Project Wellspring

Di Luo's Teaching Portfolio

Session 13. Buddhist Architecture I: China

The 13th session of the survey course East Asian Architecture: From Prehistoric to the Late Imperial Period, it investigates Buddhist architecture in China during 1000-1200 CE.


  • Fu, Ch. 5, “The Liao, Song, Xi Xia, and Jin Dynasties” (135-98)
  • Thorp, “State Patronage of the Dharma” (195-209),  “Buddhist Artistic Culture” (268) (CR)

Historical Background

  • Collapse of the Tang dynasty
  • Three major rivaling regimes in China: Liao, Northern Song, and Jin
  • Economic and cultural growth
  • State patronage of Buddhism, Daoism, and Neo-Confucianism
  • A more exquisite and elegant architectural style and taste
  • Breakthroughs in building technology: high standardization, diversity and virtuosity in form and ornamentation, domed ceiling, miniaturization

Key Examples

Guanyin Pavilion

Dule Temple, Tianjin, 984


Facade of the Guanyin Pavilion (By Hat600 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

As the central building and vantage point of the Dule Temple, this two-storied pavilion epitomizes the artistry of Liao wooden architecture.

Historical records show that the temple was founded in 628 in the Tang dynasty. Its name, Dule, meaning “solitary joy,” was possibly associated with the rebellion by General An Lushan during the tumultuous years of 755-763, when An raised his army against the Tang court here at the temple and was criticized as being selflessly seeking his personal, “solitary joy” with no consideration of the happiness of others.

The most impressive feature of the exterior of the pavilion is its rather large and robust brackets which support the two layers of eaves and the balcony in between. The bracket-sets show a great diversity in form and structure, and yet they express a certain harmony and create a rhythmic visual pattern across the front. The overall style bears a remarkable Tang vigor, while it also foreshadows the Song exquisiteness to come.

Though appearing to be two-storied, the pavilion has a mezzanine which surrounds the main statue inside–the 16-meter tall, eleven-faced Bodhisattva Guanyin.

The space above the monumental statue is a typical Chinese wooden “dome” called a zaojing. It is made of eight wooden “ribs” which converge at the apex and form an octagonal ceiling coffer. This is the earliest surviving zaojing in China.

Sutra Library

Huayan Temple, Datong, Shanxi, 1038

White Pagoda

Qingzhou, Inner Mongolia, 1049


A brick, octagonal pagoda thrusting to some 70 meters on the open grassland, the Qingzhou White pagoda is one of the finest examples of Liao pagodas.

The 7-storied pagoda mimics the structure of a wooden pavilion-style pagoda, representing typical wooden components such as columns and lintels, highly articulated bracket-sets, suspended eaves, and doors and windows.

The exterior is fully decorated with bas-reliefs of Buddhist figures and stupas. Against the blue sky and the extensive land, the white pagoda appears robust and elegant at the same time.

The pagoda was built under the imperial decree of Emperor Xingzong of the Liao as a gift to his mother, the Empress Dowager, a fervent Buddhist follower.

In 1989, when the pagoda was under repair, experts found a secret deposit in the finial containing woodblock-print Buddhist scriptures and 108 wooden relic stupas.


Longxing Temple, Zhengding, Hebei, 1052

Wooden Pagoda

Yingxian, Shanxi, 1056

Amitabha Hall

Chongfu Temple, Shuoxian, Shanxi, 1143



This entry was posted on April 9, 2016 by in session and tagged , , , , , .
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