Ep. 045: Spectacularity: The Hanging Temple of Golden Dragon Pass

A military shrine embracing three "religions"

In China's ancient militaristic past, the Great Wall played a key role in keeping out the barbarians. Despite these precautions, some of the men involved in guarding the Wall also turned to supernatural protection, and one place where they did so was at the Hanging Temple of Golden Dragon Pass, the destination of our journey in this episode of

TEMPLE TALES!

A view of two "Great Wall" watchtowers guarding a pass on the road to Wutai Shan (through a bus window)

The 19th and final trip of my "Chinese pilgrimage" took nearly two full weeks. I started in Datong, just fifteen miles from China's northern border with Mongolia; then through Wutaishan, one of China's Four Great Buddhist Mountains; and finally to locations around Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province--over 20 sites in all, including the breathtaking Yungang, one of China's Four (or Five) Great Buddhist Grottoes.

On my second full day in the field, I daringly boarded a southbound bus for the 50-mile ride to a remote mountain pass. As the bus rolled down the highway, I began to notice tall, weathered structures off in the distance. They were towers of compacted earth, sometimes with earthen walls running near them. My guidebook told me that these were remnants of "The Great Wall" (which is actually a matrix of many walls, not just one single construction).


Location, Location, Location

A dam lies just south of the Hanging Temple, controlling the water that passes by.

Near the end of the journey we left the closest county seat and started up a winding mountain road into the Hengshan Scenic Area. Mount Heng is one of China's Five Great Mountains. (This is the northern Hengshan; just to keep things interesting, another of the Five is also named Hengshan--same pronunciation, but written with a different character--and is the southern-most Great Mountain.) Passing under the mountain's shadow, the road would soon pass Hengshan Reservoir, at the top of the pass.

But just before the dam, we turned off to the west side of the gorge, into the parking lot of something which the signage calls a "Spectacularity": Xuankong Si, the "Hanging Temple" of Golden Dragon Pass. And spectacular it is!

The Spectacularity

As we've seen before--at Longmen, for example--rivers are often imagined to be dragons. And this dragon's location makes sense, given the fortifications I saw along the way, as the temple there had in fact provided solace to troops guarding the Great Wall(s) for centuries.

Started over 1500 years ago--a sign specifies 491 CE--and refurbished several times since, the temple is a marvel of ancient engineering. Estimates of its elevation above the floor of the gorge vary wildly, from 100 to 275 feet. I suppose it depends partly on how deep into the gorge's bottom one places the measuring tape, and how high up on the temple you go, but let's take 200 feet as a rough indication. One theory is that the temple was built at that height to avoid flooding in the gully's floor; I suspect it had more to do with exuberance than practicality.

Xuankong Si, the Hanging Temple. Note the three sections: the left (south) "zone" has a courtyard between a drum and bell tower; the second "zone” has three stories; a "devious plank road" leads to the third, northern "zone," also three stories high.

The secret of its stick-to-it-iveness in apparent defiance of gravity is really quite simple: the builders chiseled holes (one hopes quite deep holes) into the cliff face, and inserted beams. The project was legendarily spearheaded by a monk named Liao Ran, who lived during the late Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534). Another neat trick: the temple is under a rock overhang that has protected it from hundreds of years of excessive exposure to snow, rain, and sun.


The Tour

Approaching from the south

Like Disneyland or (one imagines) the Taj Mahal, there's always a little let-down when you first arrive at a place you've dreamed of. In this case, I could put my finger on it: The Hanging Temple doesn't HANG that far up. I've seen Native American cliff dwellings that were much higher. I mean, I walked up a few stairs and there it was. So much for spectacularity.

But it was cool, and absolutely unlike any place I've ever been. Setting aside the whole "hanging" thing, we can just enjoy a pretty little temple, with some fine woodwork and great (if sometimes creepy) old statues--78 of them, by one count.

The ant farm

I'm not claustrophobic in any way; when I used to work for a general contractor, I was the guy who gladly went up into the attic or down into the crawl space under a house. But I was slimmer then; as a "big guy" I find small spaces physically, not psychologically, challenging. Add to this that approximately half of China was crammed into the tiny rooms and walkways I was visiting, and yeah, this was not an optimal situation. Chinese sites like to compare the temple's appearance to that of a "flying little phoenix"; viewed from below, the narrow passages filled with people made me think of an ant farm!

The whole complex comprises forty halls, rooms, and pavilions, which can easily be divided into three "zones," each with a central hall.

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I don’t usually shoot video when I travel, but these halls were so shallow there was no way to get the figures side-by-side. Enjoy the first-ever YouTube posts on the Temple Tales Channel!

The "First Zone" and the Hall of the Three Officials

One of the Three Officials; click to play video and see his environs.

After climbing steps from the south end, we enter the first zone, dominated by the Sanguan ("Three Officials") Hall. When we see this section from across the way, we note that it emulates a typical Buddhist temple, with a drum tower on the left and a bell tower on the right. This is all the more interesting because the large-ish figures residing inside the Sanguan Hall, representing three mythical government officials--one each for Heaven, Earth, and Water--are Daoist. Another hall in this section is dedicated to Lu Dongbin, martial leader of the Eight Immortals we met in Episode 023.

The (former) drum tower shot from the (former) bell tower, and the courtyard between

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The "Second Zone" and the Hall of the Three Sages

The Buddha with creepy-eyed Ananda and Kashyapa; click to see this Buddha's other companions.

The first zone melds into the second. Sometimes they are taken as a unit called the "South Building"--we'll see why in a second. Though its three stories house numerous halls, the main hall in this second, central zone is the Sansheng ("Three Sages") Hall, in which a seated Buddha is flanked by his key disciples, Ananda and Kashyapa. Several other figures are lined up on either side. (The eyes on the Ananda statue are particularly disturbing.)

I wanted to put "hall" in quotes throughout this whole Newsletter, because when you step in the door of the Sansheng and every other hall, you're practically within hugging distance of the statues. Wish I'd brought a wide-angle lens! According to a sign onsite, no hall in the entire temple is bigger than 36 square meters--smaller than the smallest two-car garage--but virtually always longer than they are deep.

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The "Third Zone" and the Hall of the Three Teachings

The Sanjiao ("Three Teachings") Hall features Laozi, the Buddha, and Confucius, here presented as a triptych as I couldn't get them all into one shot!

As we head toward the third zone, we see why it is sometimes called the "North Building," distinct from the South: We have to cross a rather rickety wooden walkway, 30-some feet long and shored up underneath by metal poles jammed into the bare rock. (I read a claim that the poles are there "just for show ... to make visitors feel more comfortable about its stability"; didn't work for me!) One English-language Chinese website calls this a "devious plank road." I think they meant the cleverness of the construction, not the diabolical nature of the builders in forcing us to travel this way. But anyway...

The underside of the "devious plank road" demonstrates some of the building techniques: beams inserted into holes chiseled in the rock (above), and supporting poles jammed in (below).

Central to this third-and-last zone is the Sanjiao ("Three Teachings") Hall that is one of the temple's great claims to fame: It contains figures of Laozi, the historic Buddha, and Confucius, making it one of the oldest sites in China to incorporate veneration of figures from all three of China's traditional belief systems: Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. (I call this religious phenomenon "hedging one's bets.")


Final Impressions

The highest part of the temple is reached at the north end; a website says it is "heightened gradually like a dragon." (So what is it, guys: a dragon or a phoenix?) In any case, the halls are delicate, and the painted decoration, the door screens, and the statues exquisite.

The view down-canyon (north), including the dam's spillway

One thing that puzzled me is, though there was a closed room here and there, I didn't see anything that might have accommodated a monastic community. My consternation was appeased somewhat when I read that Bill Porter says in fact Xuankong was never a working monastery, but just a place for military personnel to come and appease the appropriate gods. (That would explain the variety of religious options available, as well.) So all that would be needed would be room for a caretaker or two--and someone to accept donations.

So, Three Government Officials, Three Sages, and Three Teachings, spread across the cliffside in three zones.

A final view, from the north end

Onward

Yingxian County's massive-but-delicate Wooden Pagoda

My plan was to visit not only Xuankong Temple on that 50-mile trip; I also wanted to check out the Mu Ta, the wooden pagoda of the former Fogong Temple in Yingxian County. But as easy as it was to get from Datong to the Hanging Temple, it was surprisingly hard to get from there to the Wooden Pagoda.

You see, I refused to pay the gouging prices demanded by private drivers in the Hanging Temple's parking lot, so I had just started walking the three miles or so back to the nearest bus depot when a local bus came by and picked me up (who knew?). It ejected me at the depot, where I was ushered onto a beautiful highway bus--which then kicked me out just a mile down the road and placed me into a rickety minibus full of smokers! Around forty-five minutes of scolding later, I was unceremoniously dumped on the main street of Yingxian, just a few hundred meters from the Wooden Pagoda.

And that's a tale for another day.

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Until next time, then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: It's Dharma Day! Let's take a quick look at what a Bodhisattva is and--more importantly--how you can become one, as we examine the Four Bodhisattva Vows.