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Foguang Temple of Wutai County

by Andrew Matson

Foguang Si (The Temple of Buddha’s Light) is located in Shanxi province, about 35 km south of Taihuai. This temple is somewhat off the beaten track, and is about an hour and a half drive from the entrance of mount Wutai. It appears that residents of a nearby village or town are the primary caretakers of this cultural treasure as there was not a plethora of guards and staff. This temple is specifically famous for its ancient wooden architecture in the East Hall. More importantly, this remarkable, yet quant temple holds the best-preserved wooden architecture still in existence from the Tang dynasty.

In the early twentieth century, it was formally believed by scholars that there were no longer any intact wood constructed buildings or architecture from the Tang dynasty. Fortunately, two native architectural historians, Lin Huiyin and Liang Sicheng, discovered Foguang si in 1931 and proved the international scholarly community wrong (Gunther). The discovery of Foguang si by these two scholars was the first of four structures to be dated from the Tang dynasty. A year after the discovery at Foguang, a much smaller main hall of the nearby Nanchan Temple on Mount Wutai was reliably dated to the year 782, while a total of four Tang era wooden buildings have been found by the 21st century. The best preserved of all four structures from the Tang is the East Hall at Foguang si.

The East Hall was constructed around the year 857 A.D. at the request of a female benefactor named Ning Gonyu (Foster). The hall sits atop a high hill in the temple and faces west, being only accessible by an extremely steep stone staircase, which provides an excellent view of the entire complex. The construction techniques and aesthetics used in the wooden timber in the East hall contain ornate features characteristic of Tang dynasty architecture. In addition, the East Hall is the only Tang-style building amidst a cluster of mostly Ming and Qing dynasty halls (Foster). The wooden architecture on the temple roof and beams is impressive and extremely complex, displaying unprecedented craftsmanship (see pic. below).

Within the East Hall, originally there were 500 Arhats, of which now only two hundred and sixty one remain (Gunther). The wooden platform alter and statues of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are encased behind an iron grill and are guarded well, from vandalism, theft, and cameras. Despite the difficulty in accruing a photo, the statues of Sakyamuni, Amitabha, and Maitreya have stamped an unforgettable impression of beauty on my mind I cannot forget. The Buddha statues and attendant figures are all Tang dynasty creations. All figures are recently painted and restored thus giving an effect of timeless beauty, that did not fail to impress any member of our large group.

The Wenshu Dian, or Manjushri Hall, was built in 1137 during the Jin Dynasty (Foster). A large wooden statue of Manjushri sits on a lion, surrounded by the King of Khotan and Sudhana (a key protagonist in the later portion of the Avatamsaka-sutra). The statue of presence of Sudhana signals a Huayen influence in the architecture and design. The devotional movements that arose from the Huayenjing would have been comfortable at this temple, performing liturgies in moderate to large groups.

The temple displays a number of other important historical cultural treasures. Perhaps the most notable being the pagoda Zushi Ta, (see attached pic. at end of article) of stone construction and dated to the late back to the late Tang dynasty. However, the entire complex of Foguang si represents a good example of successful cultural preservation, which can be accomplished today in modern China. In addition to housing a number of statues and structures spanning from the Tang onwards the temple also has a large courtyard garden and rural farmland surrounding on all sides, all which add to the natural beauty of Foguang si. The temple is set in a peaceful countryside away from the hustle and bustle of the cities. and hordes of tourists. No other temple excited my scholarly curiosity, while at the same time, imparting a sense of peace and awe at the beauty and majesty that is China.

Sources

  1. Fairbank, Wilma. Liang and Lin: Partners in Exploring China’s Architectural Past. University of Pennsylavnia Press: Philadelphia 2009
  2. Gunther, Michael D., Wutai County - Foguang Si. 10 Aug 2010 <http://www.art-and-archaeology.com/china/wutai/fg01.html>
  3. Foster, Simon. Attractions in Mount Wutai. Frommers.com. 10 Aug 2010 <http://www.frommers.com/destinations/wutaishan/3349010029.html>
  4. Online information from Xinhua net and Shanxi Tourism.

Photos:

  • Zushi Ta Pagoda
  • Center courtyard garden
  • Timber in East Hall

© 2014 The Woodenfish Project

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