Chinese pagodas (Chinese: 塔; pinyin: Tǎ) 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 are built to offer, and many famous poems in Chinese
history attest to the joy of scaling pagodas. The oldest and tallest
were built of wood, but those which have endured over time have been
built of brick or stone. Some pagodas were solid, and had no interior
at all; others were hollow and held within themselves an altar, with
the larger frequently containing a smaller pagoda (pagodas were not
inhabited buildings and had no "floors" or "rooms"). The pagoda's
interior has a series of staircases that allow the visitor to ascend
to the top of the building and to witness the view from an opening on
one side at each storey. Most have between three and 13 storeys
(almost always an odd number) and the classic gradual tiered
2 Symbolism and geomancy
3 Construction Materials
3.2 Transition to brick and stone
3.2.3 Brick and stone
4 De-emphasis over time
5 Styles of eras
5.1 Han Dynasty
5.2 Sui and Tang
5.3 Dali kingdom
5.4 Song, Liao, Jin, Yuan
5.5 Ming and Qing
6 See also
9 External links
Pagoda of Zhengding, Hebei, built in 1045 AD during the
Song Dynasty, with little change in later renovations.
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).
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. 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. 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. It was
believed by some that they would influence the success of young
students taking the examinations for a civil service degree. 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. 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.
The 40-metre-tall (130 ft) Songyue
Pagoda of 523 AD, the oldest
existent stone pagoda in China.
Eastern Han Dynasty
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:
Pagoda at White Horse Temple, Luoyang.
Pagoda in Xuzhou, built in the
Three Kingdoms period
Many of the pagodas in Stories About Buddhist Temples in Luoyang, a
Northern Wei text, were wooden.
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. This curved, circle-based pagoda was
built in 523 during the Northern Wei Dynasty, and has survived for 15
centuries. 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 crowning the top. Its walls are 2.5 m thick,
with a ground floor diameter of 10.6 m. Another early brick pagoda is
Sui Dynasty Guoqing
Pagoda built in 597.
The earliest large-scale stone pagoda is a Four Gates
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
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
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,
Daoxuan 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
Jade Buddha Temple
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.
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
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
Ming Dynasty pagodas of Famen Temple and the Chongwen Pagoda
in Jingyang of
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 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,
Ancient Chinese model of two residential towers, made of earthenware
during the Han Dynasty, 2nd century BC to 2nd century AD
Side view of a Han pottery tower model with a mid-floor balcony and a
courtyard gatehouse flanked by smaller towers; the dougong support
brackets are clearly visible.
A Western-Han model of a watchtower with human figures on its
balconies (including crossbowmen) and a gatehouse and courtyard on the
Among a large set of architectural models, three Eastern Han Dynasty
watchtowers stand in the rear of this display
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:
Four Gates Pagoda, built in 611.
The Daqin Pagoda, built in 640.
The Small Wild Goose Pagoda, built in 709.
Pagoda of the Baoguang Temple, built between 862-888.
The Three Pagodas, 9th and 10th centuries.
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:
The Huqiu Tower, built in 961.
Longhua Pagoda, built in 977.
Pagoda of Fogong Temple, built in 1056.
The Liaodi Pagoda, built in 1055
Pizhi Pagoda, built by 1063.
Haotian Pagoda, built in 1103.
Pagoda of Tianning Temple in Beijing, 1120.
The Chengling Pagoda, built in 1189.
Wuying Pagoda, built in 1270.
Pagoda of Bailin Temple, built by 1330.
Ming and Qing
Pagodas in the Ming and Qing Dynasties generally inherited the styles
of previous eras, although there were some minor variations:
Zhenjue Temple, built in 1473.
Pagoda of Cishou Temple, built in 1576.
The Sarira Stupa of Tayuan Temple, built in 1582
The Fragrant Hills Pagoda, built in 1780.
The Square Tower of Songjiang, Shanghai
Architecture of the Song Dynasty
List of pagodas in Beijing
^ Architecture and Building. W.T. Comstock. 1896. p. 245.
^ Steinhardt, 387.
^ Benn, 62.
^ The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture By John
Kieschnick. Published 2003. Princeton University Press.
ISBN 0-691-09676-7. page 83
^ The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture By John
Kieschnick. Published 2003. Princeton University Press
ISBN 0-691-09676-7. page 84
^ Brook, 7.
^ a b Hymes, 30.
^ a b Steinhardt, 383.
^ 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.
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.
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.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to
Pagodas in China.
Chinese pagoda gallery (211 pics)
The Bei-Hai (Beijing), The Flower
Pagoda (Guangdong), The Great Gander
Pagoda (Xian), The White
With a chapter about China and paragraphs about many pagoda’s
Pagoda at China.org.cn
Structure of Pagodas, including the underground palace, base, body and
steeple, at China.org.cn
The Herbert Offen Research Collection of the Phillips Library at the