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Missing Chinese Architecture, 02 The Towering Buddhist Pagoda

In the 5th century, China was struggling with unrest. A woman with overwhelming power ordered the construction of a spectacular pagoda in hope of gaining a blessing on her dynasty. However, the completion of the pagoda turned out to be the start of her downfall. As the symbol of power, it was fated to perish in the flames of war.

One day more than 1,000 years ago, an official of the Eastern Wei Dynasty (534-550AD) was writing at home a biography about the capital of the previous dynasty. It was Yang Xuanzhi, who once served as a Northern Wei military officer eligible to attend the morning court.

His book, the Records of the Buddhist Monasteries in Luoyang, was the first collection of Buddhist remains in China, through which we could vividly experience the old Luoyang City once shrouded in the stately atmosphere of Buddhism.

In a tranquil woods east of Luoyang sits China’s most famous temple, the White Horse Temple. To the north of Mangshan Mountain and Luoshui River, it was built more than 2,000 years ago. The temple remains prosperous today. Believers and visitors from all over the world either worship or travel there. As the first Buddhist temple in China, it is considered by many as “the cradle of Chinese Buddhism”.

There are many accounts about the White Horse Temple, and in books on Buddhist history and its name always came up first. But Yang Xuanzhi’s masterpiece was an exception. In the Records of the Buddhist Monasteries in Luoyang, its name turned up at the end and with only a little description, while the Yongning Temple was highlighted in the opening chapter.

What did the Yongning Temple look like? According to Yang Xuanzhi’s records, the Yongning Temple was a royal project ordered by the ruler of the Northern Wei Dynasty. It was the period when Buddhism reached its first climax in China after entering the country in the Eastern Han Dynasty. In the temple, there also stood a magnificent pagoda.

The position of the Yongning Temple and its extravagance were detailed in the opening chapter of the Records of the Buddhist Monasteries in Luoyang. The temple was built like a royal palace with its huge gate and magnificent halls. There were more than 1,000 monk dormitories, while the most miraculous building was a Pagoda with a height of 300 metres.

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