Secrets of the Fallen Pagoda

Turtle-shaped container, China, by 874, partly gilded silver, 13 x 15 x 28.3 cm, probably used to store tea powder. From the rear chamber of the Famen Temple crypt. Famen Temple Museum

A HEAVY THUNDERSTORM in 1981 led to the dramatic collapse of the Famen Temple, a 13-storey pagoda in Shaanxi province, China, built in 1609. However, it was not until 1987 when further exploratory excavation began did the pagoda reveal its treasures – it resulted in the discovery of forgotten treasure dating from the Tang dynasty. Hidden away underground for over 1,000 years, some of these precious objects from the underground crypt are now on show, for the first time in Southeast Asia, at Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum. They attest to an era of great economic prosperity, international trade, and exchanges between the cultures of Eastand West.

The capital of Tang China (618-907), Chang’an (present day Xian), was a hub for economic and cultural exchange. As a capital of the Silk Road, it was a crucial location for the development of trade. About 120 km to the west of Xian lies Famen Temple, considered one of the most revered Buddhist sites in China. The temple possibly has it origins in the Northern Zhou dynasty and it seems that during the Northern Wei dynasty, the building was already of reasonable size. It was around 618 that it was first named Famen Temple and by 660 there was a four-storey pagoda on the site. It reached the height of its fame during the Tang dynasty when a cult grew up to worship a finger bone relic of the Buddha. No less than seven Tang emperors, including Empress Wu Zetian (r 684-705), were associated with the monastery.

The catalogue from the US touring exhibition The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology (Yale, University Press, 2000), devotes several pages to Famen monastery, explaining the focus of worship in early Buddhist monasteries and that every pagoda would have had its ‘foundation deposit’ sealed within a stone casket, or placed in a small secret chamber in the foundations, where it usually lay undisturbed until it became necessary to rebuild the pagoda after its destruction by human or natural causes. Normally, the contents would be recovered and incorporated in a new deposit beneath the restored, or rebuilt, pagoda. This particular reliquary deposit at Famen seems to have been specially constructed to allow repeated access from the outside and it is known that the relics were recovered and sent to Chang’an on numerous occasions during the Tang dynasty, where they were displayed in the imperial palace Buddhist monastery and eventually returned to the Famen crypt under the pagoda.

An inventory stele, written in 874 by the monk Juezhi of the Xingshan Monastery, gives precise details (most of which correspond to specific items contained in the deposit) regarding the 122 gold and silver objects presented in 873 and 874 by the two emperors Yizong and Xizong. Over the centuries, the temple was rebuilt, destroyed and expanded throughout the Song, Ming and Qing dynasties. It was taken into public use in the Republic period. Finally, the pagoda was reconstructed and the underground reliquary vaults were opened to the public as a museum in 1988.

About the Singapore exhibition, Dr Alan Chong, Director of the Asian Civilisations Museum explains: ‘The Tang dynasty was a period when China was actively engaged with the wider world. Trade along the Silk Route and maritime shipping with Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean not only brought exotic new goods, but also people and ideas to China. The treasures from Shaanxi province on display in this exhibition show the creativity in China, and also its responses to other cultures – from rare ceramics and finely crafted gold and silver, to impressive glass vessels’. Most objects from the Famen Temple were made later in the Tang dynasty (9th century), so the curators have also selected objects dating to the earlier period (7th and 8th century) from other Shaanxi institutions to complement the display. The exhibition aims to reflect a golden age in Chinese imperial history and the high levels of artistry that was achieved in the art of that era and provide invaluable evidence regarding the art at the Tang court at the period, including metalworking and textile techniques of the late Tang dynasty, the tributary system, and diverse aspect of Buddhism (especially Esoteric Buddhism, which was then dominant in China).

The exhibition is divided into five sections: Tang Tombs and the Afterlife, Buddhism, The Famen Temple and Crypt, Foreigners in China, and finally Women in Tang China. The Buddhist sculptures and ceremonial wares, gold and silver courtly vessels of exquisite craftsmanship, glassware from Central Asia, as well as the ceramic tomb figures all reveal the artistry of Chinese culture at this time and provide a rare glimpse into the social, political, and spiritual life of the Tang dynasty.

To explore the connection with these Buddhist relics further, Eugene Wang, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor of Asian Art, at Harvard University gave a lecture exploring this fascination of the late Tang dynasty, exploring the cult in Tang China in the early 870s, which developed around the worship of the Buddha’s finger bone, known as the ‘True Body’ relic. Upon the death of the emperor, the hysteria faded. However, considerable research has been done into why this cult arose and whether it was a pure coincidence that these body-inspired events followed one after another? These magnificent reliquaries donated by the emperor, uncovered from the Famen Temple crypt in 1987, provide tantalising clues, with the Esoteric Buddhist visual idioms providing the clues. Professor Wang also explained that the Famen Temple reliquaries were related to the mandala, a diagram of the mind and cosmos and a chart of the progress toward enlightenment. These mandala designs embedded in the Famen Temple reliquaries tells us how the mandala worked in Tang China, and how it could serve specific circumstances and agendas.

The 120 objects in the exhibition, include treasures uncovered in the hidden crypt below the fallen pagoda, as well as objects excavated from temples, palaces, and tombs, provides a great insight into Tang society and help the visitor explore the distant world of 9th-century China.

Until 4 May at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Empress Place, Singapore,
A talk by Tansen Sen, Associate Professor of Asian History, Baruch College, The City University of New York on The Famen Temple and the World of Tang Buddhism is scheduled for 18 April, 7-8pm at the museum.