The Arts






Chinese Pagodas (Chinese 塔, pinyin tǎ) are a traditional part of Chinese architecture, introduced from India along with Buddhism as protective structures for Buddhist relics. In addition to religious use, since ancient times Chinese pagodas have been praised for the spectacular views which they offer, and many famous poems in Chinese history attest to the joy of scaling pagodas.

Chinese Characterization

Lamaist pagoda between Lhasa and Ganden, Tibet.
Fig 1

Lamaist pagodas, mostly seen in the west of China, are closest to what is assumed to be the Indian prototype, and are shaped as a square tomb with a dome-like top in the middle. Held mostly under the cultural sway of rival kingdoms such as Tibet, Lamaist pagodas have not been sinicized to the same extent as Chinese pagodas, which undertook many changes:

The dome-like steeple (厦 / pinyin sha) was further characterized.

Multiple stories were added to lend visual power and prestige. Prior to the construction of Buddhist pagodas, traditionally only the ruling class in China lived in multi-storied buildings.

An underground chamber or hole was added for burying Buddhist relics.

The center was often built hollow so as to allow visitors access to upper levels, some of which had verandahs.

Pagodas were built in new locations: on raised platforms, over roads, inside temples, and on top of palaces, using a range of new materials, such as wood, bronze, gold and pottery. Building pagodas on top of palaces imparted additional prestige.

Construction Materials


From the Eastern Han Dynasty to the Southern and Northern Dynasties (~25-589) pagodas were mostly built of wood, as were other ancient Chinese structures. Wooden pagodas are highly resistant to earthquakes, however many have burnt down, and wood is also prone to both natural rot and insect infestation.

Examples of wooden pagodas:

White Horse Pagoda at White Horse Temple, Luoyang. China's first pagoda.

Futuci Pagoda in Xuzhou, built in the Three Kingdoms period (~220-265).

Many of the pagodas in Stories About Buddhist Temples in Luoyang, a Northern Wei text, were wooden.
The literature of subsequent eras also provides evidence of the domination of wooden pagoda construction in this period.

The famous Tang Dynasty poet, Du Mu, once wrote:

480 Buddhist temples of the Southern Dynasties,
uncountable towers and pagodas stand in the misty rain.

Transition to Brick and Stone

During the Northern Wei and Sui dynasties (386-618) experiments began with the construction of brick and stone pagodas. Even at the end of the Sui, however, wood was still the most common material. For example, Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty (reigned 581-604) once issued a decree for all counties and prefectures to build pagodas to a set of standard designs, however since they were all built of wood none have survived.


The earliest extant brick pagoda is the 40m pagoda at Songye Temple, Dengfeng Country, Henan. It was built in 520 during the Northern Wei Dynasty, and has survived almost 1500 years.


The earliest large-scale stone pagoda is a four-door pagoda at Licheng, Shandong, built in 611 during the Sui Dynasty.

Brick and Stone

One of the earliest brick and stone pagodas was a three-story construction built in the (first) Jin Dynasty (265-420), by Wang Jun of Xiangyang. However, it is now destroyed.

Brick and stone dominated Tang, Song, Liao and Jin Dynasty pagoda construction.

The Porcelain Pagoda of Nanjing has been one of the most famous brick and stone pagoda in China throughout history.

De-emphasis Over Time

Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai follows the Song Dynasty multi-courtyard design, and does not feature a pagoda. The main hall is at the center.
Fig 2

Pagodas, in keeping with the tradition of the White Horse Temple, were generally placed in the center of temples until the Sui and Tang dynasties. During the Tang, the importance of the main hall was elevated and the pagoda was moved beside the hall, or out of the temple compound altogether. In the early Tang, Dao Xuan wrote a Standard Design for Buddhist Temple Construction in which the main hall replaced the pagoda as the center of the temple.

Yonghe Temple, a prominent example of a Chinese palace converted for use as a Buddhist temple.
Rolf Müller, 2004
Fig 3

The design of temples was also influenced by the use of traditional Chinese residences as shrines, after they were philanthropically donated by the wealthy or the pious. In such pre-configured spaces, building a central pagoda might not have been either desirable or possible.

In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the Chan (Zen) sect developed a new 'seven part structure' for temples. The seven parts - the Buddha hall, dharma hall, monks' quarters, depository, gate, pure land hall and toilet facilities - completely exclude pagodas, and can be seen to represent the final triumph of the traditional Chinese palace/courtyard system over the original central-pagoda tradition established 1000 years earlier by the White Horse Temple in 67.

A prominent, later example of converting a palace to a temple is Beijing's Yonghe Temple, which was the residence of Yongzheng Emperor before he ascended the throne. It was donated for use as a lamasery after his death in 1735.


The Arts :: Architecture

Introduction | Pagodas | Hakka | Hutong | Imperial Roof Decoration | Lingnan Architecture | Walled Villages of Hong Kong




Copyright DateRichard R. Wertz Creative Commons License