Category: Dengfeng.

Architecture Informs History

Clusters of ancient architecture in central China have recently been entered on the world heritage list


MAGNIFICENT AND SOLEMN: The Zhongyue Temple, built at the foot of the Songshan Mountain in the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220), was the earliest base of Taoist activities in China (CFP)

A group of ancient architecture in Dengfeng, central China’s Henan Province, was added to the world heritage list at the 34th session of the World Heritage Committee in Brazil on August 1 this year. The architectural collection is China’s 39th property inscribed on the list, and the third world heritage site in the province after the Longmen Grottoes and Yinxu in Anyang, site of the capital of the late Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.).

It is the second time the ancient architectural group was presented to the heritage committee meeting. In 2009, it failed to be inscribed and was added to the candidate’s list for the 2010 session.

Great value

STAR GAZING: The Observatory of Stars built in the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) is the oldest astronomical observatory in China (CFP)

The group includes 11 ancient architectural complexes at eight historical sites in Dengfeng, a city located at the southern foot of the Songshan Mountain, one of the Five Sacred Mountains in China. Called the Central Mountain, the Songshan Mountain is a cultural and religious site and a symbol of Chinese mountain culture.

Most of the constructions are cultural relics under state-level protection in the Songshan scenic area. They were built in various dynasties—including the Han (202 B.C.-A.D. 220), Northern Wei (386-534), Tang (618-907), Song (960-1279), Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911)—and vividly present a history of central China’s architecture of more than 2,000 years, containing highly valuable materials for historical, artistic and scientific studies.

WITNESSING HISTORY: An old cypress has stood for more than 1,000 years in the Songyang Acadamy (CFP)

The Shaoshi Towers and Qimu Towers, built in the East Han Dynasty (25-220), are the oldest state-level ritual venues, and the Zhongyue Temple and Taishi Towers (also built in the East Han Dynasty) are the most complete examples of the architectural pattern for ritual activities in ancient China.

The carvings and inscriptions on the Taishi, Shaoshi and Qimu towers, served as gates for entering into sacred areas, provide rare information for the studies on architecture, fine arts and society of that period.

The 1,400-year-old pagoda in the Songyue Temple, the architectural complex of the well-known Shaolin Temple and the Huishan Temple tell of the influence of Buddhism in different periods in China, which has also had a significant and long-time effect on architectural styles in surrounding areas.

At 45 meters high, the pagoda in the Songyue Temple is the oldest brick pagoda in China and also the only dodecagon pagoda with eaves in the country.

The Shaolin Temple was included in the world heritage site because of its Buddhist architecture—not the stunning Shaolin kungfu which originated in the temple and made the temple famous around the world.

Three sites in the temple are listed, including the Pagoda Forest, an area of pagoda tombs of eminent monks at the temple; the Chuzu Hut (Progenitor Hut), a cluster of small ancient buildings built in the Song Dynasty to commemorate Daruma, father of Zen Buddhism in China; and the Changzhu Yard, the central area of the temple where monks live and attend religious activities.

Covering an area of around 20,000 square meters, the Pagoda Forest comprises more than 250 pagodas of various sizes and heights, making it the largest pagoda aggregation in the country. No higher than 15 meters, normally one to seven stories, these pagodas are constructed from brick or stone, or a mix of the two.

The carvings and inscriptions on the pagodas tell people the exact year each pagoda was built and other relevant information. As these pagodas were built in different dynasties, their site has become one of the main places to study the architecture, calligraphy and carving art of ancient China.

The historical constructions, stone carvings and frescoes in the Shaolin Temple fully present the history of Zen Buddhism’s development in China, as well as the history and meaning of Shaolin kungfu, two major components of Shaolin culture.

The well-preserved Songyang Academy, built in the Northern Wei Dynasty, is the earliest school in China to spread Confucian doctrines, serving as a center for the worship of Confucian sages and the holding of examinations.

The Observatory of Stars, built by Guo Shoujing (1231-1316), a renowned astronomer and mathematician in Yuan Dynasty, is the oldest astronomical observatory in China, and is also the oldest architecture in the world used to observe celestial phenomena. The local government dismantled industrial facilities nearby and has restored the open and quiet scene to allow observation.

Traditional concepts

SACRED IMAGE: A carving on a stele in the Shaolin Temple shows the image of Daruma, father of Zen Buddhism in China (CFP)

These ancient architectural collections, named “Center of Heaven and Earth,” fully embody China’s traditional concepts of the universe, which hold China was located in the middle between Heaven and Earth, while the center of Heaven and Earth was in central China. As the heart of central China was today’s Dengfeng, the region gradually became the site for emperors of many dynasties to build their capitals, meaning to show their status had been granted by deities.

The mainstream philosophical schools in China—Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism—have made the region a center to spread their teachings.

The clusters of ancient buildings in Dengfeng collectively represent ancient concepts of the universe, which had a huge influence on fields such as architecture, art, religion and science in ancient China, said Tong Mingkang, Deputy Director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

“This year, China better conveyed its traditional concepts of the universe to the world heritage committee, as well as the interaction between ancient astronomy and the supremacy of the imperial dynasties and the comprehensive influence of these ideas on the architecture, religion and art in the region,” Tong said.

The World Heritage Committee described the property on its official website as “these buildings are reflections of different ways of perceiving the center of Heaven and Earth and the power of the mountain as a center for religious devotion. The historical monuments of Dengfeng include some of the best examples of ancient Chinese buildings devoted to ritual, science, technology and education.”

Juliet Ramsay, a cultural heritage expert entrusted by the committee to inspect the historical architectural complexes in Dengfeng, said she found during the inspection the Chinese character zhong, means middle or center, appearing in many inscriptions on steles, a strong indication of how important the concept and thought of “Center of Heaven and Earth” is to the Chinese nation.

Effective measures

Henan is a province with one of the greatest concentrations of cultural relics. The successful bestowal of world heritage status this year will undoubtedly enhance the international reputation of Dengfeng, and even Henan. At the same time, it will help to change tourism patterns in Dengfeng, and greater numbers of foreign visitors are expected in the future.

It took Dengfeng 12 years to become inscribed on the heritage list, but entering the list was not the final goal, said Chen Ailan, Director of the Henan Bureau of Cultural Heritage. “It means that we commit to the world to preserve the heritage well.”

In the future, heritage protection work in Dengfeng will focus on two areas: strengthening protection and developing the local economy by proper use of the cultural resource, Chen said.

To better preserve the property, Dengfeng has renovated all the ancient buildings on the site, in accordance with the principle of “keeping the original state and the surrounding environment intact.” More than 1,000 old trees and rare plants in the area have also been placed under protection, and more than 300 old and dying trees have been placed in the care of botanists.

The government of Dengfeng has also invested more than 10 million yuan ($1.47 million) in working out a general protection plan for the ancient architecture and detailed protection plans for the 11 historical sites involved.

To monitor the protection of the heritage sites in real time, a large number of cameras will be installed at the 11 sites to detect any damage to historical constructions. Any activities or moves affecting heritage protection will be carefully investigated and any areas in a state of decay will be repaired in time. Equipment to prevent any damages by weather is to be installed to prevent natural disasters.

The local government has also invited architectural experts from Tsinghua University to consult about preservation work, in order to better balance the relationship between economic development and heritage protection. At the same time, through developing tourism in the region properly and strengthening academic exchanges with foreign countries, these cultural monuments will be appreciated by more people.

“Letting more people of different cultural backgrounds appreciate these magnificent ancient architectural classics and understand the history, culture and science of ancient China was the main purpose of our application,” said Chen. Next, a series of books, brochures and multimedia forms of materials will be gradually produced to introduce the world heritage site in Dengfeng.

“The number of world heritage sites a country has reflects, in a certain sense, the contribution the people of the country have made to the civilization of human beings in history. On the other hand it means today’s people should shoulder their responsibility to preserve these heritages endowed by nature and our ancestors and hand them down to future generations,” Chen said.

Category: Dengfeng
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