauty of Shanxi's landscapes and folk culture.

Shanxi means “west of the mountains", which refers to the province's location west of the Taihang Mountains. Its one-character abbreviation is "Jin" after the state of Jin that existed here during the Spring and Autumn Period. The province contains large coal deposits. The Yellow River defines the south and west and there are towering peaks to the east with pandas. Shanxi is poor and many of its cities are badly polluted. Some rivers are dry.

Shanxi has strong associations with Buddhism. Wutai Mountain is as one of the Four Most Famous Buddhist Mountains in China. Yungang Grottoes contains are over 51,000 statues and stone carvings of Buddhas and Boddhisativas. Shanxi is also the birthplace of banking in China, and there many famous residential compounds of Shanxi merchant families (influding Wang’s, Qiao’s, Qu’s, Cao’s, and Chang’s) that show how much wealth was created. As the ancestral home of the Chinese people and culture, Shanxi is where many Chinese surnames originated and is regarded as birthplace of traditional Chinese operas and traditional Chinese architecture. Almost every county has its own folk music and dances.

Tourist Office : Shanxi Tourism Bureau, 282 Yingze Dajie 030001 Taiyun, Shanxi, China, Tel. (0)-351-404-7225, fax: (0)-351-407-9215. Maps of Shanxi: chinamaps.org

Geography and Climate of Shanxi

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Shanxi map
Shanxi Province is situated on the Loess Plateau in the middle reaches of the Yellow River in northern China, It borders Hebei Province to the east, Shaanxi Province to the west, Henan Province to the south and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to the north. and is made up mainly of a plateau bounded partly by mountain ranges. The main cities are Taiyuan, Datong, Changzhi and Yangquan.

Shanxi is located on a plateau made up of higher ground to the east (Taihang Mountains) and the west (Lüliang Mountains) and a series of valleys in the center through which the Fen River runs. The highest peak is 3,058-meter (10,032-foot) -high Mount Wutai (Wutai Shan) in northeastern Shanxi. The Great Wall of China forms most of the northern border with Inner Mongolia. The Zhongtiao Mountains run along part of the southern border and separate Shanxi from the east-west part of the Yellow River. Mount Hua is to the southwest.

The Yellow River (Huang He) forms the western border of Shanxi with Shaanxi. The Fen and Qin rivers are tributaries of the Yellow River. They run north-to-south through the province, and drain much of its area. The north of the province is drained by tributaries of the Hai River, such as Sanggan and Hutuo rivers. The largest natural lake in Shanxi is Xiechi Lake, a salt lake near Yuncheng in southwestern Shanxi.

Shanxi has a continental monsoon climate but tends to be very dry. The average January temperatures are below 0 °C, while average July temperatures are around 21-26 °C. Winters are long, dry, and cold, while summer is warm and humid. Spring is extremely dry and prone to dust storms. Shanxi is one of the sunniest parts of China; early summer heat waves are common. Annual precipitation averages around 350–700 mm, with 60 percent of it concentrated between June and August.

Shaanxi Loess Region

Shaanxi Loess Region is a 150,000-square-mile region in Gansu, Shanxi, Henan and Shaanxi provinces where everything is gritty yellow: the mountains, the cliffs and the houses where many people live. Even the air is yellow. It gets its color from the yellow dust that gets kicked up by the strong winds that blow through from time to time. The dust in turn comes from a fine loosely packed soil called loess, which is found in other parts of the world but not in the concentrations that are found here.

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LLoess soil is very fertile. The Loess Plateau produces a lot of crops and would be one of the breadbaskets of China of it weren't for the fact that the region is so dry. It only receives 10 inches of rain a year. Many crops are coaxed from terraces or raised with irrigation water from the Yellow River and its tributaries. It is the last major area of arable land as one heads north.

Compacted loess can be easily carved, and many farmers in Loess Plateau live in caves carved out of the loess cliff sides. Some farmers even dig down in their fields and make their homes underground. It is not usual in some places to see fields with smoking chimneys rising out of them from such homes.

The Loess Plateau is one of least inviting landscapes in China. It was once covered by forest but is now largely bare expect in areas of agriculture On some barren slopes, without a tree or bush in sight, are the slogans “Make the Green Mountain Even Greener” written in large characters. Occasionally there are serious problems In May 2005, a huge sink hole swallowed 11 houses in Jixian County in Shanxi Province. Sixteen people escaped the 80-meter-wide, 1250-meter-long hole created in loess soil.

Loess is hard when dry but dissolves when wet. Rains wash away huge amounts of soil and leave behind gullies that can become canyons that make travel across the region difficult. Loess is also light and blows away very easily. In the spring, when the winds are strongest, yellow dust from the Loess Plateau is carried westward into Korea and Japan, where it forms a pollen-like film. Some even makes it way to North America. The soils that blew away in dust bowl region of Oklahoma were primarily loess.

The Loess Plateau has some of the world's highest erosion rates, Farming is difficult. Rain and irrigation water are n short supply. The edges of terraced fields routinely collapse down steep gullies. Web Site: Wikipedia Wikipedia

History of Shanxi

Shanxi is considered the remnant of the state of Jin. Its one-character abbreviation is "Jin". In 403 B.C. Jin was divided into the states of Han, Zhao and Wei . By 221 B.C. all of these states had been defeated by the state of Qin, resulting in the establishment of the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.-206 B.C.). The Tang Dynasty (618-906) originated in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province. Modern Chinese people are called Tang Ren globally due to the power and impact of the Tang Dynasty in history. Empress Wu Zetian, China's only female ruler, was born in Shanxi.

During the Five Dynasties Period (907–960), a large part of northern China, including part of Shanxi, was cded to the Khitans in return for military assistance. This territory, called The Sixteen Prefectures of Yanyun, became a major problem for China's defense against the Khitans for the next 100 years, because it lies to the south of the Great Wall. During the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), the sixteen ceded prefectures was an area of contention between Song China and the Liao Dynasty. Later the Southern Song Dynasty abandoned all of North China to the Jurchen Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) in 1127, including Shanxi.

The Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) divided China into provinces but did not establish Shanxi as a province. Shanxi only gained its present name and approximate borders in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). During the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Shanxi extended northwards beyond the Great Wall to include parts of Inner Mongolia.

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Shanxi Loess Plateau
During most of the Republic of China's period of rule over mainland China (1912–1949), the warlord Yen Hsi-shan held Shanxi, regardless of what was happening elsewhere in China. During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), Japan occupied much of the province after defeating China in the Battle of Taiyuan in Shanxi. Shanxi also saw fierce fighting between the Japanese and the Chinese communist guerrillas of the Eighth Route Army during the war.

After the defeat of Japan, much of the Shanxi countryside became important bases for the communist People's Liberation Army in the ensuing Chinese Civil War. Yen recruited thousands of former Japanese soldiers into his army but still was defeated by the People's Liberation Army at Taiyuan in early 1949.

For centuries Shanxi served as the center of trade and banking for China. The term "Shanxi Merchant" (jìnshāng) was synonymous with wealth. The well-preserved city of Pingyao was the center of trade and banking in Shanxi. Shanxi's geographic location in the center of China augmented its position as the country’s bank as China expanded it reach westward and southward. Shanxi merchants were active from Song Dynasty (960-1279) to the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), conducting business as far west as Central Asia and to the coast of eastern and north of Great Wall. Ppiaohao — essentially banks that provided services like money transfers and transactions, deposits, and loans — were created in Pingyao of Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) and dominated China's financial market until the arrival of British banks. Today. Shanxi is equated with coal. Some unwanted attention has been brought to the province over the deplorable conditions and disasters at some of its mines. A slave labour scandal involving children in the 2000s in the Shanxi didn’t help the province’s reputation.

Language, Music and Opera from Shanxi

People in most parts of regions of Shanxi speak Jin Chinese dialects, which have traditionally been considered part of the Northern (Mandarin Chinese) group and has preserved an entering tone, which distinguished it from other northern China dialects. Jin Chinese is noted for extremely complex tone sandhi systems. Some areas in southwestern Shanxi near the borders with Henan and Shaanxi speak Zhongyuan Mandarin dialects.

Shanxi Opera (Jinju) is the local form of Chinese opera. It was popularized during the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), with the support of Shanxi merchants who helped spread it and help it financially. Also called Zhonglu Bangzi, it is a type of bangzi opera. Bangzi opera, or clapper opera, was probably created in the border area between Shaanxi and Shanxi (Shan-shi). It is mentioned for the first time in literary sources in the 16th century and spread in the 17th century. Bangzi operas are generally distinguished by their use of wooden clappers for rhythm and its energetic singing style.

A dominant instrument in the orchestra accompanying the clapper opera is the bangzi (pang-tzû) clapper, a small, rectangular plate made of date palm, which is beaten with a wooden stick. The orchestra also includes string and plucked instruments. The most important melody instrument is a wooden banhu (pan-hu) violin. The vocal technique is regarded as more mellow and natural than the singing in the Peking opera. The costumes of the clapper opera, similarly as in the Peking opera, are based on Ming-period dresses. **

Shanxi Cuisine

Shanxi cuisine is known for its generous use of vinegar as a flavoring and for its noodles. Taiyuan Tounao (literally "Taiyuan Head") is a soup made with mutton, shanyao (Chinese wild yam), lotus roots, astragalus membranaceus (membranous milk vetch), tuber onions, with the addition of cooking liquor that gives it a unique aroma. People like to dip pieces of unleavened cake into the soup, which is said ti have medicinal properties.

Sliced noodles is often called “Noddles Sliced with Flying Knife” due to fantastic cutting technique involved in making process. When skillful cooks cut the noodles, “one falls into the pot, while one files in the air and one is just sliced, and every piece of noodle jumps like fish in the pot.” The cooked noodles are soft inside and chewy on the outside and digest easily.

As a traditional local product of Pingyao County, Pingyao Beef became famous in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), and prevailed at the banquets from the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) through the early period of the Republic of China. Made using sophisticated cooking techniques, it boasts a rosy color, tender texture, strong fragrance, pleasant taste and is convenient to store. The tastiest meat comes from older beef cattle.

Steamed Dumplings are said to have originated in Shanxi and are a traditional snack of southern Shanxi. Shaped like guava, they have bright-white color, abundant stuffing, thin wrapper and pleasing taste. Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) spoke highly them and awarded a plaque with his inscriptions of “Duyichu” to the Fushan Steamed Dumpling Restaurant.

Preservation and Pollution in Shanxi

The famous Communist-era intellectuals and preservation advocates Lin Huiyin and Liang Sicheng loved Shanxi more than anywhere else in China and regarded as heartland of China’s culture and architecture. Tony Perrottet wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “The isolated province still contains around 70 percent of China’s structures older than the 14th century — and the couple’s magnum opus on Chinese architecture can be used as a unique guidebook. I had heard that the most evocative temples survive there, although they take some effort to reach. The backwaters of Shanxi remain rustic, their inhabitants unused to foreigners, and getting around is still an adventure, even if run-ins with warlords have been phased out. A renewed search for the temples would provide a rare view back to the 1930s, when China was poised on the knife-edge of history, before its slide into cataclysmic wars and Maoist self-destruction. [Source: Tony Perrottet; Smithsonian Magazine, January 2017]

“Of course, historic quests in modern China require some planning. It’s one of the ironies of history that the province containing the greatest concentration of antiquities has also become one of the most polluted spots on the planet. Since the 1980s, coal-rich Shanxi has sold its black soul to mining, its hills pockmarked with smelters churning out electricity for the country’s insatiable factories. Of the world’s most polluted cities, 16 of the top 20 are in China, according to a recent study by the World Bank. Three of the worst are in Shanxi.

“I had to wonder where Liang and Lin would choose as a base today. As the plane approached Taiyuan, the provincial capital, and dove beneath rust-colored layers of murk, the air in the cabin suddenly filled with the smell of burning rubber. This once-picturesque outpost, where Liang and Lin clambered among the temple eaves, has become one of China’s many anonymous “second-tier” cities, rung by shabby skyscrapers. Other Shanxi favorites have suffered in the development craze. In the grottoes of Yungang, whose caves full of giant carved Buddhas were silent and eerie when Lin sketched them in 1931, riotous tour groups are now funneled through an enormous new imperial-style entrance, across artificial lakes and into faux palaces, creating a carnival atmosphere.

Datong

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Datong
Datong (350 kilometers west of Beijing, 100 minutes by fast train, six hours by regular train) is a brown industrial city lying in the heart of Shanxi's coal country. Known for its historical sights, it has a temple district with Huayan temple being the primary attraction. Over a thousand years old, it features a nan hak with five enormous Buddhas. Sections if the Great Wall found near the city and made of rammed earth. Donggetuopu is an area with lots of cave dwellings (yaodongs).

Datong serves mainly as a jumping off point for trips to Yungang Grottoes, Yingxian Wooded Pagoda, Hengshan and the Hanging Monastery. Catherine E. Wood wrote for China.org: Datong City was much hotter than the cool Beijing we had left behind that morning. The sun was bright and the people were plentiful. The town seemed to be a place that time forgot; it was stuck in a decade I myself had never lived through but had witnessed only in pictures. The thing that was most obvious about Datong was not the coal industry as I had expected, but the sheer amount of dirt that seemed to be in heaping piles everywhere. Everywhere you look in Datong, construction exists, there is exposed earth, and plenty of dirt.” [Source: Catherine E. Wood, China.org, August 19, 2009]

Datong Locomotive Works was the last factory in the world to manufacture steam locomotives. The factory was built with Soviet help in the 1950s and produced its first engines in 1959. In the 1980s the factory's 9,000 workers produced an average of four engines a month. In 1989, it switched to producing electric engines. Tours were available of the factory, which was run like a self-contained commune. It had its own hotel, schools and hospital and was the largest employer in the region. Now it is a museum with several locomotives, including the famous Model "O" steam locomotive, China's oldest extant steam locomotive, and the railway coach once used by Empress Cixi of the Qing Dynasty.

Datong Art Museum is a yet unbuilt building designed by Norman Foster. Meik magazine reported: “Designed by one of the most famous and advanced architectural firms, Norman&Partners, whose president and founder, Norman Foster, is regarded as one of the most important architects in history as he is the creator of some of the most important buildings of modern architecture....The museum is thought of as a continuous landscape seen from the outside, with only the top of the roof visible from the outside amid peaks and steel pyramids that give it a natural-futuristic look of great originality. An important element is the use of light and the preservation of climatic conditions ensuring the best environmental conditions for the works exhibited. [Source: Meik magazine, January 20, 2020]

As for the building itself, the central element will be the Grand Gallery, with a height of 37 meters and 80 in length, in the middle of a total space of 32,000 square meters. Apart from the open exhibitions of large-scale works of art, all kinds of services and facilities for the visitor will be integrated into it, in line with the great cultural and artistic areas that are being designed for a future planet in which design, will not only be fundamental in minority sectors, but will envelop the expectations of universal tourism. Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Datong is accessible air and bus and lies on the main train line between Beijing and Xian. Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Lonely Planet

Yungang Grottoes

Yungang Grottoes (16 kilometers west of Datong) is group of 53 caverns carved into the side of a kilometer-long section of sandstone cliff located at the southern foot of Wuzhou Mountain. Inside the caves are over 51,000 statues and stone carvings of Buddhas, Boddhisativas, other figures and decorative motifs. The largest Buddha is over 50 feet high and the smallest rises only a few inches. The Yungang Grottoes are excellent examples of rock-cut architecture and one of the three most famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China. The other two are Longmen Grottoes in Henan Province and Mogao Caves in Gansu Province.

The Yungang Grottoes, officially known as Cloud Ridge Caves, is comprised of 252 shallow caves. They were built on the north cliff of Wuzhou Mountain and extend about 1 kilometers (0.62 miles) from east to west. Most of the sculptures and reliefs date to the 5th and 6th centuries. The historical records reveal that the grottoes were established during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-557) by an abbot. There are 45 major caves and 207 other caves covering a total area of 18,000 square meters.

Yungang Grottoes were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. According to UNESCO: The Yungang Grottoesrepresent the outstanding achievement of Buddhist cave art in China in the 5th and 6th centuries. The Five Caves created by Tan Yao, with their strict unity of layout and design, constitute a classical masterpiece of the first peak of Chinese Buddhist art...The assemblage of statuary of the Yungang Grottoes is a masterpiece of early Chinese Buddhist cave art.”

Despite this the caves have been badly damaged over the years. Travelers have drawn circles on the frescoes, pilgrims have cut out statues and taken them home and Red Guards beheaded many Buddhas during the Cultural Revolution. Renovation and repainting by the government if anything has worsened the situation by ruining much of the original art. There are a lot of tourists and hawkers at the site. UNESCO World Heritage Site site : UNESCO Admission: 150 yuan (US$23.7) per person. Getting There: You can take a bus or taxi. The bus takes about 40 minutes and is veru cheap. From the train station area in Datong you can take bus 4 to the long distance station and then bus 3-1 out to the grottoes.

Art and Sculptures in Yungang Grottoes

The grand Yungang Grottoes are located at the south cliff of the Wuzhou Mountain in the western suburbs of Datong City and is one of the largest grotto sites in China. The grottoes are chiselled along mountains and stretch continuously for about 1,000 meters from east to west. Great Buddha in front of Cave No. 20 is 14 meters tall and has piercing eyes and a gentle serene expression. It is considered one of the best examples of the ancient stone sculptures of China. Many of the carvings combine traditional Chinese art forms with early Buddhist art from Gandhara, a major ancient Buddhist center in present day Pakistan.

Some of the carvings are purely decorative. Other depict costumed and crowned figures dancing and playing musical instruments. The Buddhas in caves 5 through 13 have been described as "florid and joyfully exuberant" while the Imperial Caves are austere and restrained.

According to UNESCO: “The Five Caves created by Tan Yao are a classical masterpiece of the first peak of Chinese art, with a strict unity of layout and design. The will of the State is reflected in Buddhist belief in China during the Northern Wei Dynasty since the Grottoes were built with Imperial instructions. While influenced by Buddhist cave art from South and Central Asia, Yungang Grottoes have also interpreted the Buddhist cave art with distinctive Chinese character and local spirit. As a result, Yungang Grottoes have played a vitally important role among early Oriental Buddhist grottoes and had a far-reaching impact on Buddhist cave art in China and East Asia.”

“The Yungang cave art represents the successful fusion of Buddhist religious symbolic art from south and central Asia with Chinese cultural traditions, starting in the 5th century CE under Imperial auspices. The power and endurance of Buddhist belief in China are vividly illustrated by the Yungang grottoes. The Buddhist tradition of religious cave art achieved its first major impact at Yungang, where it developed its own distinct character and artistic power.”

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Yungang Grottoes

Visiting Yungang Grottoes

Catherine E. Wood wrote for China.org: “The sheer size of the Buddhas made the experience seem so surreal. The huge stature of the massive sandstone carvings left us wondering how in the world someone could carve such masterpieces out of sandstone rock, must less envision the whole thing. Walking from left to right we saw the Western Grottoes which were far less crowded and less preserved. The worn hollow faces of the Buddhas often left a haunting feeling” and looked more creature than human from the way the elements had deteriorated their faces over time. The Western Grottoes give visitors an opportunity to get more up close and personal with the Buddhas and look them in the eye. Although this section of the Grottoes is the least preserved, I feel like it has the most stories to share with visitors, a richer history and a more inviting feeling of exploration. [Source: Catherine E. Wood, China.org, August 19, 2009]

“As visitors begin to find themselves moving away from the Western Grottoes, the big eye catching Buddha in the middle of the complex is by far the most photographed section of the Yungang Grottoes and has become an icon for Datong. The massive Buddhas are completely open to the elements due to a cave ceiling collapse long time ago. The facial features remain intact and highly detailed. This is only the first of many large Buddhas that finds its home in the complex. The rest are still caved, but most are not as well preserved.

“Moving Eastward, paint begins to appear on the stone carvings. The visitors begin to be able to go inside and feel the cool temperature of the inner earth. The carvings become more detailed and are not just limited to Buddhas. Carvings of different deities and folk tales surrounding their existence are played out on the cool cave walls of the grottoes. But, the piece de resistance of the caves is housed in the large wooden structure built into the side of the mountain. A large golden Buddha with electric blue hair rests atop a carved lotus flower to greet worshipers who enter the cave.

Zhenbianbao

Zhenbianbao (in Yanggao County, northern Shanxi, 20 kilometers northwest of Datong) is one the last remaining fortified villages in China. About 1,000 people live within its 20-meter-high yellow mud walls. The village is poor. The roads are dirt and houses are made of yellow packed earth. Old women with bound feet can still be found here. Indications of more prosperous times include the large ornate east and west gateways and the wooden pillars on the outdoor stage.

Fortified villages, known as baos, were built in the frontier regions south of the Great Wall of China for extra protection from horsemen that periodically swept in from the north. The villages communicated with one another through hill-top signal towers that were lit with fires when enemies were approaching, Some of these packed earth towers were 15 meters high and 20 meters thick. A few remain. They are often used as playthings for children.

Many of the walls were dismantled during the Sino-Japanese was (1937-1945) because the Japanese suspected they were used for protection by Chinese soldiers. During the Chinese civil war opposing force suspected the fortified villages as harboring their enemies.

Yingxian Wooded Pagoda

Yingxian Wooded Pagoda (in Yingxian County, Shuozhou City, 70 kilometers south of Datong) is the oldest and tallest wooden pagoda in the world. Built in 1056, the 67-meter (221-foot) -tall structure has withstood storms and earthquakes and is constructed from over 3,500 square yards of wood with using a single nail. Its six gently-sloping tile eaves make the pagoda look like it has six stories but it actually has nine stories inside. What makes the temple so beautiful are its closely spaced windows and doors and elegant balconies.

The Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogong Temple, located in the northwestern corner of Yingxian County, is a wooden pagoda built in 1056 during the Liao Dynasty (907-1125). Since it was built completely of timber, it has been known popularly as the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda. The octagonal pagoda was built on a four-meter (13.12 feet) stone platform. Standing 67.31 meters (220.83 feet) high, it is the only existing large wooden pagoda in China and also the tallest among ancient wooden buildings of the world. From the exterior, the pagoda seems to have only five stories, yet the pagoda's interior reveals that it actually has nine stories.

Wooden Structures of Liao Dynasty — the Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County and the Main Hall of the Fengguo Monastery in Yixian County, Liaoning Province — were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013.According to a report submitted to UNESCO: the Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County “ was known as “the first pagoda” during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, which means that “there are large numbers of Buddha pagodas in the world, but the Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County is the first one”. It plays an important role in the history of ancient Chinese architecture. Also, it is the oldest and tallest wooden multi-storey building of the world. This pagoda embodies the wisdom of ancient craftsmen, and it still stands tall after many seismic tests during nine hundred years. It can be described as a miracle in the history of Chinese architecture. The pagoda is called architectural gems by experts in the architectural field both at home and abroad for its long history, unique design and wonderful construction techniques.” [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

“As the only extant and tallest wooden structured Buddha pagoda in China, the Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County bears the knowledge, skill and experience accumulated by Chinese architects during the span of hundreds of years. The property area covers an area of 5.1 hectares, including the full range of Fogong Temple.” According to the Chinese government it is “regarded as one of the top "Three Pagodas in the World", together with the Eiffel Tower in France and the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy.” Admission: 61 yuan (US$9.64) per person.

Architecture of the Yingxian Wooded Pagoda

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County is the oldest and the tallest multi-storey wooden structure in the world, and it highlights the human being’s creative spirit. It boasts sophisticated structure, beautiful outline, balanced proportion and magnificent scale. Its appearance follows a clear digital proportional rule, and is a creative design based on comprehensive and detailed design on the plan, vertical effect, sections and internal space. The wonderful and excellent design represents the highest scientific and technological achievement in wooden structure building then and even now. The pagoda was built with 2,200 cubic meters of wood, more than 15,400 pieces of constructional elements. The pagoda has been preserved for almost a thousand years, and is a marvel in the history of high-rise building engineering of wooden structures. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

“The pagoda is a stereoscopic temple which is built along the vertical space. The pagoda takes the shape of an octagon in the plane with five stories and six eaves and is proped by two circles of columns. The external peripheral column is surrounded by corridor columns, a layout known as Jinxiangdoudicao surrounded by a corridor in Yingzaofashi (Treatise on Architectural Methods). The whole wooden pagoda has nine stories in all, including four blindstories and five clear layers. The pagoda is a double-barrel wooden structure constructed with tenon-and-mortise work. It is composed of three parts: pagoda base, the main body and Tasha.

“The Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County is a brilliant example of the combination of the Buddha pagoda and Chinese local wooden structured building, and provided convincing evidence for the development of Chinese ancient wooden structure system. The pagoda uses “Cai” as basic modules with octagonal plane, dual-barrel structure and ancillary fastening components there are added diagonal supports on radial direction of each blind story and on each side of the octagon chord wise to endow the building with good properties of structural mechanics. The bucket set system in total 54 sorts of brackets used on the pagoda and traditional execution methods enable the wooden pagoda to resist earthquake. And it fully exhibits the highest achievement of China in the fields of architectural skill and arts in the 11th century A.D. Moreover, large quantity of such Buddhist treasure as Buddhist statues, frescos and Buddhist sutra, paintings and Buddhist relics have been discovered in the pagoda, proving the prosperity of Buddhism in Laio Dynasty. The tablets, couplets, inscriptions, and steles show the artistic charm of China, and the records the restoration events in the history.

The Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County is a typical Buddhist architecture with ceremony sites constructed along the vertical space, which shows the prosperity and creativity of the Buddhist architecture in the Liao Dynasty. It witnessed that the nomadic Khitan was deeply affected by the Han’s farming culture after they passed the Great Wall southward and established the Liao Empire, and vigorously promote cultural integration by developing Buddhism.

The Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County is an outstanding example of wooden architecture techniques of East Asia in the 11th century A.D. The pagoda was built with the typical architectural design module of "Cai-Fen system", which creates the beautiful and elegant architectural form. The pagoda has good performance of structural mechanics thanks to the double-barrel wooden structure and tenon-and-mortise work, which creates the stability resistence against earthquake. As the model of utilizing the knowledge, skill and experience by ancient Chinese architects, the Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County represents the highest achievement of China in wooden structure and architectural art.

Hengshan: One of China’s Five Sacred Mountains

Hengshan (65 kilometers south of Datong), in Hunyuan County, is one of the "Five Great Peaks" of China, and is a major Taoist site. It is also the site the Hanging Temple, which is located on the side of a cliff. Hengshan is also referred to as Mt .Hengshan, Hengshan, Mountain, Heng Shan and Northern Henshan. “Shan” means mountain. It is also referred to as Bei Yue (North Mountain) or Northern Hengshan to distinguish it from another Hengshan in Hunan Province. Both the Hanging Monastery and Hengshan can be visited together in a day trip from Datong,

Catherine E. Wood wrote for China.org: “Hengshan Mountain is traditionally called Beiyue or North Sacred Mountain and is home to 108 peaks averaging 2,017 meters above sea level. Wanting a bird's eye view of the beautiful gorge below (and being short on time), Johanna and I elected to ride the steep chairlift to the top of the mountain. The sounds of the chairlift were the only noise to be heard on the way to the top. The solemn mountain gave a calming feeling as we were left to be with nature. The only interrupting sounds were the familiar rumble over the lift supports; it reminded me of ski season and suddenly gave me the urge to go skiing. [Source: Catherine E. Wood, China.org, August 19, 2009]

“Hengshan Mountain is riddled with different temples and important landmarks for a plethora of religion. Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism can all find places of worship here, but after the long hike, it is not hard to see why some may decide to stay on the mountain. The romantic view of the countryside paired with the temples on the mountain made Hengshan a great place to be. Just when we found ourselves getting into the spirit of the place, visitors began a shouting contest that was beyond our understanding. Visitors from all corners of the mountain and in all ages began screaming to each other over the gorge. At first we thought this was some sort of traditional response to something, but later we learned that this was merely an inappropriate spectacle from young people. I am not sure if this goes on frequently at Hengshan Mountain, but it kind of ruined the mood for us.” Later “I followed a path without visitors to a cliff at the edge of the gorge. Not a visitor was in sight: solitude. The only person we saw at our time at the cliff was the lonely Taoist caretaker who said nothing but only popped his head up to see who was visiting. I wondered about this man's story. His silver hair was neatly pined in a bun atop his head, his eyes were piercing black. I wondered if he ever came off the mountain or if he ever truly spent time with people; maybe he didn't need to, maybe he was happy alone.”

Admission: Johanna Yueh wrote: “ These Taoist temples really know how to make money. The entrance fee to Hengshan is 20 yuan (US$2.93), which includes the drive up to the starting point and then the hike up to the Taoist temple area. If you chose to hike, don't be surprised to find another ticket gate at the top, forcing you to buy a ticket to enter the Taoist sacred place, which is why you chose to hike up the mountain in the first place. The entrance fee to the Taoist area is 35 yuan (US$5.12). But some people, like me, got the idea to take the chairlift up to the top and hike their way down. In that case, a ride up is 30 yuan (US$4.39). Down tickets and round-trip tickets are available for 25 yuan (US$3.66) and 45 yuan (US$6.59), respectively. Therefore, if you buy an up ticket, you are forced to either pay the 35 yuan to enter the Taoist temple area or another 25 yuan to go back down the mountain on the chairlift.[Source: Johanna Yueh, China.org, August 14, 2009] Getting There: There is no direct bus from dating and no easy way to come back to Datong using public transportation. Those that chose not to hire a vehicle in Datong have to take a series of taxis, minibuses and buses to get to the monastery. The bus to Hengshan drops you here on the side of the road, where you catch a taxi to Hengshan and the Hanging Monastery.

Five Sacred Mountains of China

The "Five Sacred Mountains of China” are: 1) Mt. Taishan" in Shandong Province; 2) the Southern Mt. Hengshan in Hunan Province; 3) the Western Mt. Huashan in Shaanxi Province; 4) Central Mt. Songshan in Henan Province; and 5) Northern Mt. Hengshan in Shanxi Province. There are several mountains in China with the names Huashan, Hengshan and Songshan, which is why there are referred to central, northern and western, Taishan was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The other four were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site called the “Four Sacred Mountains as an Extension of Mt. Taishan” in 2008, which collectively cover 547.69 square kilometers.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO:"The Five Sacred Mountains" has been worship for over three thousand years from Neolithic Age due to its unique geographical locations and majesty of relative altitude over a kilometer. In 219 B.C., Qin Shihuang (First Emperor of Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.)) held a ceremony of offering sacrifices on the top Mt. Taishan when special national sacrifice codes and systems originated, which was followed by later emperors to show their imperial power's validity and authority. Offering sacrifices to Five Sacred Mountains was held to make the emperors'' achievements informed to all the people and Five Sacred Mountains were regarded as boundaries of their reign. Therefore, as an integration which cannot be divided, Five Sacred Mountains symbolizes the unification and territory in the era of Chinese agricultural civilization. [Source: Ministry of Construction of the People’s Republic of China]

“The political position of Five Sacred Mountains makes them become the common target to which different nationalities worship and sacrifice and contributes to national fusion and unification. Meanwhile, Five Sacred Mountains have also gained their fame of cultural meanings. Five kinds of cultures are the most prominent ones. Firstly, the culture of "five elements". The "five elements" consisting of "water, fire, wood, gold and earth" are considered as the basic substances composing everything on the earth and are considered to promote the selection and formation of Five Sacred Mountains. Secondly, culture of "universal unity", a political concept which can be traced back to The Spring and Autumn Period and The Warring States Period, have been considered as the ideal state of dynasts. The "universal unity" has two major connotations: territorial and political unity, ritual and cultural unity. The "universal unity" has boosted formation and development of sacrifice culture and political position of Five Sacred Mountains.

“Thirdly, the culture of sacrifice. Systems of royal inspection, hunting on mountain, burning for sacrifice, distant sacrifice, fete and sacrifice with the representative of Five Sacred Mountains sacrifice have evolved in the feudal Chinese society and "fengshan" (offering sacrifice to gods) gradually evolved to be the most important national sacrifice ceremony of royal ones in feudal ancient China. Fourthly, the culture of religion. As sacred places of Buddhism, the Southern Mt. Hengshan and the Central Mt. Songshan, have witnessed the spread and development of Buddhism in China and imposed great influence on other countries especially Asian ones. Fifthly, the culture of landscape. A rich collection of stone inscription and literature works is precious fortune for both Chinese and world literature and arts. The five kinds of cultures are interrelated to each other, which advance the selection, formation, development and spread of Five Sacred Mountains.”

Hanging Monastery

Hanging Monastery (at Hengshan, 65 kilometers south of Datong) is a truly breathtaking sight. Located in a canyon at the foot of Hengshan Mountain, it consists of 40 wooden temples scattered in various spots between 23 meters (75 feet) and 47 meters (150 feet) off the ground. Ingeniously built, the temples are propped up on hidden rocks and supported by flying beams. Paved walkways and steep stairs and balconies, built into the side of a cliff during the Wei dynasty, lead up to temples which contains 78 statues from different dynasties and religions. The Triple Religion Hall contains Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist statues. The Hanging Monastery was rebuilt and poorly restored after being damaged by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. Nearby is the Valley of the Lings, a great dry gorge with a vertical wall with hollowed out homes and balconies inhabited by a clan known as the Lings.

The Hanging Monastery, or Hanging Temple, is a temple built on a cliff during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-557). It is said to be the only existing temple of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism in China. There are over 40 halls in the temple and more than 80 Buddhist sculptures made of bronze, iron, stone and mud. Visitors pack into the buildings in a queue, snaking their way through the monastery's tight verandas and peering over the rails to see rocks more than dozens of meters below.

The scientifically designed and skillfully built Xuankong Temple is "odd, suspended and wonderful". Completely built on the mountain cliff, it seems that the wood-structure temple is supported by the beams inserted into the chiseled holes in the cliff, but actually some of the beams don't bear the load at all;

Admission: 130 yuan (US$20.55) per person (summer); 125 yuan (US$19.76) per person (winter). Getting There: There is no direct bus from dating and no easy way to come back to Datong using public transportation. Those that chose not to hire a vehicle in Datong have to take a series of taxis, minibuses and buses to get to the monastery. The Hanging Monastery, or Xuankong Si, is part of Hengshan but located a few kilometers away from the rest of the Hengshan attractions.

Visiting the Hanging Monastery

Both the Hanging Monastery and Hengshan can be visited together in a day trip from Datong, Both places are worth a look and are best understood in conjunction. It's best to save the Hanging Monastery (which is actually more Buddhist and an amalgamation of the three most influential religion-philosophies in China) for last. Hengshan will take about two hours to see and the Hanging Monastery about half an hour.[Source: Johanna Yueh, China.org, August 14, 2009]

Catherine E. Wood wrote for China.org: “We journeyed off” Henghsan “through the winding stone steps around the gorge. Finding our hired taxi for the day, we headed out to the Hanging Monastery as our next destination. The Monastery upon first glance seems just like a building cleverly positioned on a rock face. The second glance shows you that there is no rock face, how the hanging monastery is supported is still a mystery to me. The painted red beams that support the monastery are ever so especially pinned to the rock face, I felt a little nervous that I would be atop the rickety structure in a matter of minutes. [Source: Catherine E. Wood, China.org, August 19, 2009]

“The hike to the monastery is short enough; newly cut stone step guide your path upward before entering the wooden structure. As we climbed, I felt my newly found fear of heights take hold of me; my hands and feet began to sweat and I was fearful of looking over the edge. I was even afraid to take pictures because I thought I would drop my camera to the mountain below. The most nerve racking thing about the monastery is the amount of people filtering through it at any given time. I found a squeaky floorboard and thought that would be the end of us all; it was time to get off the structure.

“Although I was scared, I took note of the beautiful details of the structure and the temple rooms to the different deities inside. I still cannot understand who would come up with such a crazy concept for a building and then who would actually be brave enough to construct it. The Hanging Monastery is quite an oddity.”

Getting to Hengshan and the Hanging Monastery

There is no direct bus from dating and no easy way to come back to Datong using public transportation. Those that chose not to hire a vehicle in Datong have to take a series of taxis, minibuses and buses to get to the monastery. The bus to Hengshan drops you here on the side of the road, where you catch a taxi to Hengshan and the Hanging Monastery.

Johanna Yueh wrote in 2009: “Hengshan and the Hanging Monastery are about an hour outside of the city. Bus tickets can be purchased for 25 yuan at the long-distance bus station or at one of its kiosks located around the city (there is one outside the train station, in the parking lot of Feitian Hotel). They depart about every hour on the half hour in the morning, starting at 7:30. If you should choose to take the bus, it will drop you off on the side of the road, where a cab will be waiting to take you to the Hanging Monastery. There, more cabs and some buses will be waiting to take you to Hengshan.[Source: Johanna Yueh, China.org, August 14, 2009]

“The cab drivers will hassle you about giving you rides to Hengshan and back to the Hanging Monastery. Most start around 80 yuan (US$11.71) per person, which is a complete rip-off. Make your driver take you back to the place where the bus dropped you off (where you can wait for the bus and pay another 25 yuan back) or all the way back to Datong (where you should probably make sure he will drop you off at a familiar place). At any rate, 80 yuan is too expensive for any of these options, so bargain hard. If you want to bypass cabs altogether, try the buses, which are somewhat unreliable. The buses also service other places, so it's hard to know if there will be space available or even when the next bus will come.

“My friend and I took eight different vehicles to get from our hotel to the mountain and monastery and back to our hotel. First, we were chauffeured in a van from the kiosk to the bus station, where we took a bus to the middle of nowhere. There, the cabbie took us to the Hanging Monastery, where we then took another cab to Hengshan. That cab broke down halfway up the mountain road, so another cab came and rescued us. Then, our designated cab driver bailed on us and sent another man to pick us up and take us to the Hanging Monastery. He then handed us over to another man to take us back to Datong in another car. That driver set us out on Yuhe Xi Lu (I still have no idea where that is), but we found a bus that stopped at our hotel.

“That driver also had a really heavy Shanxi accent that made it even harder to understand him with my already poor grasp of Chinese. He kept cursing me because I had jokingly told the driver before him that I was Chinese. (In China, saying you're Chinese means you were born and raised in China). "What kind of Chinese person are you?" he would say angrily every time he said something to me and I just said, "Shenme?" and stared blankly at him. It didn't help that I could understand the other Shanxi people we shared the cab with when they spoke to me. In a way, the journey almost makes going to the Hanging Monastery and Hengshan worth it by itself. If nothing else, it was a great lesson in braving the unexpected, finding random solutions and enjoying the challenge, almost every step of the way.”

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

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, 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 2021


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