Located 3.5 kilometers southeast of Hunyuan County and built halfway on the cliff at Jinlong Canyon, the Hanging Monastery of Hengshan Mountain is one of China’s most unique and remarkable feats of wooden architectural complex. The monastery is also the only one built in honor to Sakyamuni, Laozi, and Confucius, who are founders of Buddism, Taoism and Confucianism respectively.
The monastery is founded during the Northern Wei period (386-584) in the 6th century, boasting a history of over 1,400 years. An architectural complex was built on the base of the natural hollows and outcrops along the contour of the cliff. Over 40 halls and pavilions within an area of 152.5 square meters are connected each other by corridors, bridges, boardwalks. They are evenly distributed and well balanced in height. Inside the monastery are over 80 statues; some are cast with bronze, some with iron, some with clay and some are carved out of stone. Founders of Buddhism , Taoism and Confucianism are living friendly and harmoniously with each other.
Facing east, the architectural complex hangs about fifty meters above the ground. It used to be much higher above the ground, but over the ages the silt has built up, raising the level of the riverbed. Reconstruction work was carried out from the Tang through the Qing dynasties, as well as in recent times. In 1982, the monastery was listed as one of our country’s key protecting units of cultural relics.
The hanging monastery is built in a perilous situation, half way up a cliff rising over one hundred meters above the ground.
Looking upward, layer upon layer of pavilions propped up by scores of pillars with a diameter of an ordinary bowl can be seen while the reddish brown rocks seem to tilt forward, seemingly to fall at any minute.
It is said that the monks built this monastery by tying ropes around their waists and descending down a cliffside. Using chisels, they bored holes into the rock face. Then they inserted wooden support struts, which served as the main supports for the rest of the temple.
When crossing a boardwalk connecting two pavilions, visitors cannot help holding their breath and walking with the greatest care, fearing the monastery might collapse. The wooden board under the feet keep creaking, the architecture, however, stands fast steadily on its ground.
Though the monastery usually gives the visitors a dangerous impression, visitors are always willing to take a trip there out of a sense of adventure and curiosity.
“Iron shoulder poles”
The boardwalks in the mid-air are propped up by tens of quadrate beams, also called “Iron shoulder poles”, which were made from a special local product “hemlock”and then inserted firmly into the rocks. It is said that the beams had been soaped in Chinese wood oil, which can dispel the termites and protect it from erosion.
Apart from these “iron should poles”, pillars also play an important part in sustaining the monastery in the mid-air. The placement of each pillar was calculated with much elaboration in order to guarantee the architecture could be properly propped up. Some of the pillars were used for weight-bearing while others were just for the sake of balancing the heights of different buildings.
Three reasons accounts for the establishment of such a mid-air monastery：the first lies in the peculiar geographical situation to the advantage for such a monastery; Second, as the building site used to connect Wutai Mountain in the south and Datong in the north, establishing such a monastery would provide convenience for the religious followers. Last but not the least is the climate factor. For years, Hun River, which flows at the foot of the cliff on which the monastery was built, had been causing serious flooding. The local people, suspecting the Gold Dragon was playing the trick, decided to build a monastery on this cliff to beat the demon.
Built 50 meters above the ground, the hanging monastery further developed traditions and styles of Chinese architecture and has established its unique position among various temples and monasteries with three outstanding features — “oddity, peril, and superlative workmanship”.
The “oddity” of the monastery consists in the design and the ideal geographical location of the hanging monastery. Situated in a basin of the canyon, the monastery hangs in the mid-air on the cliff. The protruding part at the top of the cliff, resembling an umbrella, can protect it from the rain and even the flooding. The advantageous geographical position is one of the reasons accounting for the excellent state of its conservation.
In the early hours, and from a distance, the temple appears an integral part of the mountain. Close up, inside it, it seems a miracle that wood crafted in such a way: angled, braced, and bracketed, could at one time rest part inside the ledges of rock and part creaking perilously out from it.
The Hanging Monastery>
The perilous situation of the Hanging Monastery makes one feel dumbfounded. Walking a few miles deep into the canyon, you will see in the curling up clouds and mists, pavilions in the air, hanging on the precipice. These pavilions are propped up by a few pillars with a diameter of an ordinary bowl. The majority of the building body is suspending in the air.
The superlative workmanship of the Hanging Monastery lies in the fact that with the supporting beams as its basis and the skilful utilization of the hidden rocks, the whole building is uniquely well-knit into an integral whole and the balustrades are artistically connected. The layout of the monastery structure is in excellent symmetry with variations, well-connected though scattered at various points, in good proportion though extraordinarily complicated. The main structure consists of over 40 halls pavilions, all of which are made of wood. The mountains are excavated at halfway to create grottoes and within the niches Buddhas are enshrined. Monasteries like this with a history of over 1000 years can be lauded as “superb work by the God and Ghosts”.