The Hanging Monastery is an interesting combination of history, religious tolerance and engineering.
The monastery was conceived over 1500 years ago, in 491 AD during the Northern Wei dynasty. Supposedly, one man named Liao Ran (了然) built the first iteration of the building, a pretty tall order indeed. As with most historical buildings in China, the Monastery went through a series of renovations and maintenance during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
One of the more interesting aspects of the temple is that it is home to not one, but three different religions: Buddhism, Taoism and Confuianism. Throughout the complex, you can find some 78 religious sculptures. Sanjiao Hall houses the most impressive sculptures, including a trifecta of statues from all three religions.
Why three religions?
There are a couple of conflicting stories on why all three religions are represented at the monastery. My taxi driver, who was formerly a history teacher, told me that foreign invaders once conquered the northern area of China and in order to bring about unity among the people, their leader ordered the temple be converted into a religious conclave for all three religions. Another story goes that due to its remote location, travelers often used the monastery as a stopover on their journeys elsewhere. Back in the day, people were weary of staying at a place home to a different religion. Thus it was a practical matter and not one of unity at all.
Whatever the case, in this day and age, rampant with prejudices, it’s a prime example of how things ought to be.
How did they do that?
The real draw to the temple is in its structural engineering. Reportedly, the pillars that hold up the monastery (which includes 40 halls and pavilions) are only there to calm the nerves of visitors to the temple (a.k.a. they are only for show). The real supports are found within the mountain-side itself. Builders drilled holes into the mountain and then inserted crossbeams. The halls and pavilions were then built on top of the crossbeams. During my visit, nobody could fully explain to me why they did this. After a bit of research, it seems that the construction offers a couple of benefits. Being off the ground provides protection from flooding. Another benefit is that building the monastery up high allowed for a more peaceful setting for religious contemplation. The sounds of roosters and livestock would be but a whisper 50 meters above the ground.
My take and Practical Tips for the Hanging Monastery:
The Hanging Monastery (located 80 km from Datong in the Shanxi province) should be seen in conjunction with Mount Heng – one of the five sacred mountains of China. Many people overlook Hengshan and opt for only the Hanging Temple, but for me, the mountain was just as impressive, in fact maybe even more so. The cost for the Hanging Temple is 130 Yuan, where as the price of Hengshan is only 55. You can spend 4 or 5 hours wondering around Hengshan, while the Hanging Monastery is over within an hour. You definitely get more bang for your buck hiking the mountain.
Most people make a trip here from Datong. You can take a bus from the main train station for around 30 Yuan each way. Alternately, you can hire a taxi that will drive you to both attractions for 300 Yuan. Not a bad deal if you can split it with a couple of other travelers. The monastery is open from 8 am to 7 pm in the summer, but closes earlier in winter (don’t get there later than 5 pm).
Pictures from my visit: