Shanghai Social Diary: Treasures of China’s Heritage Part 6

On a uniquely enriching and memorable trip to China, I explored some truly incredible, off-the-beaten-path historical sites, such as the Xuankongsi Hanging Temple, which clings precariously to the side of Wutai Mountain.

Treasures of China’s Heritage: Touring with the Global Heritage Fund
(Sixth of a Seven-part Series)

Wutai Mountains

In anticipation of a return to China, I’ve been revisiting my past travels to the country. Some of my best memories of the “Middle Kingdom” include my nine-day tour of historically significant sites with the Palo Alto-based Global Heritage Fund (GHF)—an organization devoted to supporting underdeveloped rural areas worldwide.


Leaving the ancient walled city of Pingyao, we continued further north to explore an amazing and unique set of historical sites on Wutai Mountain.


Our bus left Taiyuan for Wutai Mountain (Wǔtái Shān), also known as Qingliang Shang, the highest point in northern China.

Wutai is one of China’s Sacred Buddhist Mountains, composed of five peaks capped with plain terraces rather than wooded forests. (Its Chinese name means “five terraces.”)

The weather was cool and skies a bit gloomy, but the gray clouds that surrounded it just made Wutai Mountain more atmospheric.

The Mount Wutai area includes many important temples and monasteries, including fifty-three sacred monasteries that were collectively named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009.


Global Heritage Fund’s Jeff Morgan warned us, “You might cry when you see the temple. I cried. So did others.” Then he added, jokingly, “Perhaps it was out of relief that the long drive was over.” We understood, after riding in a chilly bus for five hours.

According to our guide, Foguang Temple, erected in 857 C.E., is the mystical 2,000-year-old cradle of Chinese Buddhism.

Passing through the temple entrance, we stopped at one of the oldest wooden buildings in China—the Great East Hall, dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618–907 C.E.).

Our first view of the ancient Foguang Temple confirmed that our five-hour hour trip had been worth it.

Not expecting it to be so cold in April, we weren’t dressed warmly enough—but on the bright side, there were no tourist hordes. The slopes of the mountains, still snow-capped, were forested with pine and fir.

Foguang Temple’s Sangahara Hall.

Jeff told us that this remote area has some of the oldest and best Tang Dynasty archeological remains in China.

Thanks to Judy Koch’s Bring Me a Book organization, we distributed books to village students, who dressed up and stood at attention for the presentation ceremony.


Upon our arrival at the complex, we were served an authentic country lunch in a small room in one of the temple’s halls.

Our thoughtful hosts had set up several round tables surrounded by charmingly draped lounge chairs.

We watched in amazement as the chef prepared a hot dish in a gigantic wok set over a charcoal burner that looked as if it had been used for generations.

The large, round, doughy wheat buns, fresh from the steamer, were even better than French bread.

Edwina Sassoon warmed herself over the ancient charcoal-burning stove.

The tables were laden with such dishes as sliced lotus leaves, cucumbers in spicy sauce (one of my favorites), and slices of meat. “This is one of the reasons to come,” Judy Koch exclaimed, “—to sample delicious, satisfying local food.”


We next visited the East Hall of Foguang Temple, whose conservation is being spearheaded by GHF. The hall is considered one of the most architecturally significant wooden structures in China. Before it was discovered in the l930s, archeologists believed no Tang Dynasty architecture was extant.

Foguang Temple has survived since the first century thanks to the dry climate and its remote location—which saved it from the ravages of inclement weather, various wars, and the Cultural Revolution.


The Great East Hall is a single-story, symmetrical structure. It’s supported by gigantic sets of columns topped by an elaborate bracket system called dougong, which dates back to 770 B.C.E.

A unique feature of ancient Chinese architecture, dougong consists of a structural network of joined brackets and supports that connect the columns to the roof frame. The pieces fit together without the use of glue or nails. Over the centuries, dougong structures were built with ever more complex interlocking parts.

Many temples in the Wutai Mountains have been reconstructed through the centuries, but Foguang’s East Hall is a notable exception that has remained largely untouched since the Tang Dynasty.

In a temple lacking the customary colorful decorations, the ancient, roughly hewn wood beams lend a pure, sculptural look.

Our Global Heritage Fund tour group.


Inside Foguang’s East Hall, behind iron gates, stand life-size clay Buddhas and Bodhisattvas carved during and after the Tang Dynasty.

It was our good fortune that the temple staff opened the closed gates and allowed us to enter and view the works of art up close rather than from behind a barricade.

A collective gasp went up when we first glimpsed the 1,000 carved-wood disciples, lined up one after another, that fill a huge room.

Each figure is unique in face, pose, and dress.

The Tang Dynasty statues were later repainted in bright blues, reds, and greens.

What a miracle that these statues have survived, and how special it was to have such an intimate viewing of them!

We were overwhelmed by this amazing experience.


I was moved by the buildings themselves, so simple and so strong, and by the idea that they’d endured over so many centuries, tucked away within their spectacular mountain surroundings.

As an art and culture buff, I felt incredibly lucky to actually see a wooden building dating back more than a thousand years to the Tang Dynasty, a significant period in Chinese art, culture, and international trade.

Wrapped up against the cold, Lucie Jay and Jeanne Lawrence enjoyed the magnificent view and beautiful snowfall.


We endured another four-hour bus ride to reach Datong  (“big harmony”), the second largest city in Shanxi Province. Along with the surrounding area, it is considered a sacred place.

A capital of the Northern Wei dynasty, Datong was an important defensive point against the invading Mongolians from 386–494 C.E., when the Wei court moved south to Luoyang.

We were there to visit the Yungang Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its giant Buddha carvings and sculptures.

As we approached Datong, we left the peaceful countryside behind and were surrounded by freeways and traffic.

At first, the city looked like China of a decade ago; the streets were lined with local stores and I didn’t see one luxury brand. But as we drove past high-rise apartment buildings under construction, we were assaulted by neon signs advertising KFC and the like.

Datong’s mayor has a reputation as a popular visionary who favors big municipal projects, and the entire city seemed to be undergoing renewal.

We were happy to arrive at the lovely Garden Hotel. Modern and well lit, it offered amenities in every room that included a mini bar, a basket of fruit, a desk, plenty of power outlets, and Chinese-designed furniture and lamps.



Our first stop of the morning was the famous Yungang Grottoes, considered a “classical masterpiece of the first peak of Chinese Buddhist art,” according to UNESCO.

The grottoes contain hundreds of caves filled with Buddha sculptures and murals. UNESCO says the site “represents the fusion of Buddhist religious symbolic art from south and central Asia with Chinese cultural tradition.”

We observed a very extensive construction project around the grottoes, and learned that a whole new village is being built in the Northern Wei style, which preceded the Tang Dynasty (618–907 C.E.).

The construction site was enormous and included a palace-like structure destined to be a hotel, along with pavilions and other wooden structures.

This major project will provide local employment and attract commerce to the area, but many are worried that hordes of tourists visiting the grottoes will jeopardize their fragile existence.

This is a dilemma that many cities face: Tourism brings in revenue, but too much traffic is detrimental to the attraction that draws the visitors. According to a March 2014 article in the New York Times, the grottoes receive between one-and-a-half to two million tourists a year—up from half a million less than a decade ago. With a rising Chinese middle class with the means to travel and interest in their own culture, this number is sure to grow.


No buses are allowed into the protected area, so we were dropped off a ten-minute walk from the entrance gates.

This major project will provide local employment and attract commerce to the area, but many are worried that hordes of tourists visiting the grottoes will jeopardize their fragile existence.

The first period of building began during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 to 534 C.E.) and continued for several decades.

The Wei people arrived via the northern Silk Road and adopted Buddhism as their state religion.

Excavating a low ridge of soft sandstone stretching more than half a mile created some twenty major cave temples and numerous smaller niches and caves.

The largest sculpture is a fifty-six-foot-tall seated Buddha, while the smallest is only a few centimeters high. In addition to the figures, there are scenes depicting Buddhist teachings and famous monks.

In all, some 250-plus caves house more than 51,000 Buddha statues of varying shapes and sizes.

Many interior walls are festooned with paintings depicting the life of the Buddha, which visitors can follow as they walk around. The cave paintings have retained their rich colors for centuries.

The visual history of Buddhism found in the caves represents the first major flowering of Buddhist art in China.

The Northern Wei-era cave art was influenced by earlier Indian Buddhist art.

Some of the grottoes serve simply as enclosures for Buddha figures, while others are small sanctuaries meant for quiet contemplation or prayer.

Nearly every inch of the walls and ceilings is covered by sculpture and painted detail.

It’s astounding that the statues are intact after more than a thousand years.

One of the challenges in trying to preserve this and other historical sites in China is preventing damage from industrial pollution.

As Shanxi Province is one of the largest centers of the coal industry, heavy truck traffic and sooty discharge have damaged the sandstone.

Among the efforts being made to preserve this national treasure are the rerouting of traffic and the shuttering of a few of the smaller coal mines.

Somehow, the statues have withstood the ravages of centuries of war, fire, and weather.


We drove south for an hour to get to our next stop: Yingxian County, home to Sakyamuni Pagoda, the oldest and tallest wooden multi-story structure in the world. It was built in 1056 C.E. during the Liao Dynasty.

After traveling through farmland, we arrived at Yingxian, where red lanterns hang from uniform buildings and three-wheeled taxis dart about.

The 220-foot, nine-story wooden pagoda stands in Yingxian’s town center, guarded by a giant Buddha statue.

Pagodas are ancient Chinese buildings based on Indian stupas, mound-like structures containing Buddhist relics and a place to meditate. The Chinese eventually blended these with pavilions to create the pagoda.

No nails or rivets, just beams and complex brackets were used to erect this wooden structure, which has survived nearly a millennium.

We’d seen many Buddhas by this time, but each was different in style, coloration, and condition.

The pagoda is named for the large Buddha (“Sakyamuni”) statue in its central hallway, which is surrounded by beautiful, ancient wall paintings illustrating the story of his life.

Our adventurous group gamely climbed the narrow wooden staircase inside the structure to the second landing, where we enjoyed a bird’s eye view of the old city and surrounding area.

We also found a light-filled mini museum of objects relating to the Buddha and his entourage.

The statues, including this little dragon, are impressively detailed, although they look as if they could use a good cleaning.

This little guard strikes an imposing figure.

Looking up, we were impressed by the pagoda’s construction: its tenon-and-mortise brackets have helped it survive numerous earthquakes over the centuries.

We enjoyed the view of a street lined with new buildings built in traditional style, so much more attractive to me than the usual boxy, modern structures.


After another hour-long drive through rain and snow, we arrived at the spectacular Hanging Temple, or Xuankongsi.

Once again we were astonished, this time by the sight of an architectural feat dating back more than 1,500 years to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534 C.E.).

The Hanging Temple or Monastery is a group of beautifully carved, ornate temples suspended from the cliffs of Mt. Heng (Hengshan), one of the four sacred Taoist mountains in Hunyuan County, Shanxi Province.

Although snow was falling, half of us decided to climb up and visit the monastery. We knew we might never have another chance!

This is one of China’s major tourist attractions but, because it was the off-season, we encountered few other visitors.

The stunning temples clinging to Mt. Hengshan were built by chiseling horizontal holes deep into the cliffside and placing crossbeams into them.

Boards and pillars were then placed on the beams to build frames and roofs. Surprisingly, the poles underneath are not the primary support.

The temple consists of more than forty halls and rooms connected by corridors, bridges, and boardwalks.

Because the temple sits 246 feet above the ground, the views from it are impressive, if a little frightening.

Climbing the narrow and steep stairs is not easy, especially when the weather makes them slippery.

The complex contains more than eighty vividly painted sculptures made of copper, iron, terracotta, and stone.

Another unique aspect of the Hanging Monastery is its ecumenism. It houses statues and artwork representing Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.

It is unusual for sculptures of Buddha, Confucius, and Laotzu to be grouped together.

With its stunning architecture and mix of theologies, this complex perfectly represents Chinese feudal society.

A remarkable feat of engineering, the mountainside monastery has remained safe from the ravages of flooding, heavy snow, and direct sunlight, as well as from loud noise.

Boarding the bus back to the hotel, my hands raw and red from the cold, I noticed an ad celebrating “springtime at the temple.” Spring could not have seemed more remote!

Seeing the temple frosted with snow and without getting jostled by crowds made our visit particularly wonderful. I’ve since learned that a three-hour wait surrounded by hordes of tourists climbing the steps is typical. I have to wonder if all of that activity might weaken the structure to the point where some day it will be no more.

In my next post, I share my experiences on Day 9, the last of the trip. The group returns to Taiyuan for a visit to the Shanxi Museum of relics and art and a relaxing afternoon at the ancient Jinci Temple before returning to the U.S.

Visit to learn more about the Global Heritage Fund.



Part 1: Days 1 and 2 – Visiting Hakka tulous (earthen residences) in Fujian Province

Part 2: More of Day 2 and Day 3 – The historic port town of Zhangzhou, plus more tulous in Pinghe and Nanjing counties

Part 3: Day 4 – Our first day in the ancient walled city of Pingyao

Part 4: Day 5 – Our second day in history-packed Pingyao

Part 5: Days 6 & 7 – Visiting Fujian and Shanxi


Photography by Jeanne Lawrence.

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