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Source: CCTV.com

10-31-2008 08:59

In 447 BC, the Parthenon was built in Athens. The ancient Greeks built it as a temple dedicated to their gods who, they hoped, would keep them safe and bring them peace.

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The structure, with its encircling columns, has fallen into ruins over the centuries. Yet, despite its decline, it remains a symbol of European architecture.

Columns, whatever their form, are regarded as a characteristic of European architecture. Beautifully-carved columns are considered an essential feature of places such as opera houses and churches. Their vertical lines create an impression of space.

In the east, too, the fondness for pillars dates back thousands of years. The difference is that in temples, wooden pillars instead of stone columns have been used. Yet eastern temples are still grand and spacious. And they also demonstrate the oriental pursuit of eternity in architecture.

In China there is an ancient temple that is an entirely wooden structure. It was built in 1020, and has remained standing despite centuries of violence inflicted on it by Nature.

The temple is called Fengguo. It is in Yixian County, Liaoning Province in Northeast China, and is famous for more than its wooden structure. It houses the world’s oldest and biggest clay statues of the Buddha. And its Mahavira Hall is the largest temple hall anywhere in China.

Today, we’ll show you around this temple, and uncover the secrets of its mysterious pillars.

Seen from the mountains surrounding Yixian County, one of the most prominent landmarks is the Mahavira Hall at Fengguo Temple. Its eaves, with their smooth lines, resemble the outstretched wings of a great bird. The building is typical of the grandeur of ancient Chinese architecture.

It has a hip-saddle roof. In ancient times, this type of roof was reserved exclusively for imperial architecture. Its use in civil buildings was forbidden.

With its four slightly up-turned corners, the hip-saddle roof adds an infinite sense of beauty to the temple. More practically, it provides shelter for the vast space below and the seven Buddhas in the hall.

As for these seven occupants of Fengguo Temple, they are highly distinctive in their appearance.

The seven statues in the Mahavira Hall are all over 8 metres in height. The statue of Sakyamuni in the middle measures as much as 9.5 metres. The 7 giant statues of the Buddha are lined up in an imposing straight line across the hall.

Some numbers help to understand the grand scale of the Mahavira Hall.

The temple is 21 metres high and stands on a 3-meter base. It measures 55.6 metres from east to west and 32.8 metres from north to south. The temple occupies a site of 1,800 square metres.

Back when the temple was built, it must have been a daunting undertaking. To the rear of the temple, near the deva-king that is the easternmost of the statues, a clue can be found that indicates just how this apparent miracle was achieved.

Seen from here, the orderly arrangement of the giant statues of the Buddha can be appreciated, giving a sense of the vastness of the Mahavira Hall. And in this extensive space, it is easy to overlook the most astonishing secret of ancient Chinese architecture.

The secret lies in the pillars. Despite their seeming innocuousness, they form the strongest spine of any wooden structure in Chinese history.

In Chinese wooden architecture, the pillars are the skeleton and the basic unit, or jian. “Jian”, meaning room, refers to the space marked out by four pillars, and it was used to calculate the building’s scale. The Mahavira Hall at Fengguo Temple is 9 “Jian” horizontally. The number 9 is significant, because in the East, where special implications are ascribed to numbers, it sounds like the Chinese word “久”, meaning Eternity.