Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Hongfo Pagoda

After visiting the Western Xia Tombs this morning, and the Baisikou Twin Pagodas this afternoon, I want to visit one more Western Xia site before I return to Yinchuan and get ready to head for the airport later this evening. It is the Hongfo Pagoda (宏佛塔 = Grand Buddha Pagoda) which is situated in Helan county, just north of Yinchuan. I am not sure how long it will take to get there from Basikou, on the edge of the Helan Mountains, but it is still only mid-afternoon, and I think there should be enough time. I ask the driver of the taxi I have hired for the day, and apparently anything is possible for an extra hundred yuan or so. He has no idea of where it is, but he speaks the name of the pagoda into his phone, and directions magically appear on his screen. It's over 40 km away as the crow flies, and it takes us over an hour by road.

The pagoda is in the countryside, surrounded by fields, about 800 m north of the main road heading east out of the county town. The area around the pagoda has been paved over, as is typical of cultural sites in China, but with trees on all sides it is a very pleasant place. There is no ticket office or caretaker, and we are the only two people here. It does not seem that it is popular tourist destination, but for me it is an ideal way to finish off my two weeks in Ningxia and Inner Mongolia.


Hongfo Pagoda

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}


This is a brick pagoda, originally with a solid clay core around a central wooden post. It is very unlike either the two Western Xia pagodas at Baiskou or the Western Xia square pagoda at Basigou. The twin pagodas at Baisikou are quite similar in shape and form to Liao dynasty octagonal brick pagodas (albeit with some Tangut features, such as the titans holding the base of the pinnacle on the west pagoda), whereas the Hongfo Pagoda does not seem to be modelled after Song or Liao pagodas. It is divided into two architecturally distinct sections. The lower half is octagonal in shape, and comprises three storeys, but the upper half is shaped like a Tibetan-style stupa with a stepped ratha-shaped base. As far as I know, this design is unique.

The pagoda dates to the Western Xia, and was undoubtedly part of a Buddhist temple or monastery, but there are no certain historical records that mention the pagoda or the temple it belonged to. The exact date of construction is unknown, although the central wooden post of the pagoda has been radiocarbon dated to the Western Xia period (I have not seen what radiocarbon date range was arrived at). The pagoda has been repaired and renovated several times over the centuries, but by the 1980s the pagoda was in a very poor state, with the brickwork around the base missing and the pinnacle lost. There were large cracks in the structure, and it was feared that it could collapse at any time. There is a large model (quarter size?) of the pagoda before restoration at the Xixia Museum, but I did not take a photograph of it (I thought I did, but my camera says otherwise). Even better however, here is a photograph by Lei Runze of the pagoda in the mid-1980s, before restoration:


Hongfo Pagoda in the 1980s

Orientations April 1996 p. 56

Photograph by Lei Runze 雷潤澤


In 1987 a panel of experts was formed in order to come up with a plan for the restoration of the pagoda. After surveying the pagoda it was decided that the only course of action was to entirely dismantle the pagoda and rebuild it, which happened between 1989 and 1990. The rebuilt pagoda is very beautiful, and should last for many centuries, but in many respects it is a reconstruction of the original pagoda rather than a restoration of the pagoda that stood on this site up until 1990. The pagoda was 28.2 metres in height before restoration, and after the restoration of the upper section and pinnacle it is now 35 metres in height. Unlike the original solid pagoda, the new pagoda is hollow with a small entrance on the south face.


Hongfo Pagoda after renovation

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Detail of Hongfo Pagoda

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Inside of Hongfo Pagoda

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The pagoda was originally solid with a wooden post for a spine, but the renovation created a hollow space in the centre.



Finds from the Pagoda

During renovation of the pagoda a small room at the base of the pinnacle was discovered. Inside this room had been deposited a large number of Buddhist relics, including some forty painted earthenware statues, a couple of wooden statues, the remains of fourteen silk paintings, and several clay or wooden models of stupas and Buddhas. I was able to take photographs of some of the discovered relics from the pagoda when I visited Ningxia Museum a couple of weeks ago.


Earthenware statues of Arhats

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Earthenware sculptures of Buddha and Arhat heads

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Four clay Buddha heads

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Painted stupa models

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In addition to the many Buddhist sculptures and paintings, a wooden tablet with Tangut writing recording the restoration of the pagoda, a small fragment of a Tangut Buddhist manuscript, a piece of a page from the printed text of the Tangut-Chinese glossary Pearl in the Palm, and more than two thousand pieces of wooden printing blocks for Tangut Buddhist sutras were found in the room.


Wooden printing block for a Tangut Buddhist text

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Qing dynasty steles

There are two Qing dynasty steles erected at the south end of pagoda compound, one dated Qianlong 45 (1780) for an official called Hu from Hongtong county in Shanxi, and one dated jiachen (1784?) for a military commander called Shi who was posted to Hongguang Garrison (洪廣營), about 20 km north-west of the pagoda.


Qing dynasty steles

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Adieu

It is time now to leave my last Ningxia pagoda for this trip, and return to Yinchuan; then to the airport for the flight home to England. It has been a very successful two weeks, and I hope I can come here again some day.


In front of Hongfo Pagoda


Western Xia Tombs Revisited

This is my last day in China, but I have a full day to explore because my flight from Yinchuan airport does not take off until after midnight. Just over a week ago I made a visit to the Western Xia tombs, but flooding had curtailed the day's excursions, and I am determined to go again today, especially as today is fine and sunny. My two companions have other plans, so I make my way to where the internet tells me that a public tourist bus departs for the tombs twice a day. I get there just in time. But there is no bus. Just a notice stating that the bus service has been temporarily halted due to roadworks in the vicinity. In the end I accept an offer from a tourist taxi touting for business, and as I have other destinations in mind I negotiate a price for the whole day. Despite paying for the whole taxi we pick up another passenger to the tombs on the way, who takes my picture outside the Xixia Museum.


In front of the Xixia Museum



Tomb L3

As I have already discussed Tomb L3, believed to be that for Li Yuanhao 李元昊 (1003–1048), first emperor of the Western Xia,when I came here last week, I won't say anything more about it, but I'll just show some of the new photos I took today.


Google Maps view of Tomb L3

{Map data ©2018 Imagery ©2018 CNES / Airbus, DigitalGlobe}

The red tag marks where I took the photographs from


View of Tomb L3 from the entrance path

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Cage full of recovered roof tiles on the east side

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East Gate Tower

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West Gate Tower

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East Stele Pavilion

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Stele bases on the East Stele Pavilion

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Stele base on the West Stele Pavilion

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North-west watch-tower

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100 m north-west of the tomb enclosure


Main gate to inner tomb enclosure

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Remains of stupas on the north-west corner of the inner enclosure (view from outside)

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Remains of stupas on the north-west corner of the inner enclosure (view from inside)

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The tomb mound with Offering Hall in foreground

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The tomb mound

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Brick with lotus design

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Tombs L1 and L2

About 4 km south of Tomb L3 are Tombs L1 and L2, which are believed to have been built for the grandfather and father of Li Yuanhao respectively, i.e. Li Jiqian 李繼遷 (963–1004) and Li Deming 李德明 (981–1032). These are the only other tombs open to the public, and can be reached by means of an electric tour bus which drops us off near the south-east corner of Tomb L1 for exactly five minutes sightseeing before taking us straight back to the main entrance.


Ticket for the bus to see Tombs L1 and L2


Google Maps view of Tombs L1 and L2

{Map data ©2018 Imagery ©2018 CNES / Airbus, DigitalGlobe}

The red tag marks where I took the photographs from


Sadly, the two tombs are fenced off, and when I visited L1 can only be viewed from the edge of the outer wall, and L2 can only be seen in the distance on the other side of L1. Here are some of the few photographs that I was able to take before I was herded back to the electric bus by the driver.


Complete view of Tombs L1 and L2

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Outer wall watch-towers on the right


View of Tombs L1 and L2 from the south-east

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Outer wall watch-towers on the right


Closer view of Tombs L1 and L2

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L1 in front (320 m from me), L2 behind (720 m from me)


L1 watch-towers

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L1 gate tower or pagoda

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L1 tomb mound

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Close-up of L1 tomb mound

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Central platform is in front of the tomb mound


L2 tomb mound

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Close-up of L2 tomb mound

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Photograph taken from the bus driving past L2



Tombs M67

There are over two hundred Western Xia minor tombs scattered across the area of the imperial tombs. Many belong to members of the royal family, and are very impressive, but many are small and/or eroded, and are now barely noticeable. This is a photograph of Tomb M67 that I took from the electric bus on the way back from viewing L1 and L2.


Tomb M67

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Tomb L4

On the way back I also just catch a glimpse of Tomb L4 from the bus, 1,800 metres away. This is believed to be the tomb of Li Yuanhao's son, Li Liangzuo 李諒祚 (1047–1068), who became emperor when only a one year old baby. His tomb is the only imperial tomb not to be accompanied by any minor tombs.


Google Maps view of Tomb L4

{Map data ©2018 Imagery ©2018 CNES / Airbus, DigitalGlobe}


Tomb L4

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After a final visit to the museum book shop, I return to the car park to find my driver for this afternoon's excursion to the Baisikou Twin Pagodas.


Baisikou Twin Pagodas

After spending all morning revisiting the Western Xia mausoleums, I am keen to head off to the next site of interest before it gets too late. I have hired a tourist taxi for the day, and I tell the driver that I now want to go to see the Twin Pagodas at Baisikou (拜寺口雙塔), by the mouth of the Baisigou valley (拜寺沟) that leads into the heart of the Helan Mountains. I am not sure how long it takes to get there, but it does not look too far on the map. It turns out that either the map is deceptive or my ability to read maps is not up to scratch.


On the Road

It's about 35 km by road, and after about half an hour's drive we stop to pick handfuls and pocketfuls of very sour unripe peaches from the roadside at Huangqikou (黄旗口), which is about 7 km from Baisikou. My driver forces a huge handful on me to eat, although I find it difficult to enjoy them with quite as much relish as he does.


Picking unripe peaches by the side of the road


As we near our destination, I begin to appreciate the enormity of the flash floods that last week cancelled our excursion to the twin pagodas. Baisikou is at the mouth of one of a series of narrow valleys that run eastwards out of the Helan Mountains and onto the adjacent plain. Normally these are dry valleys, but when it rains heavily, as it did last week, the valleys turn into torrents of unstoppable water which sweep away anything in their path. The floods of last week had swept alluvial debris, huge boulders, trees, and even machinery across the only road to Baisikou, leaving the road covered to a depth of two or three metres. The road has been roughly cleared now, but the severity of the floods can easily be imagined as we drive through the narrow road with debris piled up on both sides.


Location of Twin Pagodas at Baisikou

{Map data ©2018 Imagery ©2018 CNES / Airbus, DigitalGlobe}

The debris flow sweeps across the road that runs north to south along side the Helan Mountains.


Passing through alluvial debris on the road near Baisikou

This photo was taken approaching Baisikou, heading north.


Passing through alluvial debris on the road near Baisikou

This photo was taken after leaving Baisikou, heading south.


When we arrive at the twin pagodas I accidentally put my camera in a soft focus mode, and it is fifteen minutes and thirty photos later before I realise what I have done. The photos I took of the pagodas are useless, and I have to retake all my photos. At least I realised before it was too late!


View of Twin Pagodas from the road

In soft focus mode!



At the Twin Pagodas

When we arrive at Baisikou there are no other visitors to the pagodas, and for most of the time we have the place to ourselves (I bought my driver an entrance ticket).


Approach to the twin pagodas

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Photo taken on the way out as the photos I took going in are useless.


Entrance ticket for the Twin Pagodas of Baisikou


The two pagodas, 80 metres apart, were built at some unknown date during the Western Xia period on the grounds of a large Buddhist monastery that guarded the entrance to the Baisigou valley, along which there were other Western Xia Buddhist sites and temples. The name Bàisìgōu (拜寺沟) means "valley for paying homage to the temple", but it has been suggested that this name is a corruption of Bǎisìgōu 百寺沟 meaning "valley of a hundred temples", as there were reputed to be a hundred and forty-four Buddhist temples in the valley — or at least this number of Buddhist structures, including pagodas and stupas.

Now only the pagodas are still standing, although they were both extensively restored in 1986. During restoration of the west pagoda, a room at the base of the pinnacle was discovered, in which were found various relics, including six pieces of paper with hand-written Tangut text; seven pieces of paper with Sanskrit mantras printed in red ink; two Buddhist paintings on silk; two Yuan dynasty bank notes of the Zhongtong era; a wooden statue of a playful manifestation of a vajra protector; and some pieces of silk. Other objects discovered in the west pagoda include a wooden table and a wooden chair, and a pair of carved wooden vases with silk flowers.


Piece of printed silk from the west pagoda

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Playing babies and lotus flowers design (嬰戲蓮紋絹)



East Pagoda

The East Pagoda is an octagonal thirteen-storied brick pagoda with a hollow core. It is 39 metres in height (including the restored finial), with a ground floor height of 5.7 metres. There is an entrance at the south to the interior, but the cavity is blocked off near the base by a round wooden door. Levels 2 through 13 have moulded sculptures of fierce animal masks, and at each corners of the eaves there is green-glazed kirtimukha animal head from which a bell hangs.


View of East Pagoda from the hillside

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East Pagoda from the south

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Glazed water spouts and moulded decoration on top levels

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Moulded decoration on lowest level

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Pinnacle of east pagoda

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West Pagoda

The West Pagoda is also an octagonal thirteen-storied brick pagoda with a hollow core. It is 41 metres in height. There is a small temple hall bult during the Qing dynasty opposite the south face. A narrow doorway leading into the hollow interior, which is not blocked off, but could only be ascended with a ladder (which would have to be built inside the pagoda as it could not fit through the entrance).

The moulded decoration on the west pagoda is similar to that on the east pagoda, but each panel also has a niche for a sculpture of a Buddhist figure or Buddhist symbol. There are 96 niches (8 niches on each of levels 2 through 13), of which 67 still house a sculpture. Level 2 are now empty; levels 3–4 have sculptures of standing monks; levels 5–6 have sculptures of seated arhats; levels 7 and 9 have sculptures of vajra dharma protectors; levels 8, 10, and 11 have sculptures of celestial beings making offerings; and levels 12 and 13 have sculptures of Buddhist symbols. On top of the 13th level there is an additional false storey with eight titans with pendulous breasts, reminiscent of the figures on the stele bases at the Western Xia tombs, holding the base for the pinnacle of the pagoda.


West Pagoda from the south-west

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Looking up the hollow interior of the pagoda

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Moulded decoration and niches for sculptures

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Moulded decoration and niches for sculptures

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Forest of Stupas

In 1999 the remains of the brick bases for sixty-two stupas were discovered on the terraced slopes above the pagodas. A number of miniature clay stupas and miniature clay statues were excavated from the stupas. Some bone fragments were also found, and it is thought that the stupas were built to house the bones of deceased monks from the monastery. The bases vary in size, suggesting that the stupas were also of different sizes, reflecting the importance of the monk each stupa was built for.


Hillside north of the pagodas

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Model showing the layout of stupas on the hillside north of the pagodas

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Archaeology

The pagoda site has been subject of archaeological investigations in recent years, and some of the archaeological trenches near the east pagoda have been preserved, and covered with transparent frames for the benefit of visitors. Various mundane finds are on display near the east pagoda, including a number of mortar stones, roller stones, millstones, and a column base.


Stone column base and mortar stone

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Millstone and stone roller

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A large number of pieces of roofing tiles and bricks that were originally scattered across the site, especially on the terraces on the slope above the pagodas, have been gathered together in one place. These are the remnants of various temple buildings.


Pieces of tiles and bricks

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Baisigou Square Pagoda

Also on display are sections of the wooden central post of the now-destroyed Baisigou Square Pagoda which was situated at a remote site some 10 km into the Basigou valley.


Wooden central post from Baisigou Square Pagoda

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(cut into sections)


The pagoda had been surveyed in 1984, but was little known and had never been properly investigated. On 28 November 1990 a local peasant discovered that the pagoda had suddenly collapsed, and a police investigation concluded that the pagoda had been illegally blown up by treasure hunters. This is the story that I have seen published in many places, including the 2005 book on the finds at the site of the pagoda writen by the Ningxia archaeologist Niu Dasheng (牛達生) and others who investigated the site. However, when I visited Ningxia Museum nearly two weeks ago there was a video about the Basisigou Square Pagoda playing on loop which told another story. The video simply stated that the pagoda collapsed from natural causes. I do not know whether the police, army, and archaeologists who investigated the site in 1991 were mistaken about the cause of the pagoda's destruction, and more recent analysis has indicated that the collapse was not a result of criminal activity, or whether Ningxia Museum is sanitizing history as a natural collapse sounds better than an unsolved crime.


Baisigou Pagoda in 1984

Orientations April 1996 p. 59

Photograph by Lei Runze 雷潤澤


In August 1991 a team of archaeologists from Ningxia Museum (as well as two policemen investigating the crime, and a unit of the PLA to help with the heavy lifting) carried out investigations at the site, and recovered a large number of artefacts and texts in Chinese and Tangut, indicating that this was an important Western Xia Buddhist site. Niu Dasheng has speculated that this pagoda was part of a famous Western Xia Buddhist temple known as the Temple of Five Platforms Mountain (Wǔtáishān sì 五台山寺), named after the famous Buddhist mountain, Wutaishan, in Shanxi. This temple is marked as being in the Helan Mountains in the Western Xia Topographic Map that may have been created in the early 12th century. You can read more about the pagoda in the Wikipedia article that I wrote. I have also scanned a number of pictures of Tangut texts and artefacts from the Baisigou Square Pagoda from the 2005 book on the pagoda. Below is a photograph I took at the Ningxia Museum of a wooden tablet with Tangut writing from the pagoda.


Wooden tablet with Tangut text written in ink

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Departure

Time for the obligatory souvenir photo in front of the east pagoda before we leave. If there is still enough time to get there, I want to visit one more Western Xia pagoda this afternoon.


In front of the East Pagoda