Monday, 25 June 2018

Nanjing Must See. Da Bao'en Temple & Porcelain Tower of Nanjing 報恩寺.琉璃塔

One of the most memorable highlights from my visit to Nanjing in Jiangsu, China was Da Bao'en Temple 報恩寺 and the legendary Porcelain Pagoda of Nanjing 琉璃塔. Well, not really - these are 2015 reincarnations of the originals which were sadly destroyed in 1856 during the Taiping Revolution.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

I feel the story behind Da Bao'en Temple is rather sad and tragic. The original Da Bao'en Temple 報恩寺 and the Porcelain Pagoda of Nanjing 琉璃塔 were built during the reign of Ming Dynasty Yongle Emperor Zhu Di (1402–1424) to honour his mother, hence he named it the Temple of Great Gratitude. (Emperor Zhu Di didn't live to see the temple and pagoda completed as he died in battle against the Mongols in 1424.) 

When Zhu Di ascended the throne after defeating his nephew, there were accusations that Zhu Di was an usurper and was not of pure royal blood. To quash the accusations, Zhu Di ordered the construction of Temple of Great Gratitude to honour Empress Ma.

When the Temple was completed, the grand sanctuary was dedicated to Empress Ma. However, one of the chambers in the temple was kept sealed and no one was ever allowed inside. It remained sealed for centuries until the Ming Dynasty fell to the Qing Dynasty in 1644. When Qing forces broke open the sealed chamber, they found a sanctuary honouring Concubine Gong.

Concubine Gong (not Empress Ma) was Zhu Di's natural mother. Zhu Di was Concubine Gong's first born. When Concubine Gong was pregnant with Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang's second child, she had a pre-mature delivery. In Medieval China, pre-mature delivery was considered a sign of adultery and Concubine Gong was (unjustly) executed at the orders of the Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (Zhu Di's father), allegedly at Empress Ma's instigation.

Zhu Di had built the Temple of Great Gratitude (Da Bao'en Temple and Porcelain Tower of Nanjing) to honour his mother, Concubine Gong.

Da Bao'en Temple and Porcelain Tower of Nanjing built on a huge site covering 40 football fields, took 100,000 artisans 17 years to build. The centrepiece of the Temple was the Porcelain Pagoda - Emperor Zhu Di wanted it to be 天下第一塔 "First Tower under Heaven". 

The beautiful 257ft high octagonal structure had 9 storeys and was fully clad with colourful glazed porcelain. One hundred and fifty two (152) chime bells hung from the eaves. It was the tallest building in China of the time. For centuries, sailors passing the Yangtze River at Nanjing would be in awe with the amazingly beautiful towering sight. The Porcelain Pagoda glowed as if it was enveloped in aura as sunlight reflected off its colourful glazed surfaces. People near the Pagoda would also hear the happy chimes of the bells as they played with the wind. At night, the pagoda was lighted by 146 oil lamps - the pagoda looked like a dragon ascending the heavens. 

The Porcelain Pagoda was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Medieval World - it was one of the architectural marvels that represented ancient China to the world. There was even a reference to the Pagoda in Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Garden of Paradise (published 1839). East Wind who flew home from China told his mother, The Wind: “I came back from China, where I danced for a while around the Tower of Porcelain and rang all the bells.”

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Unfortunately, the original Temple and Porcelain Pagoda were totally destroyed in 1856 during the Taiping Revolution when rebels occupied Nanjing. The rebels demolished the Porcelain Pagoda because they didn't want their enemies to have commanding views of the Yangtze River and Nanjing from the pagoda.

For a century after that, the only existing images of the original Porcelain Pagoda were sketches drawn in 1655 by Johan Nieuhof from the Dutch East-India Company. (Johan Nieuhof mistakenly drew the Porcelain Pagoda with 10 storeys instead of 9.)

The Grand Pagoda at London's Kew Garden built in 1762 was also inspired by Nanjing's Porcelain Pagoda. Kew Garden's Grand Pagoda also had 10 storeys. It was unclear if Sir William Chambers, the architect of the Grand Pagoda was referring to Johan Nieuhof's Porcelain Pagoda sketch. Today, the Kew Garden and Nanjing pagodas are officially twin "sister" pagodas.

Soon after the temple and pagoda in Nanjing were destroyed, the Qing Dynasty collapsed, followed by decades of chaos. Locals built a shanty town and farms over the temple ruins. The grandeur and significance of Da Bao'en Temple and Porcelain Tower of Nanjing were buried underneath hundreds of homes and forgotten for one hundred years.

Fortunately in 1958, farmers working the fields accidentally uncovered pieces of ancient porcelain. These were dutifully handed over to archaeologists who confirmed that they were Ming Dynasty era relics.

Archaeologists soon realised that the farmers had accidentally rediscovered the great Da Bao'en Temple and Porcelain Tower of Nanjing. The Ming era artisans building the Porcelain Pagoda had made two pieces of each porcelain piece. One piece was mounted on the Porcelain Pagoda and the duplicate pieces were stored in warehouses as replacements (spare parts) in case of future repairs. The farmers had stumbled upon some of the spare parts.

Serious excavation of the site started only in 2007. In 2010 Wang Jianlin, owner of Wanda Group 万达集团, donated ¥1 billion (US$156 million) to the city of Nanjing to rebuild Da Bao'en Temple and Porcelain Pagoda at the site of the temple ruins.

Reconstruction was completed in 2015 and the new Da Bao'en Temple, now called Porcelain Tower Heritage Park was opened to the public. What we can visit today are the museum, Buddhist cultural centre and new tower built in 2015.

The Porcelain Pagoda was replaced by a steel and glass tower. It was impossible to rebuild the Porcelain Pagoda in its old glory as the art of making porcelain bricks of the same quality was long lost through the centuries.

The original porcelain spare parts are now kept at the Nanjing Museum and selected replicas are displayed at present day Da Bao'en Temple and Porcelain Tower of Nanjing.

The is a replica of the only surviving entrance arch of the Porcelain Pagoda reconstructed from the unearthed spare parts. There were 72 such entrance arches in the original Porcelain Pagoda.

Da Bao'en Temple was the centre of Buddhism during Ming Dynasty China. Today, some Buddhist relics unearthed at the site are on display at Da Bao'en Temple. Visitors can also view contemporary Buddhist art at Da Bao'en Temple museum.

阿育王塔 Asoka Tower relic recovered from excavation conducted at the base of the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing.

👉 If you are in Nanjing, I highly recommend a trip to the historic Da Bao'en Temple and Porcelain Tower of Nanjing 報恩寺.琉璃塔. The temple is steeped in history, there are lots of moving stories that touch you, relics that awe you and modern Buddhist art that fascinate and mesmerise you. You miss out a lot, if you leave Nanjing without visiting Porcelain Tower Heritage Park.

Date visited: 12 May 2018


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