The Wang Family Compound

The Wang Family Compound may not be the most popular of the Shanxi Grand Compounds, but it’s actually four times the size of the renowned Qiao Family Compound and even rivals the Forbidden City in its magnitude! Like many of the Shanxi Grand Compounds, it is located in Lingshi County, approximately 35 kilometres (22 mi) from the ancient city of Pingyao. Stretching over an area of 150,000 square metres (1614587 sq. ft.), its vast complex consists of six castle-like courtyards, six lanes, and one street. In-keeping with its legendary size, its five main courtyards were designed to symbolically represent the five lucky animals according to traditional Chinese culture: the Dragon, the Phoenix, the Tortoise, the Qilin (Chinese Unicorn), and the Tiger. In short, you could say the Wang family were living in the belly of the beast!

Like many of the Jin merchant families from this region, the Wang family began as simple farmers and eventually graduated to becoming small time businessmen. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), they expanded their business gradually and hoped that, ultimately, their efforts would grant their successors the opportunity to gain official positions in the government. By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the family had reached the peak of their prosperity and over 100 members of the Wang family were high-ranking officials! Unfortunately all this good work would be undone towards the end of the dynasty, as future generations of the Wang family lacked their forebears’ ambition. After having lived in this grand mansion for 27 generations, the last members of the Wang family left in 1996 and it was opened to the public in 1997.

Nowadays, only two of the colossal courtyards and one of the ancestral halls are open to tourists, comprising a total of 123 smaller courtyards and over 1,100 rooms. The complex has been separated into three main areas: the Red Gate Castle; the Gao Jia Ya or East Courtyard; and the Chongning Bao. Built from 1739 to 1793, the Red Gate Castle covers a colossal 25,000 square metres (269,098 sq. ft.) and contains 29 courtyards. Its name is derived from its characteristic red gate, which is the only one in the compound, and its layout is designed to look like the Chinese character “王” (Wáng), which means “king”. It should come as no surprise that this character happens to be the Wang’s family name. Talk about making something in your image! It thus seems quite fitting that the Wang Museum, which details the history of the family, should be found in the Red Gate Castle.

The Gao Jia Ya, which was constructed between 1796 and 1811, may not be as expansive as the Red Gate Castle, but it boasts some of the finest woodcuttings, stone-carvings, and brick sculptures in the compound. It is a somewhat labyrinthine structure, consisting of multifarious courtyards and connecting alleyways. Nowadays it is also used to exhibit a lavish collection of items that once belonged to the Wang family. Similarly, the Chongning Bao is now used primarily to display elegant paintings and woodcuttings by the celebrated artist Li Qun. On August 18th of every year, a Tourism Festival is held in the Wang Family Compound, where visitors have the opportunity to watch and take part in traditional folk activities. It’s the ideal time to embrace the ancient culture in which this grand work of architecture was conceived.

Find more stories about Wang Family Compounds and Jin Merchants on our tour: Explore Chinese Culture through the Ages

The Qiao Family Compound

Film “Raise the Red Lantern”

The Qiao Family Compound is widely thought to be the most famous and popular Shanxi Grand Compound in the province of Shanxi, largely thanks to its starring role in Zhang Yimou’s moving drama Raise the Red Lantern. These magnificent courtyard houses were originally built during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties by prosperous families hailing from Shanxi province. Located in the village of Qiaojiabao approximately 30 kilometres (19 mi) from the historic city of Pingyao, the Qiao Family Compound was originally known as Zai Zhong Tang (在中堂) and was constructed in 1756 by a renowned merchant named Qiao Guifa, who made his fortune selling tea and tofu.

However, the Qiao family wouldn’t reach its zenith until the third generation, when Qiao Zhiyong became the head of the family. Qiao Zhiyong was an astute businessman and, during his lifetime, he built up an unparalleled mercantile empire in the province of Shanxi. When he was head of the family, the Qiao clan controlled over 200 shops located throughout the country, including a number of prototype banks, pawnshops, teahouses, and granaries. Of the three great expansions that the Qiao Family Compound underwent, it was Qiao Zhiyong who was responsible for the largest and most extravagant. He was considered such an intriguing figure in Shanxi province that, in 2006, a television series was made about his life, known as Qiao’s Grand Courtyard. In short, he got more than just his fifteen minutes of fame!

Yet it wasn’t just Qiao Zhiyong’s business acumen that enabled the compound to flourish. During the Qing Dynasty, a military coalition known as the Eight-Nation Alliance was set up in response to the violent Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) in China. Included in this alliance were the Empire of Japan, the Russian Empire, the British Empire, the French Third Republic, the United States, the German Empire, the Kingdom of Italy, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1900, the alliance sent troops to liberate their embassy in Beijing, which had been under siege. Once they had resolved the issue with the embassy, they decided to invade and occupy the city of Beijing. Talk about taking liberties!

In response, the governor-general of Shanxi province ordered that all foreigners in the region were to be killed on site. Seven Italian sisters, who were working in the country as missionaries, managed to escape the ensuing panic and eventually arrived at the Qiao Family Compound. They begged Qiao Zhiyong for protection and he allowed them to hide within the compound, which ended up saving their lives. In honour of his benevolence towards their people, the Italian embassy awarded him with an Italian flag, which he proudly displayed within the compound.

Many years later, during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the Japanese army invaded Shanxi province and left destruction in their wake. However, the presence of this flag meant that Japanese troops chose to leave the Qiao Family Compound unharmed, since Italy was one of Japan’s political allies at the time. Having been spared a gruesome fate, the compound was occupied by the Qiao family right up until 1985, when it was converted into a museum.

After numerous renovations in its 160-year-long history, it now stretches over a staggering 8,724 square metres (93,904 sq. ft.) and is comprised of 6 large courtyards, 20 smaller courtyards, one ancestral temple, and 313 rooms. Its layout is designed to resemble the Chinese character “囍”, which means “happiness” and is meant to symbolically express the Qiao family’s hope for a bright future. Some of its courtyards are flanked at their entrance by fearsome stone guardian lions, while others have their eaves delicately painted with tableaus of Chinese folk legends or their gates engraved with beautiful patterns.

Each courtyard consists of a principle room, which was reserved for the host and is distinguished by its tiled roof. The side rooms, which were designated for the guests and servants, have brick roofs instead. These differences in style helped to break up the monotony of the architecture, whilst simultaneously indicating the hierarchy of the compound’s residents. A special corridor on each roof enabled guards to patrol the entire compound with ease. Not only that; the compound is entirely surrounded by 10-metre (33 ft.) high walls, which endow it with a fortress-like appearance from the outside. After all, a man’s home is his castle, and castles need round-the-clock protection!

Wandering through the compound’s many rooms and corridors is a banquet of delights, resplendent with some of the finest wood carvings, brick carvings, stone carvings, murals, and wall sculptures in northern China. Nowadays it houses over 2,000 cultural relics, including porcelain, silk embroidery, paintings, and divine furnishings that are sure to transport you back to the luxurious lifestyle of the Qiao family. These lavish decorations are sure to entice you, while the various exhibitions on the history of the Qiao family and the business customs of the Qing Dynasty will provide you with an invaluable insight into life in ancient China. Just don’t stay too long, or you may never want to leave!

Hukou Waterfall

Hukou waterfall01

Ranking just after the Huangguoshu Waterfall, the Hukou Waterfall is the second largest waterfall in China and the only yellow waterfall in the world. Yet there’s nothing yellow-bellied about this powerful natural phenomenon! It rests at a point along the Yellow River where the riverbed suddenly tapers down from 300 metres (984 ft.) to 50 metres (164 ft.), transforming tranquil waters into cascading rapids. The result is a magnificent 15 metre-high (49 ft.) and 20 metre-wide (66 ft.) waterfall that gushes down from the narrow opening like bubbling water pouring from a teapot. This is what earned the waterfall its unusual name, as “hukou” literally translates to mean “a spout” in Chinese. That being said, don’t go trying to pour yourself a cuppa from this fierce torrent!

The waterfall is located at the intersection between the provinces of Shanxi and Shaanxi, about 165 kilometres (103 mi) west of Fenxi City and 50 kilometres (31 mi) east of Yichuan County. The provinces are in fact connected by Qilangwo Bridge, which spans the stretch of river just beneath the waterfall. The waterfall itself can be found within Jinxia Grand Canyon and is flanked on both sides by Hukou Mountain. Its size and velocity changes depending on the season, and can easily reach a staggering 50 metres (164 ft.) in width during the rainy season. In winter, it’s said to be particularly beautiful as the water slows and the riverbed is lined by shimmering icicles.

Hukou Waterfall02According to the locals, the thundering sound of the water can be heard for miles around, and the current is so strong that boats have to be pulled out of the river long before they even get to the waterfall. These boats have to either be shipped by truck or carried around this section of the river before they can be put back in the water. So, while the Hukou Waterfall might float your boat metaphorically, the harsh reality is it’s far more likely to sink it in real life!

Just below the waterfall, be sure to look out for a shining stone that the locals call the guishi or “ghost stone”. Rumour has it that this mysterious stone moves up and down depending on the water level and, no matter how high the water is, it’s always partly visible. It might not be the stuff of horror films, but it’s certainly pretty unique!


The Yingxian Wooden Tower

The Yingxian Wooden Tower, also known as the Shakyamuni[1] Pagoda of Fogong Temple, rests just 85 kilometres (53 mi) south of Datong City in western Yingxian County. Having been built without a single nail or rivet, it is a masterpiece of carpentry and the oldest surviving wooden pagoda in the world. It has reached such a level of fame in China that it is now widely referred to simply as “Muta” (木塔) or “Wooden Tower”. At the grand old age of 959, this tower has pushed its woody competitors to the side and taught them to respect their elders!

The tower was originally built in 1056 by Emperor Daozong of the Liao Dynasty (907–1125), which controlled an empire encompassing Mongolia, northern Korea, and northern China, and was established by a nomadic subgroup of Mongolian people know as the Khitans. Emperor Daozong was a devout Buddhist and his father, the preceding Emperor Xingzong, was a native of Yingxian County. This would perhaps explain the isolated location of the tower, as pagodas such as these were normally erected to symbolise the death of Buddha and its placement may have been Emperor Daozong’s way of equating the importance of Buddha’s death with that of his father.

The tower was placed at the centre of Fogong Temple, which was known as Baogong Temple until its name was changed during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). According to local historical documents, from the years 1056 to 1103 it withstood a total of seven earthquakes and, right up until the 20th century, it required only ten minor repairs. Talk about resilient! Unfortunately, it sustained major damage during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) but, when it underwent the necessary repairs in 1974, renovators uncovered over 50 block-printed and handwritten scrolls of Buddhist sutras[2] dating back to the Liao Dynasty. These scrolls helped historians to finally establish that the use of moveable type printing had indeed spread widely across China after being developed by the Song Dynasty (960-1279). So it seems every cloud really does have a silver lining!

Although the archway, bell tower, drum tower, and shrine to Shakyamuni Buddha were all rebuilt during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the wooden tower itself is in its original condition and has been stunningly well-preserved. It stands on a 4 metre (13 ft.) high stone platform that is delicately decorated with crawling lion sculptures in the Liao Dynasty style, and it towers in at a height of over 67 metres (220 ft.). Looking at it from the outside, it appears to have only five storeys, but walk inside and you’ll soon realise that there are in fact nine storeys in total. Just when you thought you were going to have a relaxing climb to the top!

An 11-metre-high (36 ft.) statue of Shakyamuni Buddha takes pole position at the centre of the first floor, with an ornate caisson[3] directly above its head. Similar caissons bedeck the ceilings of every storey in the pagoda and its walls are beautifully decorated with vibrant murals and vivid sculptures that all reflect the Liao Dynasty style. There are windows on all eight sides of its top floor that provide stunning views of the surrounding countryside and supposedly, on a clear day, the tower itself can be seen from up to 30 kilometres (19 mi) away!

[1] Shakyamuni: One of the titles of Gautama Buddha, the central figure and founder of the Buddhist faith. It is derived from the place named Sakya, which is where he was born.

[2] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha

[3] Caisson: Also known as a caisson ceiling or zaojing, it is a feature of East Asian architecture commonly seen on the ceilings of temples or palaces, usually at the centre or directly above an object of importance, such as a throne or statue. Generally speaking, it is a sunken square, octagonal, hexagonal, or circular panel set into a flat ceiling that has been richly carved and decorated.

Mount Heng

Located just 62 kilometres (39 mi) south of Datong City, Mount Heng is a behemoth of a mountain range and consists of over 100 separate peaks. Not only is it considered one of China’s Five Great Mountains, but it also boasts the highest peak of them all, Tianfeng Peak, which towers in at over 2,100 metres (6,900 ft.) in altitude. To put that into perspective, it’s nearly twice the size of Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the UK! Yet it’s not the mountain’s size that has earned it such prestige, but its religious value. According to the Chinese religion of Taoism, Mount Heng is considered a sacred mountain and has been a site of pilgrimage since the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1045-256 BC).

It is sometimes referred to as Northern Hengshan because there is another Mount Heng in Hunan province which is coincidentally also one of the Five Great Mountains. Although their names are written differently in Chinese, they are pronounced in the same way and so the prefixes “northern” and “southern” are used to differentiate them. Imagine having twins named “Stephen” and “Steven”, and you get the idea!

According to legend, over 4,000 years ago Emperor Shun (c. 2294-2184 BC) was on a tour of his northern territory when he came upon Mount Hengshan and was so impressed by it that he simply named it Beiyue (北岳) or “Northern Mountain”. When it came to imperial prestige, Mount Hengshan had literally reached the pinnacle! Another legend purports that Zhang Guolao, one of the Eight Immortals in Taoist mythology, secluded himself on the mountain and is still there somewhere practising his faith. So if you bump into any strange old men while you’re hiking, be sure to be polite!

The mountain was held in such high esteem that a temple known as the Shrine of the Northern Peak or Beiyue Temple was erected there during the Han Dynasty (206 BC– 220 AD) and was dedicated to the god within the mountain. During the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), Emperor Qin Shi Huang not only named it as one of the 12 most sacred mountains, but also regarded it as the “Second Greatest Mountain in the entire World”. From then onwards, emperors, scholars, travellers, poets, monks, and people from all walks of life came to visit this alluring mountain range. Many of them left behind stone inscriptions extolling its incredible beauty, which can still be seen along the mountain paths today.

However, its northerly location meant that it was frequently cut off from China proper, as historically northern China was often under the control of non-Chinese kingdoms. This meant that it was not as accessible to pilgrims as the other Five Great Mountains, and so as a consequence it is the least-developed and least-visited of the five. Although therefore it is considered to have less religious importance, it is also less crowded and less commercialised, making it a more peaceful and isolated place to go hiking. In the summer, its hills come to life in a flurry of lilac blossoms, and its verdant pines, elms, firs, poplars, and bountiful forests provide stunning views throughout the year.

Alongside the Beiyue Temple, perhaps its greatest claim to fame is the Hanging Temple, which has survived for more than 1,500 years clutching precariously to the side of a cliff. The temple’s unusual appearance, coupled with the fact that it is dedicated to not just one religion but to Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, means it has recently become a mecca for visitors looking to explore China’s architectural curiosities.

Yet this isn’t the only bizarre feature the mountain has to offer. The Kutian or “Sweet and Bitter” Wells are located about halfway up its slope and are simply two wells placed very close together. For reasons unknown, the water from one well is sweet and refreshing, while the water from its neighbour is bitter and has a distinctly unpleasant aftertaste. Perhaps one well is the other’s evil twin! In spite of the fact that the “sweet” well is only a few feet deep, its waters are inexhaustible, further adding to the mystery of this exceptional oddity. In fact, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Emperor Xuanzong visited the “sweet” well and found it so fascinating that he christened it “Dragon Spring”.

The area surrounding Mount Heng is distinctly less magical, as it was once a battleground and its plains have been ravaged by centuries of warfare. Relics of these ancient skirmishes can be found littered throughout the landscape, from tactical passes and small fortresses to colossal castles and beacon towers. The most well-known of these is Golden Dragon Gorge, which is a deep yet narrow pass that was used by General Yang Ye of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) to resist an invasion from the neighbouring Liao Dynasty (916-1125).

Other natural sites on the range include Sisters-in-Law Cave, Flying Stone Cave, Tiger Wind Gap, and Clouds Out Cave, which are all symbolically named and as such are imbued with a certain mystical quality. Clouds Out Cave is arguably the most spectacular as, on a clear and sunny day, it looks like any other cave, but when it’s raining or foggy then mist will billow out of the cave’s entrance and endow it with an ethereal appearance. Perhaps it’s haunted by the soldiers who died in Golden Dragon Gorge; perhaps it’s where Zhang Guolao lives; or perhaps there’s just a hole somewhere in the top of the cave!

The Mount Heng is one of the many wonderful stops on our Explore the Ancient Tradition of Tai Chi tour

Shuanglin Temple

shuanglin Temple 02

Just 6 kilometres (4 mi) southwest of Pingyao Ancient Town, nestled deep within the countryside of Shanxi, the small village of Qiaotou hosts one of the most magnificent Buddhist temples in China. The Shuanglin Temple, which is included under Pingyao as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is noted not only for its venerable age but for the more than 2,000 painted statues that decorate its halls.

This vast collection, made by moulding clay over wooden frames, has earned the temple the nickname “The Museum of Coloured Sculptures”. They are not purely works of religious art, but instead are imbued with human features and attributes to symbolise the unification of the spiritual and the physical, or rather the connection between deities and human beings.

Unfortunately the lack of historical documents has meant that researchers currently do not know exactly when the temple was first built. However, the oldest stone tablet within the complex indicates that it was rebuilt in 571 AD during the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577) and two huge locust trees, planted during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), attest to this ancient origin. It’s estimated that the temple itself is over 1,400 years old, although it underwent large scale restoration throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties and much of its surviving architecture reflects those styles. Bear in mind, when you’re 1,400 years old, you need a little extra help to keep looking good!

Shuanglin Temple 03It was originally called Zhongdu Temple but was renamed Shuanglin during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The term “shuang” means “two” or “double” while “lin” means “woods”, and together the name refers to one of Sakyamuni’s[1] sutras[2] in which he states that “nirvana is between two trees”. Unfortunately he never specified which two trees they were!

The many sculptures littered throughout the temple were carved between the 12th and 19th centuries. Their height varies from 30 centimetres (1 ft.) right up to nearly 4 metres (13 ft.) and the vast majority are of Buddha or various bodhisattvas[3], but a few are warrior guards, heavenly generals, and even common people. Their colourful backdrops are resplendent with mountains, rivers, clouds, flowers, and dense forests.

The complex is surrounded by a high wall with a gate, giving it the appearance of a fortress. Buddhism may be a peaceful religion, but it still has to protect itself! The inner temple consists of three main sections: the ten main halls in the centre; the sutra library and monks’ living quarters in the east; and a courtyard to the west.

In the Hall of the Heavenly Kings, a sculpture of the deity Maitreya sits at the centre, while the Four Heavenly Kings rest in the north. They are all 3 metres (10 ft.) in height and each one carries an implement of symbolic importance. The first has a pipa[4], which symbolises earth; the second has a sword, which represents gold; the third has a snake, which signifies wind; and the final one holds an umbrella, which unsurprisingly denotes water. Together these instruments are meant to bless the worshipper with good weather, abundant crops, and subsequent wealth. After all, who would pray for a bunch of snakes and umbrellas?

The Arhat Hall is home to a large sculpture of Guanyin, the Buddhist deity of mercy, flanked by eighteen sculptures of arhats[5]. The face and aspect of each arhat is different; one is drunk, one is sick, some are fat, and some are thin. They are all designed to show off the artisans’ particular skill at carving and among them the mute arhat is considered the most magnificent.

His facial expression is heavily exaggerated, with pursed lips, a deeply furrowed brow, and piercing eyes, and his chest and belly are distended, as if to suggest he is struggling to breathe. His expression, coupled with his posture, implies that he has seen much injustice in the world but, as a mute, can only communicate his frustration through his body language.

In the Thousand-Buddha Hall, there is another statue of Guanyin with her right leg bent and her left leg placed delicately on a lotus leaf. A wonderful sculpture of Skanda, the celestial guardian devoted to protecting Buddhist monasteries, is at her side. The 500 statues and paintings within this hall are often studied to help recreate traditional outfits of the Ming Dynasty.

Yet another statue of Guanyin takes centre-stage in the Bodhisattva Hall, but this time in the style of the Thousand-Armed Guanyin. Remember she’s the deity of mercy, not modesty! The statue does not literally have a thousand arms, but the many clawed hands that surround this figure are both strangely attractive and intimidating. It’s bad enough being tickled by just two hands, but imagine how it would feel with twenty!

[1] Sakyamuni: One of the titles of Gautama Buddha, the central figure and founder of the Buddhist faith. It is derived from the place named Sakya, which is where he was born.

[2] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.

[3] Bodhisattva: The term literally means “one whose goal is awakening”. It refers to a person who seeks enlightenment and is thus on the path to becoming a Buddha. It can be applied to anyone, from a newly inducted Buddhist to a veteran or “celestial” bodhisattva who has achieved supernatural powers through their training.

[4] Pipa: A four-stringed plucking instrument that has a pear-shaped wooden body and anywhere from 12 to 26 frets. It is sometimes referred to as the Chinese lute.

[5] Arhat: A “perfected person” who has achieved enlightenment by following the teachings of Buddha.

Join our travel to visit the Shuanglin Temple in Shanxi: Explore Chinese Culture through the Ages

The Yungang Grottoes

Yungang Grottoes01

At the southern foot of the Wuzhou Mountains, deep within the Shi Li River Valley, the Yungang Grottoes stretch for over a kilometre and are etched indelibly into the rock-face. Just 16 kilometres west of Datong City, this group of 53 caves, 252 grottoes, and over 51,000 statues and statuettes have inspired visitors from all religious backgrounds for centuries.

They were carved sometime between 453 and 525 AD, during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 AD), and are categorised as one of the “Four Grand Groups of Grottoes” in China. The grottoes combine features from traditional Chinese art with those from foreign art styles, such as Greek and Indian, while the statues themselves range in height from 2 centimetres (0.7 in.) to 17 metres (56 ft.). So if you thought you were short, imagine being a thimble-sized statue next to one the size of an oak tree!

Yungang Grottoes04Unsurprisingly the grottoes were listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2001 and are currently divided into three major groups open to the public: the east section (caves 1-4); the central section (caves 5-13); and the west section (caves 14-53). Cave No. 6 is the largest, with a height of about 20 metres (65 ft.), but it is Cave No. 5 that contains the exemplary 17-metre-tall statue of Buddha. Unfortunately, over a period of more than 1,500 years, many of the statues have been damaged by war, pollution, and natural disasters, so parts of the complex are periodically shut down for maintenance. After all, at the grand old age of 1,500, they certainly deserve a little face lift every now and then!

The construction of the grottoes can be split into three time periods: the Early Period (460-465 AD); the Middle Period (c. 471-494); and the Late Period (494-525). Those constructed in the Early Period are considered the most magnificent and contain the five main caves masterminded by the revered monk Tan Yao (caves 16-20). These particular caves are between 13 to 15 metres in height and are generally U-shaped with an arched roof, imitating the thatched sheds that were prolific in ancient India. Each cave has a door and a window, while the main part of the cave is taken up with the central statue and the walls are bedecked with carvings of thousands of smaller Buddhist statuettes. Just imagine all of those tiny eyes staring down at you!

Throughout the Middle Period, the artistic style became more traditionally Chinese and the caves themselves reflect the hall arrangement that was popularised during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). By the Late Period, the caves and statues had become much smaller in size and simpler in style, giving them a certain stately elegance. Perhaps they’d come to the realisation that, when it comes to spiritual enlightenment, size doesn’t matter!

The history of the Yungang Grottoes is inextricably tied with that of the Northern Wei Dynasty. After the fall of the Jin Dynasty (265-420), a Turkic nomadic tribe known as the Tuoba clan took control of northern China and established their own dynasty. With the exception of Emperor Taiwu, the Tuoba clan were devout Buddhists, predominantly for political reasons as the religion helped them maintain control of their territory. Sometime between 398 and 494, Emperor Xiaowen established Pingcheng (modern-day Datong) as their capital and it would remain this way until 523, when Pingcheng would be abandoned due to warfare.

Yungang Grottoes03Originally the emperor only commissioned five caves, to be built by Tan Yao and to depict the first five Wei emperors in Buddhist forms or as Buddha. These are now known as caves number 16 to 20 and were completed in 465 AD. From 471 to 494 the second phase of construction began and it is thought that caves 5 through 13 were built during this time. All of these grottoes were built under imperial patronage, but that unfortunately ended when the Wei court abandoned Pingcheng and moved their capital to Luoyang. In short, like water in the surrounding sands, the money dried up! All of the caves built after 494 are thought to have been financed privately, which may explain why they’re so small!

During the Liao Dynasty (907-1125), wooden structures were built in front of the grottoes in an attempt to shield them from weather damage and incorporate them into temples. These were known as the Ten Famous Temples but were tragically destroyed due to warfare in 1122. The stunning wooden temples that can be found in front of caves 5, 6, and 7 were built for a similar purpose during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) but appear to have survived intact. From the 1950s onwards, numerous restorations and preservation projects have been implemented to protect the grottoes from further damage.


The Yungang Grottoes is one of the many wonderful stops on our Cultural Tour in Shanxi.




Where the river Fen leaves the mountains and winds its way through the grasslands of Shanxi, the provincial capital of Taiyuan, aptly named “The Great Plains”, rests on the riverbanks. Just over 4 million people call this city home but, in a place as expansive as this, there’s definitely room to spare! At first glance, this coal-mining city may appear industrial and modern, but its historical pedigree stretches back over 2,000 years. Evidence suggests that the area was settled as early as 859 BC by the Rong people, who were driven out of the region by the Beidi people in 662 BC.

During the late Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), Taiyuan was established as the capital of the ancient province of Bing. When the Eastern Wei (534-550) and the Northern Qi (550-577) dynasties ruled over northern China respectively, they nominated the city as their secondary capital and under their reign it grew into a large and prosperous city. In fact, in its history Taiyuan would receive nearly as many promotions as the Emperor had concubines!

Li Yuan, the founder of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), was from Taiyuan and began his conquest of China with the city as his base. The support he received from the local aristocracy was integral to his success because actions may speak louder than words, but money talks the loudest of them all! Not long after the Tang Dynasty was established, the cave temples at Mount Tianlong were constructed just southwest of the city. Eventually Taiyuan was designated as the Tang’s northern capital and was developed into a heavily fortified military base.

When the Song Dynasty (960-1279) reunified China in 960, Taiyuan continued to resist and was eventually destroyed during warfare in 979. In 982 a new city was established on the banks of the Fen River, just a short distance from the ruined old city. Throughout the Song and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, it enjoyed a higher status as a prefecture-level city and received a further upgrade during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties when it became the capital of Shanxi province.

From the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 to the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Shanxi was under the control of a warlord named Yan Xishan. Under his guidance, the province flourished and expanded industrially by consistently avoiding conflict during the major battles throughout the 1910s and 1920s. With that in mind, the title of warlord hardly seems befitting!

In 1937, the Japanese army occupied Taiyuan but worked with Yan to help advance the city’s industries further. When the Japanese finally surrendered in 1945, the troops that were stationed in the city decided to fight for Yan rather than return to Japan. However in 1949, after a bloody and destructive battle, the Communists took control of the city and it has remained largely unchanged to this day.

Nowadays the city’s symbol is that of two pagodas and is based upon the local Yongzuo Temple, which contains the tallest pair of twin pagodas in China. They were both built during the Ming Dynasty but, while the West Pagoda is 55 metres tall, the East Pagoda is only 53 metres in height. So not exactly identical twins!

Another ancient staple of the city is Chongshan Temple, which was originally built during the Tang Dynasty. Sadly, during the 19th century, much of the temple was destroyed but several of the halls still remain intact. The main hall is renowned for its magnificent statue of the goddess Guanyin, who is depicted with a thousand hands and a thousand eyes. Bear in mind, the statue does not literally have a thousand of each, as that would be far too creepy!

Jinci TempleJust 25 kilometres (16 mi) southwest of the city, at the foot of Mount Xuanweng, lies the glorious Jinci Temple. It was founded nearly 1,400 years ago and was subsequently expanded during each dynasty, meaning it contains over 100 sculptures, buildings, and other architectural pieces that reflect the styles of several different eras. The Hall of the Holy Mother, which was constructed in 1032, is the oldest surviving building in Taiyuan Prefecture and has vivid carvings of wooden dragons winding their way up its eight pillars.

Venture out a little further, about 40 kilometres (25 mi) southwest of the city proper, and you’ll find the Tianlong Mountain Grottoes. This series of 25 manmade caves carved into the mountainside contain some spectacular Buddhist statues and decorations. At the grand old age of 1,500 years, caves number 2 and 3 are the oldest and are currently enjoying a long and much deserved retirement!

The Hanging Temple

The Hanging Temple is one of few places in the world that matches up to its unusual name, as it truly is the stuff of legends. Also known as Xuankong Monastery, this teetering temple has been literally embedded into the side of Mount Heng and hangs precariously from the cliff-face. Yet, in spite of its perilous appearance, the temple has stood firm for over 1,500 years. Not only is its placement unique, it is also one of the only temples in the world that is dedicated to more than one religion, combining teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. After all, when you’re literally hanging from the side of a cliff, you probably need the help of more than just one god!

The temple complex itself is about 65 kilometres (40 mi) from Datong City and hangs a staggering 75 metres (264 ft.) above the ground. It’s so high up that you could fit Buckingham Palace under it three times with room to spare! This architectural feat was achieved by chiselling holes into the cliff and then fitting large, load-bearing oak beams into the holes. The stilts below the temple are actually just for show and are there to make visitors feel more comfortable about its stability, as the beams wedged into the rock-face have safely held the structure up for centuries. Since it is located beneath a prominent outcropping in the rock, the temple is sheltered from sunlight and erosion, which is why it has remained in such spectacular condition. I doubt I’d look as good at 1,500!

No one knows precisely who built the temple or who organised its construction, but many historians believe it was likely to have been masterminded by the King of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 AD). However, according to one local legend, the original temple was built by a single monk named Liao Ran. Either he must have been very tall or very brave! The temple has undergone several rebuilds and restorations throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties to achieve its current glory. The temple complex itself is made up of 40 halls containing around 80 sculptures of copper, iron, terracotta, and stone. A stone staircase chiselled deep into the rock allows access to the temple, while the 6 main halls are connected by staircases, walkways, and boardwalks that provide a dizzying view of the drop below. Just don’t look down!

After entering the temple gate, you will arrive at the main building, which is made up of three floors. The upper floor hosts the Three Buddha Hall, the Taiyi Hall, the Guandi Hall, and four side rooms with intricate statues of Bodhisattvas. Behind the main building, there are two “flying buildings”, which are so-called because the top floors are connected to the main building by a narrow wooden walkway and the bottom floors are linked by a narrow path that has been dug into the cliff-face. From the bottom to the top, the southern building contains the Chunyang Hall, the Sanguan Hall, and the Leiyin Hall. The northern building consists of the Four Buddha Hall, the Sansheng Hall, and the Sanjiao Hall respectively.

The Sanjiao Hall is of particular interest, as inside this hall you’ll find statues of Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Sakyamuni Buddha all sat side-by-side, representing the respective religions of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. With their watchful eyes and serene faces, they remind us all that, no matter our differences, we should all try to get along.

Yet the wealth of information about this temple tends to leave researchers with more questions than answers, such as; why build it like this? And why dedicate it to not one religion, but three? Its strange appearance seems to be less for sacred reasons and more for practicality. The temple is so high up that it’s shielded from floods, while the rock-face above it protects it from heavy rainfall, snow, and long-term damage from sunlight. According to the principles of Taoism, all temples should be built far away from earthly noises, such as roosters crowing or dogs baying. This may also explain why it was built so far up, as I doubt any roosters are going to try flying that high!

The prevalence of religion in ancient China meant that travellers were reluctant to stay in temples that worshipped religions different from their own. Some theories about why the Hanging Temple enshrined three of China’s major religions was to encourage travellers of all kinds to stay there, as its remote location meant that any weary traveller who passed up the opportunity might not make it to the next safe haven. After all, we may have different religious beliefs, but we all get hungry and tired after a long trip!

[1] It is important to note that Confucianism is not widely regarded as a religion, but is instead considered a school of thought

The Hanging Temple is one of the many wonderful stops on our Explore the Ancient Tradition of Tai Chi tour


Datong is known as the “City of Coal” and, due to its status as a major coal-mining region, it has managed to garner an unfortunate reputation as one of the most polluted cities in the country. Yet, much like Beijing, hidden behind the smog are wondrous historical treasures unmatched throughout China. The city lies at the northernmost point of Shanxi province and, thanks to various environmental measures and a burgeoning tourist trade, the smoke appears to be clearing and revealing some of the finest sights the country has to offer.

The town was first founded under the name Pingcheng in 200 BC, during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), and its location near the Yanmenguan Pass of the Great Wall meant that it flourished as a trade port between northern China and Inner Mongolia. Unfortunately, the town was sacked towards the end of the dynasty and was largely left until it became the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 AD) around about the year 398. It was from this capital that the Wei court oversaw the construction of the magnificent Yungang Grottoes.

In 1048 the city was renamed Datong and became the western capital of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty[1] (1115–1234) but was tragically sacked by the Mongols during its fall. This rather unlucky city would be sacked yet again in 1649, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), before being promptly rebuilt in 1652. After being destroyed three times, it’s a small wonder Datong has any buildings left!

Within the city itself, the Nine Dragon Screen, Huayan Temple, and Shanhua Temple are the three main places of interest. The 600-year-old screen, resplendent with glazed dragons of vibrant colours, is the oldest and largest of its kind. It was built during the Ming Dynasty and is over 45 metres (149 ft.) long with over 400 specially-fired glazed bricks making up its sparkling surface. After all, if you can’t have real dragons, make beautiful fake ones!

On the southwest side of the city, the Huayan Temple houses five large statues of Buddha and over 18,000 volumes of Buddhist scripture. It was built during the Liao Dynasty (907-1125) according to the Huayan branch of Buddhism and is the largest Liao temple in existence. It is unique in that it’s the only temple of its kind to face east instead of south. During the Ming Dynasty, it underwent large scale renovations and has thus remained well-preserved to this day. After all, every good celebrity needs a little face lift once and a while!

The Shanhua Temple, which was founded during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), has also undergone several repairs. Thanks to these renovations, the Daxiongbao Hall, the largest of its kind in China, has managed to remain well-preserved since it was built during the Liao Dynasty. Evidently Datong’s ancient buildings have found the elixir of youth, and its all thanks to a little plaster and some TLC!

Yet some of the most spectacular sights can be found just beyond Datong’s borders. About 16 kilometres (10 mi) west of the city, the Yungang Grottoes have weathered the sandstorms for over 1,500 years. This collection of over 51,000 statues of Buddha has long been inducted as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is truly a testament to the industrious nature of the ancient Chinese people.

In the lush scenery surrounding Mount Hengshan, just 60 kilometres (37 mi) southeast of Datong, you’ll find the Hanging Temple embedded deep into the cliff-face. This stunning monastery has clung to the side of the mountain for over 1,500 years and is one of the only houses of worship to acknowledge more than one religion. If the Hanging Temple represents ancient China’s religious tolerance, then the nearby Yanmenguan Pass, one of the most important gatehouses along the Great Wall, is a subtle reminder of the darker, bloodier side of its past.

In Yingxian County, about 70 kilometres (43 mi) south of Datong, the Pagoda of Fogong Temple looms over the surrounding countryside and is the largest and oldest wooden building in China. It is over 67 metres (220 ft.) tall and over 950 years old, making it over twice size of Buckingham Palace and three times as old! It goes without saying that this pagoda is a no-smoking area; if you accidentally burnt it down, I don’t think your travel insurance would cover the cost!

[1] Jurchen Jin Dynasty (1115-1234): Led by the Jurchen clan, who were of Manchu descent and controlled most of northern China but were ultimately defeated by the rising Mongol Empire. Not to be confused with the imperial Jin Dynasty (265-420).

Datong is one of the many wonderful stops on our Cultural Tour in Shanxi.