The Hanging Monastery (simply Chinese: 悬空寺) near the town of Hunyuan in northern China is one of the country’s most extraordinary sights. It is 1500 years old and can truly be called an architectural masterpiece of the Middle Ages. This monastery, also called Xuan Kong Si is located against one of the 5 most important mountains in China, Mount Heng. But is it really ‘hanging’?
But what makes this monastery so special? In this article, I’ll take a look at the history of this famous monastery in China and you’ll find out more about the unusual architecture of the construction. And do you intend to visit this temple in the future (after corona)? Then the fear of heights doesn’t exactly help….
*This article is also available in Dutch (Hangende Klooster Hunyuan)
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Brief history of the Hanging Monastery
The history of the Hanging Monastery goes back 1,500 years in time. In the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534), it was Emperor Taiwu who became inspired by Taoism. This is a philosophical and religious movement that originated from the scholar Lao Zi (604-507 BC). But it was Emperor Xiaowen who really pushed it and had the Taoist Chongxu Temple built in Datong. Gradually, this movement spread through Shanxi Province and ended up in the Jinlong Gorge near Hunyuan.
According to legend, it was the Taoist monk Liao Ran who began the construction of the Hanging Monastery in 491. He chose this place because of the calm and peaceful atmosphere inside the gorge. An extremely suitable place for meditation and prayer. He built the temple 50 meters above the ground so that any flooding of the Hunyuan River would not cause any problems. In addition, Ran respected one of the main principles of Taoism that temples should be built as far away from earthly sounds as possible. The intelligent monk Liao Ran was able to get to work….
An architectural masterpiece from the Middle Ages
As the legend goes, Liao Ran built the monastery alone, but he may well have found Taoist associates who collaborated on the project. The monastery does not hang, it is mostly attached to the mountain. For example, 2 to 3 meter deep holes have been drilled (how? no idea!) into which beams have been placed to create a foundation for this “hanging” shrine. The monastery consists of three parts, of which the leftmost part is the entrance gate to the rest of the building.
How did the wooden building survive the 1,500 years? It is not unthinkable that there have been several major reconstructions in the past. But most importantly, Liao Ran took natural phenomena into account. For example, the monastery is under a canopy of the mountain, so it doesn’t get wet when it rains. And everyone knows that wood will rot if it feels wet. In addition, it also cannot be damaged by falling rocks and the monastery is only in the sun for a short period of time. What a genius this monk was!
And what about the wooden pillars that the Hanging Monastery seems to rest on? According to historical sources, these were later attached to make tourists think that this temple is stable. Good for all those tourists, including me, who doubted it…
Temple of the 3 religions: Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism
The Hanging Monastery in Hunyuan began as a Taoist shrine. This has changed over the centuries and it is also dominated by Buddhism and Confucianism. The latter is primarily a philosophical doctrine developed by Confucius (551-479 BC) in China and is still popular in the country. It is likely that everyone was accepted at the Hanging Monastery, regardless of faith to come and take shelter from the rain.
Would you like to read more about Confucianism? Find out in the travel guide to the birthplace of Confucius in Qufu in Shandong province.
The building consists of a total of 40 halls and houses 80 statues made of iron, terracotta, bronze, gold, and stone and are beautifully decorated. The place where the three religions really come together is in the San Jiao hall. For here you will find statues of Buddha (Buddhism), Lao Zi (Taoism), and Confucius (Confucianism) fraternally together. This makes the Hanging Monastery one of the few shrines in the world that is open to multiple religions. And to non-believers, like me….
If you are in the distant future near the coal city of Datong in northern China, be sure to visit the Hanging Monastery near Hunyuan. There is one route that can be walked in the monastery and a limited number of people are allowed in at a time. So you don’t have to worry about someone pushing you off. For someone with a fear of heights, it will be a challenge, as the handrails don’t seem to be too sturdy. But don’t panic, because otherwise the Chinese government really wouldn’t let people climb up this ancient landmark….
How to get to the Hanging Monastery in Hunyuan, China?
The best way to get to Hunyuan and the Hanging Monastery is to arrange a (shared) cab at the hotel or hostel where you are staying. Another option is to take a bus from Datong to Hunyuan city. From Dong Guan bus station east of the city wall in Datong, buses leave for this place every hour. From the bus station in Hunyuan, it is about 4 kilometers to Mount Heng and Xuan Kong Si. In my case, a cab was waiting for me immediately, but it is also possible to walk this stretch along the road (not recommended).
Arrive at the monastery as early as possible. The opening hours are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., as only a total of 80 people are allowed in the building at any one time. And that’s a good thing! Admission to the Hanging Monastery costs 130 yuan per person.
Tip: Do you have time to spare? Then combine the Hanging Monastery with a visit to the nearby Beiyue Hengshan. You take the cable car up the mountain and can hike to some beautifully situated temples. And if you make the climb further up, you’ll have a beautiful view of the surroundings of Mount Heng. This is definitely a must-see!
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Do you have any tips, comments, or ideas about the Hanging Monastery in Hunyuan, China? If so, feel free to leave a comment below.