So much of what distinguishes Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin’s studies of ancient architecture was that in addition to making monumental academic discoveries, they also ensured their subsequent conservation and maintenance, restoring them to their former glory. Alas, their wishes were not always respected.
Shanxi province in northern China boasts a glut of well-preserved ancient structures. As a result, it played a central role in Liang and Lin’s research. They visited Shanxi four times during the 1930s, before the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out.
Tragically, many of the drawings they made during their travels were stored in a bank in the British Concession in Tianjin, the port city just southeast of Beijing, and later destroyed by flooding. With incomplete primary sources about their Shanxi expedition, all we historians have to go on are a few photos discovered purely by coincidence.
In 1999, a stack of photographs produced in the ’30s by the Society for Research in Chinese Architecture (SRCA), of which Liang was a member, were rediscovered and catalogued. Of these, my attention was particularly caught by a set of photos carrying the caption “Huishan Temple, Beigaoyu Village, Fencheng County, Shanxi.” The ancient temple in the photo looked utterly majestic, featuring an exquisite Buddha statue in the main hall. The catalog said that Liang took these photos in 1936.
In 2008, we undertook an expedition to Beigaoyu. When we arrived, no one in the village had heard of Huishan Temple. A few elderly people took us to the committee hall, once the village’s main temple. When we arrived, however, we discovered that the hall was neither a Buddhist structure, nor the place we were looking for.
As we milled around wondering what to do next, I suddenly noticed a meter-tall old bell in the hall. Its inscription — almost illegible under its thick coating of rust — said that it had been cast in 1490, during the Ming Dynasty, and belonged to “Shanhui Temple” — the same Chinese characters that appeared in the word “Huishan,” but in reverse order. Village elders told me that Shanhui Temple was torn down more than 50 years ago, when they were just children. Could it be that “Huishan Temple” was a mistake, and we were actually looking for Shanhui Temple?
The plot thickened when village elders told us that local historian Zhang Caiwang, widely considered the village’s most scholarly man, had sketched a detailed map of the long-demolished Shanhui Temple. When Zhang dug out the temple’s floor plan back at his home, we were thrilled to see that despite the lack of precision, it nonetheless conveyed a wealth of information.
Before Shanhui Temple was torn down, a bell tower stood at the front of the temple complex. The tower boasted a cross hip-and-gable roof and two sets of eaves. Behind the bell tower was a nine-story pagoda and two halls, front and rear, that would have house Buddhist statues. The halls had gabled roofs in the “hanging mountain” style — typical of the monastic complexes built during the Yuan Dynasty of the 13th and 14th centuries.
We hurriedly pulled out the old photos of “Huishan Temple” for comparison. Amazingly, the bell tower and the rear hall in the photos were completely consistent with the structures laid out in the floor plan. Moreover, in the background of the bell tower in the photo, we could faintly make out a pagoda shrouded by trees.
I have no doubt that the “Huishan Temple” mentioned in the SRCA’s photo archives is indeed a mistranscription of “Shanhui Temple.” This was Fencheng County’s pride and joy, the ancient place of worship that Liang captured back in 1936.
From the 500-year-old inscription on the iron bell and Zhang’s historical records, we were able to glean that Shanhui Temple existed in one form or another for nearly 1,500 years. It was first built in 566, during the reign of Emperor Gao Wei of the Northern Qi — a short-lived dynasty that existed in the interstice between the fall of the Jin and the rise of the Sui.
At the time, the temple had a different name, and did not come to be called “Shanhui” until 1063, the final year of Emperor Renzong’s rule during the Northern Song Dynasty. As regimes rose and fell, the temple underwent several renovations.
A view of the Zhongzhen Temple in Hongtong County, Shanxi province, Feb. 11, 2011. Courtesy of Gu Cun
When Liang photographed Shanhui Temple in 1934, he could not have realized that it would be one of the last times outsiders would have the chance to see its Buddhist statues in their full glory. Soon afterward, the Japanese imperial army occupied Fencheng, and the ancient temple was burned down by Chinese collaborators who then passed on the charcoal to Japanese soldiers. Nobody knows where the Buddhist statues went. Today, only the Ming-era brick pagoda is still standing, but it has long since fallen into disrepair.
Had Zhang not shown us his painstakingly compiled historical corpus, our journey would have been a complete waste of time. In response to our gratitude, the old man smiled faintly before lowering his head and muttering: “Write it all down. Otherwise, when we’re gone, the younger generations in the village won’t know anything about this.”
It was a day of mixed feelings. We had finally found the temple, decades after it had mostly disappeared. When we reached the pagoda, we found it standing alone against the setting sun, surrounded by a jumble of cobbled-together dwellings. The pagoda’s bottom story was half-buried in cement, had a crack running up its side, and slanted noticeably to the east. It, too, seemed on the verge of collapse.
Since 2006, as we have retraced Liang and Lin’s expeditions throughout China, we have been continually struck by how much has changed. A record published in 1934 of the surviving ancient structures in Fenyang and a neighboring county describes in detail 20 ancient Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian temples, of which only seven have been well-preserved. This same story goes for countless other buildings in China. The 1930s were only 80 years ago, but in those brief decades — these days, the length of a single human lifetime — too many traditional structures have been swept away by the waves of change.
Even Liang and Lin’s most famous discovery, Foguang Temple, is not immune to the ravages of time. The largest remaining wooden structure from the Tang Dynasty, Foguang is undoubtedly one of the nation’s most precious ancient structures. Yet this summer, the hall began to leak just as historians were celebrating 100 years since its rediscovery. In order to preserve their integrity, Ming-era sculptures of arhats — enlightened monks — suffered the ignominy of being covered with crude plastic sheeting.
Conservationists try to uphold two fundamental principles when restoring neglected ancient landmarks. First, any renovations must remain faithful to the original structure; and second, conservationists should interfere as little as possible. Worryingly, vast numbers of China’s ancient structures are crumbling into dust, deprived of the capacity to teach us both about our glorious history and about our past errors. This, I am sure, would have saddened Liang and Lin most of all.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A view of the ruined Zhongzhen Temple in Hongtong County, Shanxi province, Feb. 11, 2011. Courtesy of Gu Cun)