The placement of the Chinese city of Guilin is more than peculiar; surrounded by spectacular rock mounds covered with vegetation and a framework formed by two rivers and four lakes. Next to the centre of the city, two of the most famous lakes of this bunch are located, the Rong Hu and Shan Hu, surrounded by parks. It is in the Shan Hu Lake where two buildings that have become the most characteristic feature of the city can be found: The Sun and Moon Pagodas. One of the most beautiful and famous sceneries you can come across in Guilin during the night are the Sun and Moon Pagodas, with a spectacular illumination that reflects on the waters of the Shan Hu Lake.

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Sun and Moon Pagodas reflection on the Shanhu Lake_ ©Rory Wallwork

Symbolism

The first styles of Chinese had squared and circular bases. The octagonal ones, as is the case for the Sun and Moon Pagodas, first appeared during the V and X centuries. The buildings are a symbolic representation of the universe. The base from which they emerge symbolizes the earth and the central pillar that goes through the Pagoda, from the foundations to the highest point represented as “Axis Mundi”, the axis which unites the three cosmic levels (Sky, Earth, and Underground Regions). The Sun and Moon pagodas have five symbolic planes identified with the five elements: earth, water, air, fire, and ether. So, the whole of each Pagoda symbolizes the supremacy of Buddha’s Nature, which is the ultimate reality that is behind everything and sustains everything. This intermediary scale symbolizes the Buda who, when lit up, unified his being with the universe. 

From a human perspective and analyzing the geometry with which they were constructed, two well-defined sections can be appreciated: an inferior one with the shape of a prism (earth) and a superior one that is pyramidal, in contact with the sky. On the top of the building, we will find the sōrin, a vertical element armed with decorative figures and nine rings; at the end we can find the “hōju”, the door to Nirvana, the place where Buddha stays waiting for humanity. 

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Pagodas are strongly linked to nature_©Colombo Photography

History

Even though they were both originally constructed during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), besides the whole scenic area of the Shan Hu Lake, both pagodas were remodelled to look as we know them now. Pagodas were generally placed in the centre of the temples until the Sui and Tang dynasties. During the Tang, the importance was placed on the main chamber, and the Pagoda was moved to the side of the room or out of the temple area completely. The design of the temples was also influenced by using traditional Chinese residencies as sanctuaries after they were philanthropically donated by the rich. In these preconfigured spaces, the construction of a central pagoda wouldn’t have been desired or possible.

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Board game about building a model of a pagoda, showing how present they are in everyday lives people culture_©2022 www.laitimes.com

Architecture

With 35 meters of height and seven stories, all constructed with brick, The Moon Pagoda offers in its interior a variety of expositions, stone carvings and figures of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. This mixture of religions is something unique to the Sun and Moon Pagodas and an important characteristic of the history of Guilin, where the three religions always had a big influence over the centuries. Next to the Pagoda, a small garden and stone path that surrounds the whole island can be found. 

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“Sun and Moon Pagodas in Guilin at Night” _©Nathan Ackley

With 41 meters of height, nine stories, and an octagonal base, The Sun Pagoda is the highest bronze pagoda in the world and the biggest ever constructed directly over the waters of a lake. It has a golden colour, and in its interior, many tea houses (first and second floor) can be admired, and striking views from the top floor can be enjoyed. To facilitate moving up and down in its interior, the Pagoda counts with a lift; however, it only goes as far as the sixth floor, so to get to the top, users must take stairs. On the very top of the Pagoda, there is a small stupa in which there is a small piece of Buddha’s hand bone, one of the very few relics of the sort that can be found in China.

Sun Pagoda _ ©Angel Sosa

For a great number of cultures during history, architecture confirmed one of the principal ways of access to the sacred. Making reference to the concept of sacred to everything that allowed the interior growth of the individuals and strengthened the union between them and nature. Chinese culture is not an exception to this, it places great importance in nature and religion. 

Their architecture is geometric and takes great care of its ornamental form. It puts a big emphasis on nature and tries to be in harmony with it. The pagodas are part of the traditional Chinese architecture, and what these constructions sought was to arrange the space in a way that would facilitate contact with the transcendent, with that that is beyond the pass of time. It is believed that because these places were where the human being looked for the eternal, the constructions have survived and lived to our days.

References:

  1. Nivard, J. 2014, [Photos] Famous Guilin Tourist Landmark Engulfed in Flames, Cultures chinoises immatérielles et numériques.
  2. Fleming, E., 2021. What do pagodas symbolize in China? – SidmartinBio. [online] Sidmartinbio.org. Available at: <https://www.sidmartinbio.org/what-do-pagodas-symbolize-in-china/> [Accessed 24 April 2022].
  3. 2022. [online] Available at: <https://www.chinadragontours.com/chinese-pagodas.html> [Accessed 22 April 2022].
  4. Define, A., 2022. [online] Buffaloah.com. Available at: <https://buffaloah.com/a/DCTNRY/p/pag.html> [Accessed 22 April 2022].
  5. Roberts, J., 2009. Chinese Mythology A to Z, Second Edition. Chelsea House.
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