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劉遵憲《登懸空寺》 “Climbing up to the Hanging Temple” by Liu Zunxian







誰開石壁禮金仙,

縹緲層樓結構

清梵漫疑雲外度,

香臺真向霧中

山連大岳千秋壯,

客到孤峯五月

為問遠師曾沽酒,

好邀明月共盤[1]







Who opened up the rock cliff to pay homage to the golden immortal?

In the misty void, the layered buildings are difficult to construct.

Pure Buddhist [chanting] seems to transcend clouds;

Incense altars are indeed to be viewed within fog.

Hills are connected to the great mountain with everlasting magnificence;[2]

The traveller arrived on the lone peak in the fifth month’s coldness.

[I] ask the troops on their march whether [they’ve] bought any liquor

So that [I] can invite the moon to linger [here] with us.

[1] Red characters rhyme.

[2] The dayue 大岳 (great mountain) refers to Mt. Heng 恒山, one of the Wu yue 五岳 (Five Mountains, or Five Sacred Mountains).

 

This was a poem I found inscribed on the wall when I visited the Xuankongsi 懸空寺 (Hanging Temple) at Mt. Heng near Datong. The temple was first built in 491, when Datong was the capital of the Northern Wei regime. It’s also famous for being the only existing temple where people pay homage to Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism in the same hall. In Liu Zunxian’s 劉遵憲 (1575-1644) poem, we find both a Daoist image (“golden immortal” in line 1) and a Buddhist image (“pure Buddhist [chanting]” in line 3).

Thanks to Shanxi’s tourism policies, it is free to enter the scenic area on working days, so one can freely enjoy the view of the whole temple hanging on the cliff. Below the cliff there is a rock with the inscription zhuangguan 壯觀 (“magnificent,” or “magnificent view”). It is said that the great Tang poet Li Bai 李白 (701-762) was astonished by his visit to this temple and wrote it on the cliff rock. Today, the view of the temple itself with the inscribed rock has become the signature of the site.


(Left) The model of the temple I saw in the gallery of ancient architecture in the Provincial Museum of Shanxi in Taiyuan, taken a day before I visited the actual site.

(Right) A photo taken on site.

Line 6 suggests that Liu Zunxian paid his visit in the summertime. The “fifth month’s coldness” must have brought some much-needed freshness. When I visited Datong, the temperature had dropped to minus at night. Moreover, the temple is located on a cliff exposed to wind, so it was freezing in the early morning when I visited. I had my sweater and winter coat on, but still couldn’t help trembling once I got off the coach. Unlike what is described in the poem, I saw the temple on a nice autumn day (late eighth month) with clear blue sky. There was no fog at all.



It costs CNY 100 to go up to the temple. As I’m always attracted to mountains, mountain paths and buildings, I didn’t hesitate to join the long queue. The temple covers 125 square metres in total and has about 40 rooms. The area open to the public is mostly religious halls with statues. Most of them are very small, and the corridors are only wide enough for one person to pass. Besides, the main wooden construction is over 1500 years old, so the administration tries not to have more than 60 visitors in the temple at the same time. I wonder where Liu Zunxian would have sat and enjoyed his liquor if he had got some. In any case, it might be a nice experience to have a drink here under the moonlight during the summertime. But with the wind and temperature on that morning, I could only leave that pleasure to the imagination.


Although my visiting experience is very different from Liu Zunxian’s, his line 2 certainly states the truth: to construct such a temple on the cliff is indeed a huge challenge. The guide told us that the temple used to be about 90 metres above the river level instead of some 50 metres above ground level nowadays. The long “legs” on which the buildings appear to be standing actually don’t bear weight. These legs didn’t exist at the beginning, and the real support for the buildings was the beams that horizontally stuck into the cliff. Every beam has two thirds of its length driven into the rock. However, the ingenious architecture looked as if it was hanging on the cliff and thus horribly dangerous. People were too afraid to go up and visit it, so the “legs” were added to achieve a placebo effect.

It was actually a relief to know this, for on a closer look, those “legs” looked quite slim, and they didn’t seem to be standing that firmly on the cliff. I should really start to worry about my safety if they were indeed the real support...


Despite the technical challenges architects and builders must have faced, there are several other cliff constructions in Mt. Heng. The one below, for example, is built on a narrow platform scooped out on the cliff. This one is not really meant to be visited but to be viewed from afar, which makes a perfect scene (even better with mist, of course) for painting. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take a better picture with my phone and the light at the time. Also, it’s difficult to find pictures of it online as it’s totally eclipsed by the Hanging Temple. But looking at such a construction, who wouldn’t be amazed by the crazy ideas of the ancients and, more importantly, their ability to execute them?


 

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