Ten Centuries of Timber Framing

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Datong is a bustling coal-mining center in northern Shansi. In the town are two famous temples:

Shanhuasi and Huayensi. The main buildings on these temple grounds are huge edifices with

remarkable bracket sets staying wide eaves. The temple halls rise above all the houses around them.

You glimpse them from miles away and they seem like giant dinosaurs caught in a time-warp.

People are eating Colonel Wang’s California Chicken as they ride taxis and watch television. Their

lives have accelerated beyond the time of temples. Some people go to temples to worship, but most

visitors are ticket-buying tourists.

ed. Li Yuming, A Panorama of Ancient Chinese Architecture in Shanxi,  Taiyuen, 1986, Shanxi People’s Publishers.

From Shansi we head west to Hebei province. Dulesi, located between Beijing and Tianjing, dates

from 984. The two-story Guanyinge temple is barely large enough to house one of the largest

freestanding statues in China, over 50 ft. tall—the goddess Guanyin. Her eyes peer out of the second

floor balcony door. The ceiling is recessed to make adequate headroom for her head and headdress. It

is common for statues and door guardians to be much taller than doorway height. Their heads almost graze the rafters, and their imposing size makes us mere humans feel puny and mortal. The main temple has survived 34 major earthquakes. We see beams and eaves sag because the temple builders pushed the timbers near their limits. Hence the wood posts which now prop up the roof corners.

From A Pictorial History of Chinese Architecture, Liang Ssu-ch’eng, 1991 reprint, Taipei

Richard S. Wiborg