In December 2010, the “Hengshan Hanging Temple” in Shanxi was listed in Time Magazine as one the world’s top 10 most precarious buildings.
The Hengshan Hanging Temple was built as a functioning temple perched perilously on a cliff in the Jinlong Gorge near Mount Heng in Hunyuan County, Datong City, Shanxi Province in China. This temple was built during the late Northern Wei Dynasty about 1,500 years ago. It was repaired in the later Jin Dynasty, and later in the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties.
The ancients described the Hengshan Hanging Temple as: “Facing Hengshan, leaning against the rock wall; dangerous overhanging rock; descending to the deep valley; rock as the foundation, built up from the rock; the structure is thrilling, and the shape is peculiar.”
Building a temple mid-cliff on this mountain was truly extraordinary
The Hengshan Hanging Temple, or Xuankong Temple, is known throughout the history of both ancient and modern architecture for its mysterious characteristics. Be it the design concept or the architectural concept, its boldness, ingenuity, and fearlessness are awe-inspiring!
There are 40 big and small halls and pavilions in the Hengshan Hanging Temple. The halls are linked by a maze of narrow wooden plank passageways. When tourists move through the passageways, they instinctively lift their heels, hold their breath, and lightly step on the wooden planks for fear that one heavy step will cause the temple to collapse. However, despite the “creaking” sound under their feet, the platform that is bound to the rock remains intact.
The mountain is steep, with cliffs perpendicular to each other on both sides standing up to 100 meters (328 feet), and there is a slight concave in the middle. These cliffs look as if they have been “manually carved out.” The structure of the Hengshan Hanging Temple grasped this sheer precipice for its foothold and this is the location where the temple was built. On the rock underneath the temple is engraved the word “spectacular.” This was written by Li Bai when he visited the Xuankong Temple in the 23rd year (A.D. 735) of the Tang Kaiyuan era.
How has the Hengshan Hanging Temple survived natural disasters for more than 1,500 years?
For over 1500 years, the halls of the Xuankong Temple have experienced countless earthquakes, landslides, and rainstorms. Twenty years ago, Hunyuan, where the Xuankong Temple is located, experienced an earthquake of magnitude 6.1, but the temple was not damaged, although nearly one-third of the houses in the county were destroyed. How can the structure of the building hanging from the middle of the cliff without any foundation resist earthquakes and falling rocks?
The reason is thought to be that the location of the Hanging Temple is in a gorge buttressed by two mountains. The river running in between the mountains eroded and formed a natural groove in the middle.
In addition, the Hengshan Hanging Temple is purely a wooden building. The “mortise and tenon joint” structure of the temple building is known as an “elastic structure,” as it can sway with an earthquake, thereby effectively buffering the impact of the earthquake. This is a very delicate shock absorption design. This characteristic is one of the main reasons that Xuankong Temple has survived various natural disasters. I strongly suspect that Divine intervention may also be a very substantial factor.
The mystery of its architecture is the 27 so-called “iron poles” that underpin and support the temple
In later generations, columns were added to the temple building. There are 27 wooden beams under the wooden plank passageways and pavilions that support the Xuankong Temple. These beams are called “iron poles” by the locals. The square beams were processed from local hemlock wood and inserted deep into the cliffside.
It is said that these wooden beams were soaked in China tung oil, which hardens upon exposure to air, so they are not susceptible to being eaten by termites, and there is also an antiseptic effect. Each one of the beams is anchored on the cliff and becomes part of the cliff rocks, so they are particularly strong.
Notwithstanding the above reasons, there are still mysteries behind the foundation of the building’s structure. The ancients did not have modern construction machinery, so how did the artisans drill thin and deep holes into the rock wall? The ancients did not have any concrete pouring technology, so how did they fix the wooden beams? On top of that, the construction was at an altitude of 80 or 90 meters (295 feet)?
Surrounding these mysteries, people have made many speculations, but it is difficult to prove them. From the perspective of architectural art or technology, the gravity-defying Hengshan Hanging Temple is an engineering miracle that has many unsolved mysteries.