Chinese pagoda

The Liuhe Pagoda (Six Harmonies Pagoda) of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, built in 1165 AD during the Song Dynasty.
For the landmark in Birmingham, see Chinese Pagoda.

Chinese Pagodas (Chinese: ; pinyin: ) are a traditional part of Chinese architecture. In addition to religious use, since ancient times Chinese pagodas have been praised for the spectacular views which they offer, and many famous poems in Chinese history attest to the joy of scaling pagodas.



The Lingxiao Pagoda of Zhengding, Hebei, built in 1045 AD during the Song Dynasty, with little change in later renovations.

The pagoda is evolved from the stupa from the Indian subcontinent,[1] a tomb-like structure where sacred relics could be kept safe and venerated. The architectural structure of the stupa has spread across Asia, and the original dome-shaped structure of the stupa from India was gradually fused together with the design of ancient Chinese towers to form the shape of the Chinese pagoda.[2]

The Chinese word for stupa, ta, is an abbreviated translation (from tapo) of the Sanskrit Stupa. The origins of the word Pagoda are obscure. In modern usage, the word Stupa and Pagoda refer to the same thing.[3]

The Pagoda's original purpose was to house relics and sacred writings.[4] This purpose was popularized due to the efforts of Buddhist missionaries, pilgrims, rulers, and ordinary devotees to seek out, distribute, and extol Buddhist relics.[3]

The earliest base-structure type for Chinese pagodas were square-base and circular-base. By the 5th-10th centuries the Chinese began to build octagonal-base pagoda towers. The highest Chinese pagoda from the pre-modern age is the Liaodi Pagoda of Kaiyuan Monastery, Dingxian, Hebei province, completed in the year 1055 AD under Emperor Renzong of Song and standing at a total height of 84 m (275 ft). The pagoda was built of brick and stone and has the classic gradual tiered eaves marking each storey, and has a section of its walls partially open at one side, which allows one to view the interior of the pagoda, the inner column shaped as another pagoda inside, and the thickness of the pagoda's walls.[5] Although it no longer stands, the tallest pre-modern pagoda in Chinese history was the 100-metre-tall wooden pagoda (330 ft) of Chang'an, built by Emperor Yang of Sui.[6] The Liaodi Pagoda is the tallest pre-modern pagoda still standing, yet in April 2007 a new wooden pagoda at the Tianning Temple of Changzhou was opened to the public; this pagoda is now the tallest in China, standing at 154 m (505 ft).

Symbolism and geomancy

The Xumi Pagoda, built in 636 AD during the Tang Dynasty.

Iconography of Han is noticeable in architecture of the Chinese Pagoda . The image of the Shakyamuni Buddha in the abhaya mudra is also noticeable in some Chinese pagodas, Buddhist iconography is also inside of the symbolism in the pagoda.[7] In an article on Buddhist elements in Han art, Wu Hung suggests that in these tombs, Buddhist iconography was so well incorporated into native Chinese traditions that a unique system of symbolism had been developed.[8] It was believed by some that the they would influence the success of young students taking the examinations for a civil service degree.[9] When a pagoda of Yihuang County in Fuzhou collapsed in 1210 during the Song Dynasty, all the local inhabitants believed that the unfortunate event was directly correlated with the recent failure of many exam candidates in the prefectural examinations for official degrees, the prerequisite for appointment in civil service.[10] The pagoda was rebuilt in 1223 and had a list inscribed on it of the recently successful examination candidates, in hopes that it would reverse the trend and win the county supernatural, cosmic favor.[10]

Construction Materials


The 40-metre-tall (130 ft) Songyue Pagoda of 523 AD, the oldest existent stone pagoda in China.

From the Eastern Han Dynasty to the Southern and Northern Dynasties (~25-589) pagodas were mostly built of wood, as were other ancient Chinese structures. Wooden pagodas are resistant to earthquakes, however many have burnt down, and wood is also prone to both natural rot and insect infestation.

Examples of wooden pagodas:

The literature of subsequent eras also provides evidence of the domination of wooden pagoda construction in this period. The famous Tang Dynasty poet, Du Mu, once wrote:

480 Buddhist temples of the Southern Dynasties,
uncountable towers and pagodas stand in the misty rain.

The oldest extant fully wooden pagoda standing in China today is the Pagoda of Fugong Temple in Ying County, Shanxi Province, built in the 11th century during the Song Dynasty/Liao Dynasty (refer to Architecture section in Song Dynasty).

Transition to brick and stone

The brick-constructed Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, built by 652 and rebuilt in 704, during the Tang Dynasty.

During the Northern Wei and Sui dynasties (386-618) experiments began with the construction of brick and stone pagodas. Even at the end of the Sui, however, wood was still the most common material. For example, Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty (reigned 581-604) once issued a decree for all counties and prefectures to build pagodas to a set of standard designs, however since they were all built of wood none have survived. Only the Songyue Pagoda has survived, a circular-based pagoda built out of stone in 523 AD.


The earliest extant brick pagoda is the 40-metre-tall Songyue Pagoda in Dengfeng Country, Henan.[11] This curved, circle-based pagoda was built in 523 during the Northern Wei Dynasty, and has survived for 15 centuries.[11] Much like the later pagodas found during the following Tang Dynasty, this temple featured tiers of eaves encircling its frame, as well as a spire crowing the top. Its walls are 2.5 m thick, with a ground floor diameter of 10.6 m. Another early brick pagoda is the Sui Dynasty Guoqing Pagoda built in 597.


The earliest large-scale stone pagoda is a Four Gates Pagoda at Licheng, Shandong, built in 611 during the Sui Dynasty. Like the Songyue Pagoda, it also features a spire at its top, and is built in the pavilion style.

Brick and stone

The Iron Pagoda of Kaifeng, built in 1049 AD during the Song Dynasty

One of the earliest brick and stone pagodas was a three-storey construction built in the (first) Jin Dynasty (265-420), by Wang Jun of Xiangyang. However, it is now destroyed.

Brick and stone went on to dominate Tang, Song, Liao and Jin Dynasty pagoda construction. An example of such would be the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda (652 AD), built during the early Tang Dynasty. The Porcelain Pagoda of Nanjing has been one of the most famous brick and stone pagoda in China throughout history. The Zhou dynasty started making the ancient pagodas about 3,500 years ago and are still being made today.

De-emphasis over time

Pagodas, in keeping with the tradition of the White Horse Temple, were generally placed in the center of temples until the Sui and Tang dynasties. During the Tang, the importance of the main hall was elevated and the pagoda was moved beside the hall, or out of the temple compound altogether. In the early Tang, Dàoxuān wrote a Standard Design for Buddhist Temple Construction in which the main hall replaced the pagoda as the center of the temple.

The design of temples was also influenced by the use of traditional Chinese residences as shrines, after they were philanthropically donated by the wealthy or the pious. In such pre-configured spaces, building a central pagoda might not have been either desirable or possible.

Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai follows the Song Dynasty multi-courtyard design, and does not feature a pagoda. The main hall is at the center.

In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the Chan (Zen) sect developed a new 'seven part structure' for temples. The seven parts - the Buddha hall, dharma hall, monks' quarters, depository, gate, pure land hall and toilet facilities - completely exclude pagodas, and can be seen to represent the final triumph of the traditional Chinese palace/courtyard system over the original central-pagoda tradition established 1000 years earlier by the White Horse Temple in 67. Although they were built outside of the main temple itself, large pagodas in the tradition of the past were still built. This includes the two Ming Dynasty pagodas of Famen Temple and the Chongwen Pagoda in Jingyang of Shaanxi Province.

A prominent, later example of converting a palace to a temple is Beijing's Yonghe Temple, which was the residence of Yongzheng Emperor before he ascended the throne. It was donated for use as a lamasery after his death in 1735.

Styles of eras

Han Dynasty

Examples of Han Dynasty era tower architecture predating Buddhist influence and the full-fledged Chinese pagoda can be seen in the four pictures below. Michael Loewe writes that during the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) period, multi-storied towers were erected for religious purposes, as astronomical observatories, as watchtowers, or as ornate buildings that were believed to attract the favor of spirits, deities, and immortals.[12]

Sui and Tang

Pagodas built during the Sui and Tang Dynasty usually had a square base, with a few exceptions such as the Daqin Pagoda:

Song, Liao, Jin, Yuan

Pagodas of the Five Dynasties, Northern and Southern Song, Liao, Jin, and Yuan Dynasties incorporated many new styles, with a greater emphasis on hexagonal and octagonal bases for pagodas:

Ming and Qing

Pagodas in the Ming and Qing Dynasties generally inherited the styles of previous eras, although there were some minor variations:

See also


  1. ^ Pagoda. Encyclopedia Britannica
  2. ^ Fu (2002), 85.
  3. ^ a b The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture By John Kieschnick. Published 2003. Princeton University Press . ISBN 0-691-09676-7. pg 31
  4. ^ A World History of Architecture By Michael W. Fazio, Marian Moffett, Lawrence Wodehouse. Published 2003. McGraw-Hill Professional. ISBN 0-07-141751-6.
  5. ^ Steinhardt, 387.
  6. ^ Benn, 62.
  7. ^ The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture By John Kieschnick. Published 2003. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-09676-7. page 83
  8. ^ The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture By John Kieschnick. Published 2003. Princeton University Press ISBN 0-691-09676-7. page 84
  9. ^ Brook, 7.
  10. ^ a b Hymes, 30.
  11. ^ a b Steinhardt, 383.
  12. ^ Loewe (1968), 133.


  • Benn, Charles (2002). China's Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517665-0.
  • Brook, Timothy. (1998). The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-22154-0
  • Fu, Xinian. (2002). "The Three Kingdoms, Western and Eastern Jin, and Northern and Southern Dynasties," in Chinese Architecture, 61–90. Edited by Nancy S. Steinhardt. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09559-7.
  • Hymes, Robert P. (1986). Statesmen and Gentlemen: The Elite of Fu-Chou, Chiang-Hsi, in Northern and Southern Sung. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-30631-0.
  • Loewe, Michael. (1968). Everyday Life in Early Imperial China during the Han Period 202 BC–AD 220. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd.; New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.
  • Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman (1997). Liao Architecture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

External links

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