Photo of the Dayan Pagoda, also known as the “Big Wild Goose Pagoda,” located in the southeastern sector of present-day Xi’an city, Shaanxi province. This pagoda was built as a repository for the Buddhist scripture brought to China from India in the seventh century by the famous monk Xuanzang. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

One of the oldest extant Chinese pagodas, the Dayan (Big Wild Goose) Pagoda in the temple complex of Da Ci’en monastery in Xi’an city, has been a repository of Buddhist relics and an historic example of Tang architecture and art since it was built in 652 CE.

The Dayan (Big Wild Goose) Pagoda is located in the southeastern sector of present-day Xi’an city, Shaanxi Province. Completed in 652 CE in Chang’an, the capital city of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), the pagoda became part of the Da Ci’en monastery (Temple of Great Maternal Grace). Da Ci’en temple had been established earlier by the Tang crown prince, who later became Emperor Gaozong (628–683 CE), in memory of his deceased mother. The temple also served as the home monastery for the monk Xuanzang (c. 602–664 CE) after his return to Chang’an in 645 CE from the Indic regions of Asia. The Dayan Pagoda was used to store the Sanskrit texts and Buddhist relics Xuanzang transported from that journey, and it was the place where he carried on the project of translating Buddhist sutras. (Xuanzhang’s travels to India were the basis for the adventures of the monk and his monkey guide in the Ming-era’s Journey to the West, to this day one of China’s most popular novels.)

This multi-tiered building (64.839 meters in height) is a result of a series of restorations and renovations over the original five-story, brick-layered earthen structure, which collapsed soon after its completion. The damaged structure was refurbished (from 701 to 704 CE) to become a seven-story building, presumably reaching its current height. It came to be known as the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, a name borrowed from a stupa in Central Asia, a huge, dome-shaped Buddhist shrine where Buddha was said to be present in the form of a flying goose (hamsa in Sanskrit).

The Dayan Pagoda was the sole surviving structure within the Da Ci’en complex when the temple was reduced to ruins during the incessant military conflicts in the Chang’an region toward the end of the Tang dynasty, but its basic features were preserved with a brick veneer over its old outer walls made during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). The enduring pagoda subsequently suffered minor damages due to severe earthquakes (in particular those of 1556 and 2008), and recent threats from a growing number of subterranean termites also have become a concern for preservation.

The clean-lined, massive structure is built in Chinese louge style (a combination of multi-story structure and pavilion)—and can be simply described as a tower made from a tapering stack of graduated squat “blocks” sitting on top of a square platform (4.2 meters in height and 48 meters long on each side). The roofs protruding from all four sides of each story have tiled eaves and corbelled cornices characteristic of Tang masonry structures; the outer walls of the tower are embellished with brick works featuring arched doors, simulated timber designs of flat pilasters, simple brackets, and inter-columnar struts, all of which recall the usual attributes of carpentry works on timber-framed buildings most prevalent in ancient Chinese architectural tradition. Inside are steps that provide access to the top of the pagoda and to the wooden landings on each of the square tiers; a central vertical void symbolizes the Heavenly Pillar, an imagined passageway to the celestial world.

The stone carvings on the Big Wild Goose Pagoda represent some rare examples of the talents of Tang artists. Inscriptions on stone tablets at the base of the building are said to have represented works of famous calligrapher Zhu Suiliang (596–658 CE), and Tang-style Buddhist imageries are carved on the lintels on the first floor. The fine linear designs on top of the western door, depicting the seated Buddha and his entourage in a wooden hall, have remained legible enough to shed important light on representational art of Tang era. These carvings are regarded as major sources of reference to Tang and pre-Tang architectural styles that can hardly be visualized today, as well as for studying the evolution of ancient Chinese architectural styles in general.

The Dayan Pagoda has remained a symbol of the history and literature of Buddhism in China for twelve centuries and is one of the oldest and most enduring members of the Chinese pagoda tradition.

Further Reading

Bao, Yuheng, Tian, Qing & Lane, L. (2004). Buddhist art and architecture of China. Lewiston, Queenstown, Lampeter, U.K.: Edwin Mellen Press.

Fisher, R. E. (1993). Buddhist art and architecture. London and New York: Thames and Hudson.

Fu, Xinian, Guo, Daiheng, Liu, Xujie, Pan, Guxi, Qiao, Yun & Sun, Dazhang. (2002). Chinese architecture. New Heaven and London: Yale University Press and New World Press.

Liu, Laurence. (1989). Chinese architecture. New York: Rizzoli.

Shaman Hwui Li. (1911). Life of Hiuen-Tsiang. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

Sickman, L., & Soper, A. (1971). The art and architecture of China. Baltimore: Penguin Books.

Wu, Nelson. (1963). Chinese and Indian architecture. New York: George Braziller.

Zhang, Yuhuan. (2006). Zhongguo fuotashi [History of Chinese Buddhist Pagodas]. Beijing: Science Press.

Source: Chiou-Peng, TzeHuey. (2009). Dayan Pagoda. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 582–583. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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