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Wondrous delights in NW Shanxi

Sun Ruisheng, Yang Cheng and Roger Bradshaw
Updated: Aug 29,2016 2:11 PM     China Daily

Hanging Temple in Ningwu dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It was built via a narrow access path that uses wooden poles inserted into holes in the practically vertical cliff, covered with wooden planks, more than 100 meters above the ground. [Photo by Khalid Sharif / China Daily]

North China’s Shanxi province has plenty of wonderful sites and sights, but three particularly unusual ancient relics and strange bits of architecture that have been around for hundreds of years are a cliff temple, hanging coffins, and a village built on the face of a cliff in the Luya Mountain Scenic Area of Ningwu county, that can all be visited within a day.

The three are a great choice, even compared to the rest of the delights the country has to offer and are located on a somewhat remote mountain but have good access.

They’re within an hour’s drive, about 30 kilometers, of downtown Ningwu and 180 km to the northwest of the city of Taiyuan, the provincial capital.

Foreign visitors get a look at the Hanging Temple from down below and wonder whether to make the climb up to get a closer look at the inside of the two-tier temple. [Photo by Sun Ruisheng/ China Daily]

That drive from Taiyuan is itself interesting as it takes you through small towns and villages through some undulating countryside cut with steep ravines in the loess soil and endless fields of green planted with corn and other vegetables growing on plots of varying sizes.

The hanging temple was built with the help of an interestingly ingenious plank road no more than 2 meters wide that dates back to the Zhenyuan period (785-805) of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), a prosperous and fervent period for Chinese Buddhism. It was constructed out of wooden poles inserted into bore holes in the practically vertical cliff then covered with wooden planks, more than 100 meters above the ground.

It ran for more than 21 km in the olden days, and connected a number of temples and pagodas, the locals told us, but few of those temples and pagodas remain today.

There is, however, a unique one built into a cave on the cliff, during the Tang Dynasty, supported by wooden pilings.

It took members of our group more than 20 minutes to climb the steep steps to the hanging temple, which has two floors.

Residents transport visitors by horse to the Hanging Village, with the Hanging Temple seen just above their heads.[Photo by Jiang Dong/ China Daily]

It gained its name from its location and, interestingly enough, the temple is not only for Buddhists but also for devotees of Confucius, making it somewhat of a rarity. The simple local folks worship different gods in hopes of improving their lives.

There is a similar but more famous temple in Hunyuan county, about 180 km to the north of Ningwu, which was built in Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534). But, during the popular season it sees many tourists flocking there and making the stairway, which is narrow, exceedingly crowded.

This temple in Ningwu, which is less known, provides an opportunity to enjoy the temple view in a much more relaxed way even if it can be somewhat unnerving for some to be up there on the narrow cliff face.

Hanging Village in a mountainous area in Ningwu, Shanxi province, is 2,300 meters above sea level. [Photo by Jiang Dong/ China Daily]

The temples got their name, xuan kong si, because of a dream the emperor had of having a temple up in the clouds, with the added benefit that it can represent the heavenly, noble thoughts contained in the sutras.

Curious burial site

Perhaps an even more unusual sight is the number of hanging coffins at some 200 sites, making them a standout in China in terms of their numbers.

They also rank high as antiquities because of the variety of positions-some are in a cave; but others hung there on the cliff face supported by wooden poles or secured by lines.

Archaeologists have put forth many possible explanations for these curious coffins, one of which is related to the particular geological location.

Ningwu was a hotly contested site with many battles for hundreds of years, involving government armies, invaders, rebels, or other ethnic groups, and many soldiers lost their lives. To preserve them, their fellow soldiers suspended them up on the cliff.

Also, for strategic reasons, a hanging village was built in the area at the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Hanging coffins on Luya Mountain are said to be the remains of soldiers killed in early wars. [Photo by Wang Xiaohai/ China Daily]

It is about 30 km from Ningwu Pass, the last pass before entering the Chinese capital, Beijing, during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911). When a rebel leader, Li Zicheng, took the Ningwu Pass from the Chongzhen emperor (1628-1644) of the Ming, dethroning him, the emperor sought to save his fourth son by hiding him in a temple in the remote mountain area, while searching for a way and a chance to re-take the strategic pass.

The soldiers who were assigned to protect the son and the area, which is about 2,300 meters above sea level, all changed their family names to wang and the village got the name Wanghua. Unfortunately, the father committed suicide and the son died only a few years later out of grief, but the village stayed on the remote mountain.

It was a bit hard to find and, even after the founding of the New China, government leaders still considered the remote mountain area a difficult place to locate so they used it as an arsenal, although that’s long abandoned.

One 69-year-old villager, Wang Runquan, told China Daily that he’s been delighted to see more tourists in the area in recent years and the local government doesn’t impose taxes on them if they open teahouses or restaurants to serve the visitors.

At the same time, sadly, many of the 160 villagers who previously lived there migrated to cities looking for a better life, leaving behind mostly elderly people amounting to not much more than 20 and the youngest of them is above 40.

Wang said, “Most of the houses are empty and the land is overgrown with weeds, so it’s really fortunate to see a growing number of tourists. They like the village’s history, the mystery of the nearby coffins and the rarely seen hanging temple, and it’s a great place for them to stay, here in our simple village.”