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Print Edition> Lifestyle
UPDATED: May 27, 2011 NO. 22 JUNE 2, 2011
A Timber Epic
A 67-meter-tall wooden pagoda is expected to be inscribed into the world's cultural heritage list

STANDING IN PEACE: A distant view of the Sakyamuni Pagoda in Yingxian County, Shanxi Province (LI WENKUI)

Located in a small county in Shanxi Province, a wooden pagoda, Sakyamuni Pagoda, could be the next item from China on the world's cultural heritage list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

This 67-meter-tall pagoda is the same height as a modern 20-story building. As the oldest and the biggest wooden pagoda still standing in the world, it has witnessed historical changes and survived natural and human vicissitudes, including numerous wars, fire, and more than 10 earthquakes during its nearly 1,000-year history.

Architectural masterpiece

Local annals say the pagoda was constructed in 1056, but no records show who constructed it or why. However, local people believe it was built by Lu Ban, China's legendary master carpenter of the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 B.C.).

People thought so because the craftsmanship of the ancient pagoda is so ingenious that it dwarfs modern technology—this 20-story pagoda was made entirely of wooden parts and not one nail is found in the entire structure.

Situated in the Fogong (Buddha's Palace) Temple of Yingxian County, this pagoda is an octagonal structure on a stone platform with a height of 4 meters. The pagoda has nine stories, five visible from outside and four hidden inside. Each floor consists of inner and outer rings of pillars. The pillars on each floor slant slightly inward, with the plane size diminishing floor by floor.

The diameter of the octagonal first story is 30.27 meters, the longest among ancient pagodas. The ceiling is refined and beautifully structured. On the inner walls are six pictures of Buddha in different poses. The walls of the doorway are mural paintings of Buddhist figures. The windowless outer walls on the ground floor, the added enclosing corridors and eaves all strengthen stability.

"One of the unique features of the pagoda is that it showcases many cultural elements of the Liao Dynasty (907-1125)," said Ma Yujiang, a restoration expert of the pagoda.

The biggest Buddha statue in the pagoda, what people see first when stepping into the south gate of the pagoda, is about 10 meters high. Different from other Buddha statues, this Buddha has a mustache and wears earrings.

"This is the typical image of the Liao people," said Ma. "Besides that, the Buddhist statues in each story and paintings on the inner walls of the first story, including the crawling lions that surround the upper edge of the stone platform, are all of the style of the Liao Dynasty."

During a renovation of the pagoda in 1974, a great number of sutras were found inside the pagoda, as well as some hand-writings and block printing.

"They are important materials for the study of the religion and printing technology of the Liao Dynasty, as well as the political, economic and cultural developments of the dynasty," said Ma.

In 1993, a repair team found a rectangular structure beneath the pagoda. Such an underground treasure trove should contain materials, which would help decode the lost history of the ancient building.

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