China's only surviving Tang Dynasty wood temple constructed in 857. This Buddhist temple was still active up until 1937 when it was discovered by China's first architectural historian Liang Sicheng and his art historian wife Lin Whei-yin. The mural of 500 arhats was painted in the Ming Dynasty.|
The story of the rediscovery of this, China's only remaining wooden Tang Dynasty temple, is a tale of love, courage, perseverance. It was the culminating discovery by Liang Sicheng 1901-1972 and his wife Lin Whei-yin 1904-1955. Sicheng was China's first architectural historian, trained at the Architectural School of the University of Pennsylvania. Whei also studied there and earned a degree in art history.
In 1931 he accepted a position in the newly forming Institute for Research in Chinese Architecture in Peking. From there he began to make field trips to search for ancient buildings. In 1937 Sicheng and Whei set out for Shanxi, inspired by two plates of Tang murals from Dunhuang in Paul Pelliot's book Les Grottes de Tun-houang which showed panoramas of Wutaishan with the temples identified by name.
From Taiyuan they went by car north to Tongye where they; (Quoted from Wilma Fairbank's book Liang and Lin, Partners In Exploring China's Architectural Past)
"changed to mule litters, each born by two mules fore and aft, and entered the Wutaishan mountains. Following an 'uncustomary route' for only a few miles, they were rewarded by coming upon their first find, which turned out to be their greatest. It was Foguangsi, the Temple of Buddha's Light, built in 857.
Sicheng reported their first impressions:
''The temple stands on a high terrace on the mountainside facing a large courtyard in front and framed by twenty or thirty very old pines. It is a majestic building. Only one story in height, it has large, strong, simple brackets and a far overhanging eave, which at casual glance at once tells its very old date. But could it be older than the oldest wooden structure we had yet fould?
The huge doors were at once thrown open for us. The interior, seven bays in width, was nore than impressive in the twilight. On a large platform, seated statues of the Buddha and his numerous attendants rose before us like an enchanted deified forest. At the extreme left end of the platform was a seated figure of a woman in secular dress, a life sized statue but very small and humble amid the group of deities. She was, the monks told us, the wicked Empress Wu. The entire group, though glaring with fresh color from a recent renovation, was without doubt of the late Tang period. But, if these were the original Tang clay figures unharmed, the building that covered them could not but be the original Tang structure. Obviously any rebuilding would have damaged everything under it.
Next day we started a careful investigation. The brackets, the beams, the checkered ceiling, the carved stone bases of the columns were all anxiously examined. One and all yielded to us their unmistakable late Tang characteristics. But my greatest surprise came when we climbed into the dark space above the ceiling; there I found roof trusses built in a way I knew only from Tang paintings. The use of two 'main rafters' (to borrow the terms for a modern truss) without the 'king post', just the reverse of later methods of Chinese construction, was overwhelmingly unexpected.
This attic was inhabited by thousands of bats, which clustered around the ridge purloin like a thick spread of caviar, thus preventing me from finding a possible date written thereon. In addition, the timbers were infested with millions of bedbugs that live on the bats. The upper side of the ceiling, on which we stood, was covered with a thick layer of fine dust, deposited there perhaps during the past few centuries and strewn with the little corpses of dead bats here and there. In complete darkness, and amid the vile odor, hardly breathing, with thick masks covering our noses and mouths, we measured, drew, and photographed with flashlights for several hours. When at last we came out from under the eaves to take a breafh of fresh air, we found hundreds of bedbugs in our knapsack. We ourselves had been badly bitten. Yet the importance and unexpectedness of our find made those the happiest hours of my years of hunting for ancient architecture.
On the third day of our work in the main hall, my wife (Lin Whei-yin) noticed on the bottom of one of the beams very faint indications of calligraphy in Chinese ink. The effect of this discovery on our party eas electric. There is nothing we like better than the dates of a building actually written on its beams or carved in stone beside it. Here was this glorious Tang structure, the first we had found--but how was I to report its date? The Tang Dynasty had lasted from 618 to 906. Now the timbers that bore the faint traces of calligraphy would soon give me the much desired answer. While the rest of us were busy with the problem of arranging for a scaffolding to be errected between the valuable statues for the purpose of cleaning the beams and studying the inscriptions close at hand, my wife went directly to work. Straining her head back, she tried her eager eyes on the beams from various angles below. After some time of such strenuous efforts, she was able to read a number of dubious names with long official titles of the Tang Dynasty. Of these, the most important was on the beam on the extreme right, only partly legible then: 'Donor of the Hall of Buddha, Sung-kung of Shangtu, Woman disciple of Buddha, Ning Kung-yu.'
Donated by a woman! That this young architect, a woman, should be the first to discover the donor of China's rarest old temple to be a woman seemed too unlikely a coincidence. She feared she may have misread some of the leass dicipherable characters by too lively an imagination. But she remembered having seen similar names with official titles on the stone dhanari column that stood on the terrace outside. She left the hall in the hope of verifying her reading from the column inscription. There, to her great delight, she found, apart from the long list of imposing official's names, the same phrase, clear and distinct: Donor of the Hall of the Buddha, Woman Disciple Ning Kung-yu'. The column bore the date 'The 11th year of Ta-chung, Tang Dynasty,' which corresponds to A.D. 857.
Then it dawned on us that the small figure of the woman in secular dress, sitting humbly at the end of the platform, whom the monks called 'Emprss Wu' was none other than the donor, Lady Ning Kung-yu herself.
Assuming the dhanari column was errected soon after the completion of the Hall, the date of the building can be closely ascertained. It is earlier by one hundred and twenty-seven years than the oldest wooden structure previously found. It is the only wooden building of Tang date we have yet encountered in these years of research. Moreover, in that one Hall, we have Tang painting, Tang calligraphy, Tang sculpture, and Tang architecture. Individually they are extremely rare but, collectively, unique"
From Wilma Fairbank's book Liang and Lin, Partners In Exploring China's Architectural Past, University of Pennsylvania Press.