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Notes on the Geography of China: Foguang Temple

Foguang Temple, from the ninth century, is one of the few wooden buildings remaining in China from the Tang Dynasty. Its rediscovery in the 1930s by Liang Sicheng (Liang Ssu-Ch'eng) is a story in itself and is a continuing controversy. The building figures prominently in Liang's Chinese Architecture: A Pictorial History (1984) and in Wilma Fairchild's Liang and Lin: Partners in Exploring China's Architectural Past, 1994). For the more recent debate, see "The Tang Architectural Icon and the Politics of Chinese Architectural History," by Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt in Art Bulletin, June 2004.

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While on the Dayun Expressway from Taiyuan to Foguang, here's some background. Liang writes: "The oldest wooden structure known today is the Main Hall of Fo-kuang Ssu, in the Wu-tai Mountain, Shansi Province."

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Rhetorical question: do the Chinese know how to build controlled-access highways?

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Tourist development is coming along at either a frightening or encouraging pace, depending on your viewpoint.

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Shanghai? Beijing? Of course not. We're in Xinzhou, where we leave the expressway. The picture is a first-rate reminder that Chinese urban development is bringing mini-Hong Kongs to a hundred places--or more.

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Dingxiang, a smaller place with buildings from an earlier era.

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Highway approaching Wutai Town.

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We've come to Doucun, the last settlement before Foguang.

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Call it a substantial village.

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A last hamlet awaits.

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Even here, there is modern housing.

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Terraced fields, barren mountains, improved road.

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Farmsteads are tucked here and there.

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Often they combine construction with excavation of rooms in the soft but strong, compacted silt called loess.

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Foguang is up there in those trees.

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The road dead-ends.

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We step in the gate and are in a courtyard. There's a fine old building to our left, while Foguang sits straight ahead, on a terrace cut into the hillside. Again, Liang called the building the "oldest wooden structure existing in China." Steinhardt describes it as "the unique grand hall, visually and according to its structural details, among extant Tang buildings." She writes, "Standing today are no more than six Tang wooden halls. One of them, Foguang Monastery East Hall, was of significantly higher status than the others." Across East Asia, the chief competition comes from the slightly older Kondo of the Toshodaiji monastery in Nara, built by a Chinese monk.

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This building, on the left as one approaches the temple, measures seven bays in width and four in depth. It has a single-eave roof, with a rare (and on this scale unique) slightly inverted V ridge-line beam. Rebuilt in 1137, it's a spring chicken in comparison to its neighbor. (Photography inside is prohibited.)

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The view from above.

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The steep staircase up to the terrace.

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Facade of Foguangsi. Liang wrote, "The temple stands on a high terrace on the mountain facing a large courtyard in front and framed by twenty or thirty very old pines. It is a majestic building. Only one story in height, it has large, strong, simple brackets and a far overhanging eave, which at a casual glance at once tell us its very old date."

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View from the other side.

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The Dhanari column commemorates, among others, Ning Kung-yu, a female disciple who donated the funds to build the hall.

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Describing the construction in technical terms, Liang writes of the "enormous tou-kung [bracket sets], which consist of four tiers of cantilevers, including two tiers of hua-kung [brackets extending forward and back from the bearing block at the bottom of the bracket set], and two tiers of ang [with a long, slanted lever arm balanced on the bearing block and with one side bearing a purlin and the other bearing the eave]--measuring about half the height of the columns." More expressively, he writes of "every piece of timber in the ensemble doing its share as a structural member... [and giving] the building an overwhelming dignity that is not found in later structures" (p. 43).

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Liang wrote to Fairchild: "This 'attic' was inhabited by thousands of bats, which clustered around the ridge like a thick spread of caviar, thus preventing me from finding a possible date written thereon. In addition, the timbers were infested with millions of bedbugs that live on the bats.... When at last we came out from under the eaves to take a breath of fresh air, we found hundreds of bedbugs in our knapsack. We ourselves had been badly bitten. Yet the importance and unexpectedness of our find made those the happiest hours of my years of hunting for ancient architecture" (p. 95).

Liang noted in Chinese Architecture that "every surface of the beams is curved. The sides are pulvinated, and the top and bottom are gently arched, giving an illusion of strength that would otherwise be lacking in a simple straight horizontal member" (p. 43).

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Again from Liang's description in Fairchild: "The huge doors were at once thrown open for us. The interior, seven bays in width, was more than impressive in the twilight. On a large platform, seated statues of Buddha and his numerous attendants rose before us like an enchanted deified forest" (p. 94).

In Chinese Architecture,, he writes, "What makes the Main Hall even more of a treasure is the presence within of sculpture, painting, and calligraphy, all of the same date." "On the large platform," he writes, "is a pantheon of nearly three dozen Buddhas and Bodhissatvas of colossal and heroic size.... Thus in a single building are found examples of all four of the plastic arts of the T'ang dynasty. Any one of them would be proclaimed a national treasure; and the assemblage of all four is an unimaginable extravagance." The bars are presumably a recent addition. Photography is again prohibited except from outside the building.

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A zoomed view.

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Another angle.

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The powerful rear side of the building. Steinhardt writes that "Since the Cultural Revolution, to criticize Liang's writing meant to criticize the man, someone now as untouchably perfect as the image of a Tang hall created by him.... " Steinhardt then criticizes Liang for paying too much attention to this grand building and too little to more modest ones of similar age. Liang, she writes, "...explicated a hierarchical system for a society grounded in hierarchy" (p. 248). She writes, "One cannot but be puzzled by Liang Sicheng's omission of the eighth-century architecture at Horyuji [Japan] in his studies of early Chinese Buddhist architecture, for, as we are about to learn, there is no question he was aware of it." She maintains that "...political or personal agendas might be the only way to explain the avoidance of Japanese architecture in the writing of a superbly educated and meticulous scholar such as Liang."

Liang, she concludes, wrote "China's architectural history as a history of beautiful, high-status monuments that, no matter who had cut and put together the wood, had been patronized by the wealthy, educated elite" (p. 247). Liang, in short, came from an elitist background, was personally crushed in the Cultural Revolution, but maintained his old loyalties.

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