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Big Wild Goose Pagoda

An Introduction to Big Wild Goose Pagoda

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is one of the most famous Buddhist pagodas in China. It is the oldest and highest wooden structure in China and is regarded as the "First Pagoda in the World" and an architectural gem. Built without the use of nails, the entire structure is solid, imposing, and elegant. It has weathered over 900 years of wind and storm, yet has remained intact despite many strong earthquakes. It is indeed a masterpiece of ancient Chinese architecture. The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is situated in Da Ci’en Temple (the Temple of Thanksgiving), which lies in a southern suburb of Xian, about 4 kilometers from the city center.

Why it is called Big Wild Goose Pagoda, there is a legend. According to ancient stories of Buddhists, there were two branches, for one of which eating meat was not a taboo. One day, they couldn't find meat to buy. Upon seeing a group of big wild geese flying by, a monk said to himself: 'Today we have no meat. I hope the merciful Bodhisattva will give us some.' At that very moment, the leading wild goose broke its wings and fell to the ground. All the monks were startled and believed that Bodhisattva showed his spirit to order them to be more pious. They established a pagoda where the wild goose fell and stopped eating meat. Hence it got the name 'Big Wild Goose Pagoda'.

The exterior of the pagoda is divided into three parts: the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, the Da Ci'en Temple, and the North Square of Big Wild Goose Pagoda.

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda first built to a height of 60 meters (197 feet) with five stories, it is now 64.5 meters (211.6 feet) high with an additional two stories. It was said that after that addition came the saying-'Saving a life exceeds building a seven-storied pagoda'. Externally it looks like a square cone, simple but grand and it is a masterpiece of Buddhist construction. Built of brick, its structure is very firm. Inside the pagoda, stairs twist up so that visitors can climb and overlook the panorama of Xian City from the arch-shaped doors on four sides of each storey. On the walls are engraved fine statues of Buddha by the renowned artist Yan Liben of the Tang Dynasty. Steles by noted calligraphers also grace the pagoda.

When people enter the southern door of the pagoda, they see a statue of Sakyamuni (the Buddha) about ten meters high. The ceiling is refined and beautifully structured. On the inner walls are six pictures of Tathagata in different poses. On the walls of the doorway are mural paintings of warrior attendants, heavenly kings, and Buddhist disciples. A painting of three female devotees on the wall above the door is especially exquisite. All the statues and murals have Liao Dynasty characteristics.

Tradition in the Tang Dynasty (618 ~ 907AD) held that a candidate who passed the imperial examinations would have to climb up Big Wild Goose Pagoda and write poems and inscriptions on the top. This symbolized their soaring career in the future, and the fashion extended well into Ming Dynasty. These poems and inscriptions are today a fine mirror into the city’s past.

Da Ci’en Temple was originally built in 589 AD. It was not until the Zhenguan period of the Tang Dynasty, in 648 AD, that Li Zhi (the third emperor of Tang Dynasty) ordered the reparation of the temple in memory of his mother Empress Wende. The temple was later renamed Da Ci’en Si. The Tang Regime appointed the widely renowned Master Xuan Zang as the head of the temple. The temple was destroyed by war during the downfall of the Tang Dynasty and the halls and rooms we see today were actually built in Ming Dynasty.  

In 652 AD, Master Xuan Zang proposed to the court that a pagoda should be built inside the temple to store scriptures and statues he had brought back from India. The Emperor agreed with him, and Master Xuan Zang created the designs himself. He stayed in Ci’en Temple for 12 years, and translated 75 sets of Buddhist scripture, in total 1,335 volumes. ”Pilgrims to the West”, one of the China’s most popular novels, tells the adventures of Master Xuan Zang and his three disciples.

Surrounding Big Wild Goose Pagoda, the scenery is also quite charming, especially the north square of the Da Ci'en Temple. Covering about 110,000 square meters (131,563 square yards) plus 20,000 square meters (23920.6 square yards) of water area, it holds many records: in Asia, it is the biggest Tang-culture square, the biggest fountain and waterscape square, and the largest-scale sculptures area. In the world, it has the most benches, the longest light-belt, and the largest-scale acoustic complex.

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda definitely deserves a visit on your trip to Xian.

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