Pagodas that Trying to Reach the Sky — Origin, History, Facts, and Famous Examples of Chinese Pagoda

Pagoda of Fogong Temple in Shanxi, The Most Ancient and Tallest Extant Wooden Pagoda

Pagoda of Fogong Temple in Shanxi, The Most Ancient and Tallest Extant Wooden Pagoda, Photo by Lu Junjiang.

 

Origin and History of Pagodas in China

Pagodas originated from ancient Indian Buddhist Stupa, a type of mound shape monument originally built to place sacred Buddha relics after his parinirvana.

With the dissemination of Buddhism, more and more Stupas were built to house holy scriptures, remains, and other valuable Buddhist relics.

The Great Stupa of Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh of India

The Great Stupa of Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh of India

During Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), Buddhism was introduced to ancient China, and so was the Stupa. 

Moreover, the Han Dynasty was a golden era that developed rich culture and technology and advanced architectural systems. 

Hence, based on the sacred idea of the Stupa and rich Han culture, different types of Chinese Pagodas have been developed since then. 

Painted Pottery Building of the Eastern Han Dynasty

Painted Pottery Building of the Han Dynasty — Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Pagodas' Localization — Structure, Material, and Design

In the process of localization in ancient China, besides architectural integrations, there are two other ideas that significantly influenced the Chinese pagodas:

  • Deities and immortals live in tall buildings;

  • The deceased should be laid underground to rest.

Therefore, traditional Chinese pagodas usually are tall as if trying to reach the clouds, and with underground palaces to place sacred Buddhist remains. 

Qingzhou pagoda of the Liao Dynasty (907 — 1125) in Inner Mongolia

Qingzhou pagoda of the Liao Dynasty (907 — 1125) in Inner Mongolia

Common Structure of Traditional Chinese Pagoda

A traditional Chinese pagoda in general consists of four parts:

  • An underground palace (Di Gong) to place sacred Buddhist remains and treasures.

  • A base (Ta Ji) on the ground to serve as a solid foundation.

  • The main body of the pagoda (Ta Shen), hollow ones usually have Buddha statues enshrined inside, solid ones would have religious or other meaningful patterns carved outside the wall.  

  • A top named Ta Sha believed is the modified and condensed Stupa. 

 

The shapes of the top Ta Sha are pretty diverse. Religious pagodas contain necessary parts with Buddhist meanings, others use tops with auspicious symbolizations based on local culture. 

Liaodi Pagoda of Kaiyuan Monastery of Northern Song Dynasty

Liaodi Pagoda of Kaiyuan Monastery of Northern Song Dynasty (960 — 1127) in Hebei, Photo by Yang Hu.

Material

Another notable localization of pagodas is the brilliant use of wood in construction, an essential characteristic of traditional Chinese architecture

Exquisite Wooden Structures of Pagoda of Fogong Temple in Shanxi

Exquisite Wooden Structures of Pagoda of Fogong Temple in Shanxi, Picture From Huaxia Guibao.

Besides wood, with the development of technology, other materials are also used in building pagodas in China, including stone, brick, clay, iron, bronze, jade, gold, silver, glaze glass, etc. 

 

Design 

Moreover, besides Buddhism, other Chinese cultural elements have been applied.

Localized Sculptures and Patterns in Colored Glaze Feihong Pagoda of Shanxi

Localized Sculptures and Patterns in Colored Glaze Feihong Pagoda of Shanxi, Picture from Xiaoya Daochukankan.

 

Function and Meaning of Pagodas in Ancient China

Besides having been localized, pagodas also experienced the procedure of secularization in ancient China. 

They maintained being sacred Buddhism buildings throughout history and have evolved other functions.

 

Religion — Pagodas as Sacred Buddhist Buildings 

Throughout history, the most significant purpose of building pagodas has been religious uses.

Unlike temples, religious pagodas in China are exclusively for Buddhism. 

Accomplished monks and sincere believers, from royals to civilians, have been contributing to constructing pagodas to place holy Buddhists' remains, scriptures, statues, and other valuable relics.

These religious pagodas are holy Buddhas to sincere Buddhists, for them to pray, worship, and cultivate. 

Meanwhile, some shorter and smaller ones are built as graves of accomplished monks, which inherited the idea of the most original use of stupas, such as the Pagoda Forest of Shaolin Temple. 

Stupas Forest of Shaolin Temple

Pagoda Forest of Shaolin Temple in Henan Province, Photo from Official Site of Mount Song.

Feng Shui or Geomancy — Pagodas used in Feng Shui Practices

In ancient Feng Shui Culture, Geomancy could play important role in a region's prosperity and safety. 

For people's well-being, many pagodas have been constructed to form good Feng Shui settings, mainly to:

Complete and Balance

In places with unsatisfied Geomancy, locals, if they could afford it, would build pagodas as completion and balance. 

Tall and strong pagodas can be seen as magnificent mountains, and the completed and balanced surroundings are believed able to bring and preserve luck and blessing, as well as excellent weather for agricultural activities.

Pagoda in Mountains of Imperial Chengde Resort

Pagoda in Mountains of Imperial Chengde Resort, Photo from Official Site of Chengde Mountain Resort.

Improve Academic Fortune 

Wenfeng Pagoda, also named Wenchang or Wenbi Pagoda, was the type that people construct to promote the accomplishments of locals in the Imperial Examination in ancient China. 

It was believed that they could bring the region more talented scholars with eminent scores in the official election exams. 

Today, Wenchang Pagoda ornaments are still widely used as Feng Shui decorations, which are believed can boost one's career and academic achievements. 

Wenfeng Pagoda of Fenyang in Shanxi

Wenfeng Pagoda of Fenyang in Shanxi

Suppress Supernatural Beings

In ancient folklore and legends, pagodas have been used to suppress evil spirits, demons, and monsters, or those with supernatural power but used wrongly or broken certain rules. 

Leifeng Pagoda on West Lake

Leifeng Pagoda in Zhejiang, In A Famous Folklore, Had Suppressed White Snake. Photo by Shiguangmingji.

Guidance — To Obtain Information and Guide for Boats

Along rivers and lakes, or on important borders, some pagodas were built to provide guidance for passing boats and obtain information about military opponents. 

 

Respect — To Burn Paper with Written Characters

The ancient Chinese believed that characters are sacred and sublime, and paper with written words should be well preserved or burnt properly, to avoid them being desecrated. 

Since no later than Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), Xizi Pagodas were built for people to burn written paper with respect. 

Xizi Pagoda in Hunan

Xizi Pagoda in Hunan, Photo by Zhu Li.

 

Architectural Styles of Traditional Chinese Pagodas

Based on architectural structures, pagodas in ancient China can be classified into seven common styles. 

 

Pavilion Pagoda or Tingge Shi Ta

It looks like a single-story pavilion with a Stupa-style top, which can be shaped as a square, hexagon, octagon, or round. 

Pavilion Pagodas could be built for religious purposes or as graves, therefore, inside of they would have Buddha or the deceased's statues enshrined inside.  

Four Gates Pagoda in Shandong, The Oldest Extant Pavilion Pagoda or Tingge Shi Ta

Four Gates Stone Pagoda in Shandong, The Oldest Extant Pavilion Pagoda or Tingge Shi Ta, Picture from Rolf Müller.

High-rise Pagoda or Louge Shi Ta

This is the most historical and common style of Chinese pagodas, which evolved out of traditional Chinese buildings.

Their roofs have exquisite flying eaves and brilliant Dougong structures, with enough inner spaces for enshrining sacred relics and place valuable treasures. 

High-rise Pagodas are generally climbable, some also have outer corridors on each story for people to gaze afar. 

High-rise Louge Style Puming Pagoda of Hanshan Temple in Jiangsu

High-rise or Louge Style Puming Pagoda of Hanshan Temple in Jiangsu, Picture from Diyichuangzao Studio. 

Dense-eaves Pagoda or Miyan Shi Ta

Evolved out of High-rise pagodas, Dense-eaves Pagodas are usually brick and stone made, with much denser eaves and shorter floor heights, except for a big and tall first floor. 

Inside and outside of the magnificent first floor, sacred statues and patterns are enshrined and carved, as well as doors, windows, and other artistic decorations. 

Dense-eaves Pagodas can be hollow or solid, but most of them are not climbable. 

Dense-eaves or Miyan Style Qianxun Pagoda in Yunnan

Dense-eaves or Miyan Style Qianxun Pagoda in Yunnan, Picture from Yueyunnan.

Lama Pagoda or Fubo Shi Ta

Lama pagoda is the religious building that combined the Stupa with Tibetan Buddhism, mainly used as graves for renowned lamas and monks. 

They are solid and white, and the top Ta Sha with sacred Buddhism meanings. 

Pagoda of Miaoying Temple in Beijing, The Oldest and Biggest Extant Lama Pagoda or Fubo Shi Ta in China.

Pagoda of Miaoying Temple in Beijing, The Oldest and Biggest Extant Lama Pagoda or Fubo Shi Ta in China, Picture from IC.

Vajrasana Pagoda or Jingang Baozuo Ta

Vajrasana Pagoda is the type that has a grand base, on which build five pagodas to represent the Five Great Buddhas.

The layout of these five, with a big one in the middle and four smaller ones in four directions, has been stable. 

However, the architectural styles of Vajrasana Pagodas in China are not regulated, some would have more than one style on the same base.  

Pagodas of Zhenjue Temple in Beijing, The Oldest Extant Vajrasana Pagoda or Jingang Baozuo Ta in China.

Pagodas of Zhenjue Temple in Beijing, The Oldest Surviving Vajrasana Pagoda or Jingang Baozuo Ta in China, Picture from Yan Xia.

Street Pagoda and Doorway Pagoda

Street Pagoda or Guojie Ta, Doorway Pagoda or Ta Men, are those built on top of doorways, which sometimes are located on busy streets. 

Every time a person passes through these doorways, it represents he or she worshiped the sacred pagodas once.

Shaoguan Pagoda in Jiangsu, The Only Well Preserved Ancient Street Pagoda or Guojie Ta in China

Shaoguan Pagoda in Jiangsu, The Only Well Preserved Ancient Street Pagoda or Guojie Ta in China. Photo by Li Wenbo.

Other Pagodas in China

Besides those traditional styles mentioned above, some special pagodas have been constructed as well. 

The most common way is to combine more than one traditional style into something new and innovative. 

Duobao Pagoda in Summer Palace, Combined High-rise and Dense-eaves Styles

Duobao Pagoda in Summer Palace, Combined High-rise and Dense-eaves Styles, Picture from Heipo.