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Chinese Multistorey Pagodas

An Introduction to Chinese Multistorey Pagodas

Multistorey pagodas are the oldest, the biggest and the most numerous of all China's ancient pagodas. This type of pagoda originated in the traditional multistoreyed buildings and pavilions of Chinese architecture. Multistoreyed buildings are the highest and most magnificent of ancient buildings in China. They appeared before Buddhism was introduced to China. During the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.) and the Qin and Han dynasties construction techniques of wooden buildings, including multistoreyed ones, already reached a considerably high level. Cloud Pavilion, built by order of the second emperor of the Qin Dynasty (reigned 209-207 B.C.), was said to be "as high as Mount Nan." During the Western Han Dynasty a kind of tall building was constructed by piling up logs to as high as "fifty zhang" (about 166 meters). Many grand terraces and tall buildings of various kinds were erected at that time, since it was the fashion to make buildings as high as possible. This can be proved by unearthed funeral objects, murals and pictures on bricks dating to the Han Dynasty. A pottery building of the Eastern Han Dynasty, unearthed from Wuwei County and now on exhibition in the Museum of Gansu Province, has five storeys and a lofty style, similar to that of futu described in classical accounts. The square structure at the bottom is also similar to the design of a Buddhist temple in the early period.

According to accounts in Stories About Buddhist Temples in Luoyang, Yongning Temple had a nine-storeyed wooden pagoda that was ninety zhang (about 300 meters) tall, with a spire of ten zhang (about 30 meters). The lofty pagodas of "a thousand chi" (about 330 meters) could be seen thirty miles from the capital, Luoyang. It was ornamented by a precious bottle on the top and thirty tiers of dew basins on the steeple, with little golden bells hanging around the dew basins. The tip of the pagoda was linked by four iron chains to the four corners of the pagoda's roof. Golden bells also hung from the iron chains and under the eaves. The pagoda had altogether one hundred twenty golden bells. Each of the four sides at each storey had three doors and six windows; all the doors were painted red and decorated with gold rings and nine rows of gold nails, amounting to fifty-four hundred in all. When a strong wind blew in the deep of night, the bells could be heard tinkling miles away.

From this record we can judge that Yongning Temple's pagoda was a nine-storeyed square wooden structure topped by a beautiful spire. Futuci Pagoda at Xuzhou, built during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), was of a similar style. It had "nine tiers of bronze dew basins on top and many storeys and passages." Most wooden pagodas have been destroyed by fires, storms or anti-Buddhist upheavals in history. The wooden pagoda at Yingxian County, built during the Liao Dynasty (916-1125), is one of the few still existing today.

After the Sui and Tang dynasties bricks and stones were used as the main building materials of pagodas. Multistoreyed pagodas made of bricks and stones had the following characteristics:

1. The height of each storey was increased to about the same as that of an ordinary multistoreyed building. In other words, the main body of a pagoda looked like any multistoreyed building.
2. Each storey of the pagoda had doors, windows, columns, and brackets made of bricks or stones but in the same style as those made of wood.
3. The pent roofs, too, were modeled after the fashion of wooden structures, including the purlins, the rafters, upturned eaves and ridge tiles. On pagodas made of both timber and bricks the eaves became more prominent, and the beams and balustrades were made of wood but joined to the brick framework of the pagoda instead of wooden pillars and beams.
4. Staircases were built in the pagodas for people to climb up and down; on each level the landing was big enough for people to walk around and look at the view. Generally, the number of storeys inside a pagoda was the same as appeared from the outside, though sometimes more storeyes were built than could be observed from the outside. This is also one characteristic that differentiated multistoreyed pagodas from multi-eaved pagodas, which had more levels of eaves than actual storeyes.

Though no pagodas of the earliest times have survived, we can still see what they looked like from murals and sculptures that have been preserved in great numbers. In the Dunhuang caves of Gansu Province, the Yungang caves at Datong in Shanxi Province, and the Longmen caves at Luoyang in Henan Province there are many murals and sculptures depicting multistoreyod pagodas of the Northern Wei, Sui and Tang dynasties. For instance, the pagoda pillars in Caves 12 and 21 at Yungang were so vividly carved that they are regarded as miniatures of multistoreyed pagodas of the Northern Wei Dynasty.

Beginning in the Tang Dynasty, pagodas were mostly built of brick and stone, so many of them still stand. The best known include the tomb pagoda of Monk Xuanzang, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Botaihou Pagoda at Liquan in Xi'an, the Huqiu Pagoda, the Beisi Pagoda, the Ruiguang Pagoda and the Twin Pagodas at Luohanyuan Temple in Suzhou, the Square Pagoda in Songjiang and the Xilin Pagoda in Shanghai, the Pagoda of Six Harmonies and the Baochu Pagoda in Hangzhou, the Flowery Pagoda at Six-Banyan Temple in Guangzhou, the Twin Stone Pagodas at Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou, the Chongmiao Baosheng Jianlao Pagoda and the Dingguang Pagoda in Fuzhou, the Liaodi Pagoda in Dingzhou, the Yunju Temple Pagoda in Zhuozhou, the Haotian Pagoda in Beijing's Liangxiang, the Wanbuhuayanjing Pagoda in Hohhot, the White Pagoda in Qingzhou, and the Haibao Pagoda and Chengtian Temple Pagoda in Yinchuan.

In addition to the large multistoreyed pagodas there are small ones made of cast bronze or cast iron and carved stone. These pagodas are too small for people to enter, but they look just like large wooden pagodas, including such details as doors, windows, columns, brackets and eaves. The Twin Stone Pagodas at Lingying Temple in Hangzhou, the White Pagoda at Zhakou, the Iron Pagoda at Jade Spring Temple in Dangyang and the Iron Pagoda at Ganlu Temple in Zhenjiang are all examples of this category.

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