Yi County is a little-known place in Liaoning Province, China. In its northeast corner stands a Buddhist temple, called Fengguo Temple, which is virtually unknown to ordinary people. Within the circle of religious architecture, however, its fame probably surpasses that of any other temple in China, because it is a royal temple built during the Liao Dynasty and the only Liao temple remaining in China.
Fengguo Temple is more than a temple. It embodies many accomplishments in architecture, sculpture, painting, and archaeology. Liang Sicheng, the most authoritative architectural historian of China, called it a national treasure and a treasure among treasures.
Empress Dowager’s Legend
In the period of the Song Dynasty(960-1279), Buddhism was in relative decay in China’s Central Plain, while in the Northern kingdom of Liao, it became its national religion. This had much to do with its Empress Dowager, Xiao, who was a devout Buddhist and was also believed to be the reincarnated Heavenly Queen Mother.
Her son, Emperor Shengzong (Yelü Longxu), claimed himself to be the reincarnated Sakyamuni. After Empress Dowager Xiao passed away, Emperor Shengzong built the temple in the 9th year of his reign (1020), in Yi County, the hometown of the Empress Dowager. He wanted to commemorate his mother and also to promote Buddhism. Today, the temple is claimed to be the bodhimandala (or dojo) of Sakyamuni.
Fengguo Temple was named Xianxi Temple, or the “Temple of Enlightenment for All,” in the Liao Dynasty, and later became Fengguo Temple during the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). The temple also gained its folk names the “Temple of Grand Buddha” and later the “Temple of Seven Buddhas” for its seven grand Buddha statues in the temple’s Mahavira Hall. After generations of rebuilding and renovating, the present-day Fengguo Temple has been restored to the glory and the completeness of when it was first built.
According to historical records, the heyday of the temple was from the Liao and Jin to the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The architecture at the time was magnificent . The temple’s decay began from the end of the Yuan Dynasty due to constant warfare.
By the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), only Mahavira Hall remained standing. The six-cornered Bell Pavilion, the four-cornered Stele Pavilion, the Amitabha Hall, the Memorial Arch, the Small Hill Gate, and the West Court Auspice Hall were all constructed in the Qing Dynasty.
Located precisely north of the north-south axis of the temple, Mahavira Hall, being the temple’s only building surviving from the Liao Dynasty, towers aloft on an open platform. The hall bears the structure of five ridges, a single eave, and a hipped roof. It measures more than 1800 square meters and it is China’s largest wooden-structured building dating back to the Liao Dynasty.
The entire hall was sustained by wooden structures of beams, pillars, girders, and bucket arches without the use of a single metal nail. The method of “pillarless inner space” was employed to the interior and exterior elements of the temple’s seven central compartments. The corner posts lean inwards to strengthen the pillars’ tensile strength. The bracket arches underneath the eave were made of thick and bulky materials, taking on a rough and concise appearance as well as one of grandeur.
By following the principles of mechanics, the supporting beams have remained straight, without any warping, for over a thousand years. Fengguo Temple is a splendid example of traditional Chinese wooden architecture at its finest.
Most Buddhist temples contain one, three, or five Buddha statues in their main halls. The Mahavira Hall in Fengguo Temple uniquely displays seven “Past Buddhas” for offering and worship.
On the high altar, seven Buddha statues were arranged from east to west: Kassapo, Kakusandho, Sikhin, Vipassi, Vessabhū, Konāgamano, and Sakyamuni. The statue of Vipassi in the middle is the tallest, measuring 8.6 meters in height including it’s pedestal.
Other statues on both sides are of gradually decreasing heights. The statue of Sakyamuni faces slightly west, as if facing his hometown. Each Buddha statue is dignified and solemn, tall and kind, lofty and auspicious, and awe-inspiring.
Each Buddha statue is flanked by two bodhisattvas (more than 2.5 meters in height), sculptured vividly and beautifully. There are 14 of them in total. At the east and west ends of the altar, stand two statues of mighty and brave guardian kings. Behind the statue of Vipassi, sits a male statue of Bodhisattva Skanda, facing away. It is an eye-catching wooden statue re-sculptured in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
On the beams and arches are paintings from the Liao Dynasty, rarely seen in China. These paintings include subjects such as Feitian figures, lotus flowers, sea pomegranate and phoenixes, displayed in vivid colors and animated forms.
In Buddhism, Feitian figures are flying heavenly beauties. The Feitian figures in Fengguo Temple were painted in great detail and depth with rich colors. Each Feitian has a mellow and joyful face, wears colorful clothing, and is showing beautiful gestures.
The Feitian figures in Fengguo Temple all have halos around their heads, wearing crowns or double hair buns. Their faces are full and kind, their eyebrows curved and their lips red. They wear ribbon-like keyuras, bracelets, and heavenly dress. Their faces are mostly those of a male or a boy. The male faces have tadpole-like beards, and the boy faces have double hair buns. Their bodies are in-between that of a male and a female, which is classic representation in traditional Buddhism.
Amongst all the remaining Feitian figures, only the 30th is a female. They have much of the Tang Dynasty’s style. They fly and dance right above the seven Buddhas, some hold bouquets, some hold fruit plates, and some cast flowers over the clouds for offering, echoing with the seven Buddhas directly beneath. Their animation is in contrast to the Buddhas’ serenity, which makes a solemn picture of worship.
All three sidewalls in the hall display murals. Five Buddhas are painted on the eastern and western walls and eight Bodhisattvas on the northern wall, all works of the Yuan Dynasty.
The main wall used to have a painting of eighteen Arhats, but this was taken down during repairs in 1984 and is now preserved in the back of the hall. The painting dates back to the Ming Dynasty.
In the past thousands of years, all the well-known ancient temples in China have been devastated by the destruction of their original buildings—except for Fengguo Temple, which worships the seven original Buddhas. It miraculously repelled five disastrous events in history: the war of Jin conquering Liao, the war of Yuan conquering Jin, the big earthquake during the Yuan Dynasty, but the fourth and the fifth were the most traumatic.
The fourth disaster was the battle in the Yi County that was part of the Liao-Shen military campaign of the Chinese Civil War. On Oct. 1, 1948, a bomb shell penetrated the roof of Mahavira Hall and landed exactly into the conjoined hands of Sakyamuni’s statue. The bomb did not explode. It only slightly damaged the right hand of the statue (which has since been repaired). Furthermore, two bombs landed in the temple and did not explode, either.
The fifth disaster was the Cultural Revolution. In 1966, the Red Guards set about destroying temples and Buddha statues all around the country, as part of the “Destroying the Four Olds” movement. There were more than ten visits to Fengguo Temple by Red Guards from all over the nation, who claimed that they would destroy this “old world” including the Buddha statues.
Mr. Liu Qian, a historical relic expert of Fengguo temple, showed the Red Guards a sign issued by the State Council in 1961, which marked the temple a protected key cultural relic, and he explained to them the temple’s significance as a national treasure. As a result, not only did no other Red Guards touch the temple, but the Red Guards from the Qinghua University went so far as to write a banner saying “Revolutionary rebels should protect cultural relics” at Fengguo Temple.
The rebel groups coming to the temple later, all left upon seeing the banner. The buildings and Buddha statues were preserved as a result. This was truly a miracle for the time of the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps it was the beauty of the sacred Buddhist temple itself that made the deranged minds of the Red Guards come to their senses.
Over the past thousand years, there have been many stories about the magical, divine power of the seven Buddhas of the Past in the Fengguo Temple. Enduring destruction from heaven and men for the past one thousand years, the seven Buddhas remain to this day along with the Mahavira Hall, retaining their wisdom of uniting heaven with mankind.
The two tablets on both sides of the gate to the hall proclaim, “What illuminates Heaven and Earth is the Wheel of the Law; and what nurtures the mountains and the rivers is the compassion of the Buddhas.” This place is undoubtedly worth a trip, even more so if one can truly enlighten to the deeper meaning.