In 2010, Time Magazine revealed the world’s top 10 most precarious buildings, and on a list that included the Abu Dhabi Skyscraper and the Meteora Monasteries of Greece was the “Hanging Temple” of China. A great architectural feat in Chinese history, the gravity-defying monastery has remained wonderfully intact for over 1,500 years.
Clinging precariously to Mount Hengshan’s cliff face, in Datong in Shanxi Province at 75 meters above the ground, a cluster of wooden buildings embedded in the rock face hangs like an ancient Chinese castle suspended in the sky. Surrounded by massive boulders that overlook a deep gorge below, the “Hanging Temple” in Hengshan is one of China’s most formidable ancient wonders and premier tourist hotspots.
Legend has it that during the Northern Wei Dynasty (A.D. 398), Kou Qian Zhi, a famous religious reformer and tianshi, or “celestial master” of Taoism, left behind a great architectural legacy. He had aspired to build a sacred temple that was “a remote distance from ordinary people but close to divine beings.” Kou, a devout Taoist, used his political influence to eliminate the worship of Buddhism in the region and establish Taoism exclusively in its place. Under his leadership, a prolonged period of violent political struggle between the devotees of Taoism and Confucianism erupted to determine which religion would become the country’s official state religion. It was not until the late Northern Wei Dynasty, during Emperor Xiaowen’s reign, that Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism began to co-exist harmoniously. Around A.D. 491, a group of Kou Qian Zhi’s disciples raised funds and carefully selected a site to build a 3-story temple, known today as the “Hanging Temple” of China.
The Hanging Temple is the only remaining building in China that accommodates combined worship of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. At its highest peak is the main hall, the “Sanjiao Temple,” with a Sakyamuni Buddha sitting in the center, Confucius on the left, and a Taoist sovereign on the right. Many statues of varying materials can be found in the monastery, marking different reigns of Chinese dynasties that have once occupied the temple.
The temple’s unique structural form was built using 27 excellent hemlocks pinned to the cliffside through chiseled holes, while the main support is fixed deep in the bedrock. There are 40 rooms throughout the building interconnected by a maze of passageways and pillars. The precarious altitude of this religious site and its ingenious architectural design have made the Hanging Temple a popular tourist spot.
One of the greatest wonders surrounding the temple is its unbelievably well-preserved condition over the centuries, revealing the sheer ingenuity of its builders. Not only had the location been chosen for its seclusion and serenity, but the rocky outcrop on which the temple is embedded also provided the buildings with natural protection from the sun, winds, rain, and snow. The lofty height was also effective in minimizing damage from floods.
There are records of many historically famous people who traveled to the temple. During the Tang Dynasty, a great poet named Li Bai described it as “spectacular,” while Xu Xia Ke, a famous geographer of the Ming Dynasty, called it “the grand view of the world.” More than 1,500 years have passed, and while the Hanging Temple today overlooks a very different China than before, it remains a deeply etched symbol of China’s remarkable cultural heritage.
Written by Lucy Wu and translated by Shuqun He