This year, Chinese scholars of architecture and archaeology organized a series of events celebrating the 80th anniversary of Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin’s discovery of Foguang Temple, an ancient Buddhist place of worship located deep in the mountains of northern China’s Shanxi province. Ironically, a little more than a month after these events, a fan of ancient architecture posted photos on the internet showing rain leaking through the temple roof, proving what a sorry sight it has become.
Naturally, news outlets were quick to pick up the story. Web users were furious, commenting on Chinese social media that the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) — the government department charged with protecting China’s ancient relics — had seriously failed in its duties. But Foguang is located in a relatively isolated place, and many netizens have probably never seen it in person. Why, then, is it able to attract so much attention?
In contrast to Europe, where buildings were traditionally constructed using stones and cement, traditional East Asian architecture primarily used wood, even in royal palaces and sacred temples. However, wood has its limitations, not least the fact that it is easily destroyed. Termites, wood-boring insects, rot, fires, floods, earthquakes, and typhoons can all do irreparable damage.
It stands to reason, then, that architects across East Asia have long been accustomed to reconstructing wooden buildings. Like plants, damaged or destroyed wooden buildings can be regenerated through the addition of further organic materials. Traditionally, reconstructed landmarks were considered just as meaningful as the original structures, and few people were concerned about the precise year in which a landmark was built. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, Western scholarship encouraged historians in both China and Japan to re-examine their ancient architecture and date these structures precisely.
Chinese researchers began delving into their architectural history somewhat later than their island neighbors, though. Inspired by a famous book written in 1103 by the Song Dynasty architecture enthusiast Li Jie, titled “Treatise on Architectural Methods,” a group of Chinese scholars formed the Society for Research in Chinese Architecture (SRCA) in 1929.
In 1931, the Japanese architectural historian Itō Chūta claimed that no buildings from the Tang Dynasty — considered by many Chinese to be the cultural high-water mark of their civilization — remained in China. This was a great affront to Chinese scholars’ national pride, and finding a Tang-era timber construction thus became a patriotic endeavor. Yet Itō and his colleagues were correct in their assumption that locating China’s ancient timber structures would be no easy task, requiring consultation of a vast corpus of historical records.
In 1937, the same year that war broke out between China and Japan, two key members of the SRCA — Liang Sicheng and his wife, Lin Huiyin — rediscovered Foguang Temple. There were records of the site’s existence: It is depicted in a Tang fresco in the Mogao Caves, a series of grottoes housing thousands of Buddhist statues in northwestern China’s Gansu province. Photos taken by the Japanese Buddhist scholar Ono Genmyō in 1922 also showed some of the Tang sculptures found inside Foguang. However, at that time, no one had ever studied the site from an architect’s perspective.
Following the few clues they had, Liang and Lin eventually tracked down, surveyed, and mapped Foguang Temple. They discovered Tang Dynasty inscriptions on one of the temple’s crossbeams, which helped confirm that the structure was built in 857.
Foguang is not the oldest timber structure in the world. It’s not even the oldest in China: Researchers later discovered Nanchan Temple on Mount Wutai, also in Shanxi, which was built in 782. However, Foguang is the largest of four timber structures proved to date from the Tang Dynasty. The temple is not only impressive due to its sheer size; with its simple, elegant design, it also exhibits the quintessential traits of a Tang-era wooden building.
In addition, the murals and sculptures found inside Foguang are of immeasurable cultural value. The temple is that rarest of things: a publicly accessible artifact linking a nation’s people with its historic golden age. Add the fact that Foguang was rediscovered by one of China’s most beloved intellectual couples, and you can see why news of the temple’s leaky roof and poor maintenance scandalized everyone from amateur historians to casual observers.
The SACH now faces an uphill battle to repair the leaks and win over its critics. Foguang’s weight is supported by a complicated arrangement of interlocking wooden brackets called dougong. These are installed at the top of each pillar to support the immense weight of the roof’s upturned eaves.
Dougong configurations vary wildly from one building to the next, making them difficult to replicate. Buildings as old and complex as Foguang are particularly problematic: To completely restore the temple, the beams and dougong would have to be taken apart like building blocks and the warped or rotten pieces replaced before reassembling the whole structure. This sort of overhaul is known as luojia — “repair through dismantling.”
Foguang has retained so many of its original characteristics because it has probably never undergone luojia. But this also means that the temple has been exposed to the elements for over 1,100 years, well beyond a wooden structure’s normal lifespan. One of the eaves has begun to sag, in turn splitting the dougong and displacing roof tiles. This is one of the reasons why the roof began leaking.
To resolve the temple’s structural issues, the SACH has produced a metal frame to support the damaged part of the roof and installed a sensor to monitor the pressure exerted on the structure by the warped columns. The administration has also improved Foguang’s daily upkeep.
Painted sculptures are covered with a plastic sheeting at Foguang Temple in Wutai County, Shanxi Province, Aug. 28, 2017. From the official weibo of State Administration of Cultural Heritage
When it comes to precious cultural heritage sites like Foguang, no one can afford to be hasty in formulating a preservation plan or carrying out repairs. The slightest bit of carelessness could cause irreparable damage.
A particularly unfortunate example is the equally famous Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogong Temple, also located in Shanxi province. UNESCO lists the pagoda — built in 1056 — as the world’s tallest multistory wooden structure. But in 1934, a botched repair job damaged the pagoda’s original load-bearing system, dislocating many of the dougong and causing the tower to slant considerably to one side. Some scholars believe that it will collapse if it is not repaired.
Temporarily sealing the leak in the roof of Foguang Temple was easy enough — locals covered it with plastic sheeting — but coming up with a permanent solution is not quite so simple. Restoring and maintaining an ancient building requires great technical expertise, and the SACH seems uncertain of its capacity to carry out the work.
The technical difficulties involved in repairing Foguang are not the only challenges that the SACH currently faces. Chinese society is focusing more and more on the conservation of the country’s cultural heritage sites, and the SACH will only come under greater scrutiny in the future. Should the organization stick to its old ways — in particular, waiting for controversy to erupt before bothering to solve the problems that plague certain monuments — it will lose the public’s trust. So many ancient landmarks in China are in desperate need of restoration, and each project must be meticulously planned before it can take place.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Painted sculptures are displayed in the East Main Hall of Foguang Temple in Wutai County, Shanxi Province, Sept. 26, 2016. Deng Yinming/VCG)