The Historic Monuments of Dengfeng in "The Centre of Heaven and Earth" are 8 groups of sites located at the foot of the sacred Mount Songshan.
These sites are:
- Taishi Que Gates, Zhongue Temple
- Shaoshi Que Gates
- Qimu Que Gates
- Songye Temple Pagoda
- Architectural Complex of Shaolin Temple (Kernel Compound, Chuzu Temple, Pagoda Forest)
- Huishan Temple
- Songyang Academy of Classical Learning
Map of DengfengLoad map
First things first, Dengfeng to me was a site I couldn't place at all when reading past it. But everyone who has seen a single kungfu movie knows what this includes: the fabled Shaolin Temple. So my proposal to Unesco and the Chinese authorities would be to rename the site. Spitballing some ideas here: Shaolin Temples, Shaolin Temples of Dengfeng, Shaolin-Dengfeng, ... Probably, the authorities don't care about the name recognition of this site as much, though, as it is really popular nonetheless.
I made my way in January on a day trip from Xian. My day was fairly packed as I also visited the Longmen Grottoes the same day, another Buddhist monument nearby. Both sites were a nice combination as they presented different angles on the Buddhism in China topic.
Reading the other reviews, many seem to prefer other parts of the site. Visiting in off season and the temple still being plenty crowded, I can see the point. Still, I wanted to visit the Shaolin Temple and I did. Had I had more time, I would have loved to visit more, most specifically the observatory. In sum, I felt I did not spend enough time with the site to get a full picture. That's why I rated it 4* instead of 3.5* which I would have awarded the Shaolin Temple on its own.
Arriving from Xian at Longmen Luoyang bullet train station a driver contacted me when I left the station. We quickly settled on a price (500 RMB) to take me both to the Shaolin Temple and the Longmen Grottoes.
On the drive from the station to the temple I saw some of the coal mines that give this part of China its distinctive smell each winter. Passing heavily urbanized and industrialized areas, I kept wondering where the typical scenery of a Buddhist temple should be. Eventually, we reached the forested mountains and the road climbed quite steeply, taking us quickly into the expected scenery.
The Shaolin Temple is the easiest (= closest) from Luoyang. The other parts are further away and I don't think you can squeeze more than one in. You will probably have to stay overnight to see more.
Within the Shaolin temple it's mostly walking. I managed to see all components in the valley with the small Chuzu temple a nice distraction from the busyness of the main temple area. With more time, I would have loved to take the cable car further up as the skies were clear and really motivating for going hiking.
This is a site that I really enjoyed exploring. It’s not difficult to check out all the inscribed sites, and Mount Songshan has a lot to offer: landscape, religions, architecture... Again I’ll only make comments complementary to previous reviews. Sites are mentioned in chronological order.
Que Gates are important cultural relics that embody ancient Chinese ceremonial or funerary traditions. They are also considered as lithic replications of wooden structures that no longer exist nowadays. The three Han Que Gates at Mount Songshan were built during the Eastern Han Dynasty, the heyday of Que Gates. Due to their importance, all three were protected in sheds around 2010 to alleviate erosions caused by nature and fast-growing tourism. Now the only visible Han Que is Shaoshi Que, which can be seen through newly installed glass curtain walls. One can still appreciate on its body the carved paintings with religious or aristocratic themes.
Juha’s summary of the Songyue Temple Pagoda is very precise. I’d like to add that its dodecagonal shape stands as proof of imported Indian influence on early Chinese architecture, and makes an isolated and unique case in the evolution of domestic Chinese pagodas.
The Shaolin Temple is indeed considered as a tourist trap to some extent, as the majority of the kernel compound is a 20th-century reconstruction and the Kung Fu shows are highly commercialized. But it is still worth visiting because of the Pagoda Forest and the Chuzu Temple. The Pagoda Forest consists of 248 pagodas, some dating back to Tang Dynasty. The Chuzu Temple was built in 1125 AD, shortly after the publication of Yingzao Fashi, the earliest Chinese architectural treatise, in 1103 AD. Researches on the Chuzu Temple greatly helped the modern interpretation of Yingzao Fashi. It commemorates the first Zen master Bodhidharma.
The extant Mahavira Hall of the Huishan Temple and the Gaocheng Observatory were both constructed during the Yuan Dynasty, with noticeable architectural traits from the period. Several central columns were intentionally omitted in the Mahavira Hall to make space for the Buddhist altar. Such practices were never adopted again in Ming- and Qing-style architecture.
The Zhongyue Temple, the Songyang Academy and the Shaolin Temple stand respectively for the center of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism at Mount Songshan. Apart from the 11 inscribed sites, there are other important Chinese national monuments such as the Fawang Temple Pagoda near the Songyue Temple Pagoda, and the Tang Stele inside Songyang Academy.
[Visited April 2017]
I spent 3 days exploring all inscribed components during a 4-day Qingming holiday weekend. My visit was possibly a few days before Juha’s and I concur to his impressions on the review below. As he had excellently written about the components he visited, I will focus mine on the others in a lengthy review.
SHAOLIN TEMPLE COMPLEX
Shaolin Temple is the birthplace of Kung Fu. Visiting it was worth the hype and hassle. Yes, it is crowded and considering I went on a public holiday, it was really ”people mountain people sea” type of place. The payoff is not solely on the exceptionality of the built heritage. After all, when you’re templed out, seeing one you’ve seen them all. Rather, it is on the overall experience, especially on the little surprises, that I was rewarded.
Within the Shaolin Temple scenic area are Kung Fu academies offering short or long term courses. If martial art is not your forte, you can just delight on watching the students/kids practice. Morning is best to see them doing exercises - it is not for show but as part of the school schedule. It is an amazing sight viewing them in rows with synchronised movement and dexterity.
As expected Shaolin Temple Kernel Complex is the most crowded. Notable relics are the mural depicting the Shaolin tradition and a bronze monk statue. Deeper into the compound are places of solitude where I was rewarded with a man practicing Kung Fu (in photo). It was exhilarating, I was the only spectator as he gracefully tumbled and danced.
Not far from the temple is the Pagoda Forest, which served as burial grounds for monks over the centuries. The high concentration of pagoda in relatively compact area provides a pleasant stroll with a backdrop of Songshan. Climbing up the mountain and halfway to the peak is the Chuzu Temple. As one of the oldest wooden structure in China, the passage of time is evident on the temple and its compound. There is a somber atmosphere with a smell of old wood and you might hear a creak or two upon stepping in.
HAN QUE GATES
Que gates are free-standing ceremonial gate towers serving as the boundaries of palaces and temple premises. Of the 34 extant Han Que Gates, three are in Dengfeng and provide a symbolic link to the mountain worship of this “center of heaven and earth”: one for Shaoshi peak, one for Taishi peak and one for the Qimu Stone. The center is believed to be Shaoshi and Taishi peaks.
There is not much to see on the gates themselves, as unfortunately, they’re inside a shed which were all closed during my visit. Of notable interest is the area of Qimu Que. Behind the gate is a hiking path to the Qimu - a legendary rock that is cracked open with a baby inside named Qi (Qimu = mother of Qi). This component gives a semblance of “mythic origin”. Nowadays, there is indeed a huge rock cut in half but everyone is free to climb - so most likely a modern version and not the stone of legend or even its basis.
Undoubtedly the best component of the series. ICOMOS evaluation singled out this monument to possess an OUV on its own. It bears testimony to the long Chinese tradition and contribution to astronomy. It’s relation to “centre of heaven and earth” theme is on the notion that precise astronomical observations can only be done at the center. Indeed, the measurements taken here have high precision and not far off from those taken using modern tech.
Of the several instruments within the complex, the most imposing and grand is the Star Observatory itself. This building is a marvel of human ingenuity by giving precise measurements of tropical year without the use of modern gadgets. Made of bricks and stone, it is a 28-foot platform with a 98-foot stone sundial perpendicular to it. The gnomon used for shadow measurements is placed across a groove at the top of the platform. In 1944, Japanese troops bombarded it and destroyed the rooms at the top of the platform (now restored). Two cannonball holes at the eastern wall of the platform serves as a reminder of that event.
As an astronomy buff, I would like to see this site inscribed on its own but most likely it won’t happen. China can however make a serial site of ancient Chinese observatories. This site, the equally important Beijing Ancient Observatory and the much older Taosi observatory included. Certainly, they can make an OUV case for the long Chinese astronomical tradition and important contributions.
I really enjoyed exploring Dengfeng. Each site is well signposted with clear explanation of what they are and how they contribute to the theme. There’s also a plaque at each site showing its location relative to the purported center of heaven and earth. As for transportation, only the Shaolin Temple and Zhongyue Temple are directly connected by tourist buses as of my visit. Going to the other sites involves taking a cab as public transport is challenging without Mandarin knowledge.
Another pleasant surprise for this trip is that my hotel offered a complementary Kung Fu show. Students from one of the Kung Fu schools performed for an hour. I was like a kid, wide-eyed enjoying the performance.
Site visited April 2017. The historic monuments of the city of Dengfeng was a pleasant experience. There were absolutely the smallest amount of visitors among the sites that I have visited in China. The places were calm and quiet and some of them are surrounded by beautiful nature. I visited five of the eight inscribed properties.
First of all I must tell that in this review I'm not going to mention anything about visiting the Shaolin Temple. Actually I had heard nothing but bad things about it being a major tourist trap. So I deliberately left that off from my itinerary. I was curious to see what other things there are in this WHS.
Despite of being named after the city of Dengfeng, this inscription is all about Mount Songshan and the monuments connected to and located around it. Mount Songshan is one of the most sacred Taoist mountains of China. The city of Dengfeng at the foot of Mount Songshan is a spiritual center where the most important temples and religious institutions are located.
I would say sarcastically that it is quite difficult to get to the city of Dengfeng. Not because of bad transport options, actually those are very good, but because everyone assume that you want to go not to Dengfeng but to Shaolin Temple. All the people in Luoyang is trying to push you to Shaolin, even the ticket salesman at the bus station counter. So after some worthless efforts to buy a bus ticket to Dengfeng I just walked directly to bus platforms and asked some people a bus to Dengfeng. Also there someone tried to direct me to a Shaolin bus. After all the hassle I found my way to a Dengfeng bus. The bus trip from Luoyang took almost two hours, half of which goes to traffic jams in Luoyang.
Dengfeng, one of the early capitals of China, is nowadays a sleepy provincial town. From the bus station it is three kilometres to the gate and ticket office of Songyang Scenic Park. You can take a taxi to the gate and after that either walk uphill or pay a small price to the cars that offer rides to visitors. The quite modest ticket price of 80 RMB includes a nice and informative booklet with a map of area and descriptions of each site. Songyang Academy and Zhongyue Temple require additional 30 RMB entrance fee.
It is worth mentioning that the slopes of Mount Songshan are full of interesting temples and other religious places, not just these eight selected World Heritage Sites. It would have been nice to hike also to the higher parts of the mountain but I didn’t have time for that. Mount Songshan is also UNESCO Global Geopark.
The Songye Temple Pagoda was the nicest site among those I visited. It is absolutely beautiful building surrounded by lushly vegetated mountain nature. This pagoda is 37 metres high and it was built AD 523. It is one of the oldest pagodas in China and oldest known Chinese brick pagoda. It is known as "the first Chinese tower". For those who love photography it is really worth climbing to the hill outside of temple because there are beautiful and photogenic views to green slopes of Mount Songshan and the top of pagoda.
Songyang Academy of Classical Learning is nearest site to the park gate and the city centre of Dengfeng. This institution of higher learning was one of the four great academies in ancient China. The prominent feature of Songyang Academy is its steles. The most important stele is so called Tang Tablet which is important in Chinese handwriting history. There are also lot of other steles around the temple courtyard. Inside the temple area are also two 4500 years old cypress trees that are said to be oldest trees in China.
While the other places I visited are easy to visit going downhill starting from Songye Temple, the Huishan Temple is to the other direction towards the Shaolin Temple. It was a long detour and although it is considered one of the four main temples of Mount Songshan I didn't find it very interesting. There were least visitors among the Dengfeng sites. I was maybe one of three visitors at the temple.
The building of Qimu Que Gates was closed at the time of my visit. Basically it includes Han Que gates built in AD 123. There are only 34 ancient stone Han Que gates in China, three of which are at Mount Songshan.
The huge Zhongyue Temple is maybe the centerpiece of this WHS along with the Shaolin Temple. Taishi Que Gates built in AD 118 in front of Zhongyue Temple are one of three ancient Han Que gates of Mount Songshan. Zhongyue Temple has been originally built on the site of Taishi Shrine. Since then the temple was rebuilt many times. During the Qing Dynasty it was restored according to the Forbidden City in Beijing and it is also called the ”Small Forbidden City”. There are 39 buildings on the multiple courtyards and hundreds of ancient cypress trees. The main building of the temple, the Junji Hall, is the largest building of the five sacred mountains of China.
With my review I don't mean to say that don't go to Shaolin Temple at all but to encourage people to check out what other things there are to see on this WHS. I found the historic monuments of Dengfeng worth visiting, especially Songye Temple Pagoda and Zhongyue Temple, and also the Gaocheng Observatory should be of interest. Moreover, those sites are quite peaceful places with few tourists which is very unusual in China. Together with the beautiful slopes of Mount Songshan they form very nice ensemble.
I visited Dengfeng in 2009 and I didn't know it was going to be a WHS at that time. The reason I came here was the famous Shaolin monastery. Besides Chinese tourist groups, there was little tourist infrastructure for the individual tourist (it was hard finding a hotel and restaurant) so I didn't know about the other important places in the area. Visiting the Shaolin temple was impressive though. The complex is large and I especially liked the large wall with frescos (see picture). There's also a large pagoda forest and some other temples. Going up the mountain you will get to the cave where Boddhidarma meditated for nine years and where apparently zen Buddhism started and also Shaolin boxing
Includes the former TWHS Songshan (2001)
"Nominating the Observatory on its own", and other selective issues (as former TWHS Songshan)
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