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Tianning Pagoda - The World's Tallest Wooden Building

by Dave Lambert   - Apr 20, 2015

 

I currently live in Yangzhou (扬州), Jiangsu Province, just north of the Yangtze River, across from Zhenjiang (镇江) and about three and half hours from Shanghai by bus. About one third of the way to Shanghai from here you pass through Changzhou (常州), yet another Chinese city of over 4 million people. While in most countries it would be easy to name all, if any, cities of this size, in China it's not so and most people outside China would not be able to name all the megacities with over 10 million inhabitants, let alone third tier cities like Changzhou. It was just another city to me until I discovered that it is home to the world's tallest wooden building.

 

I am a sucker for the biggest, longest, heaviest, fastest… well, any -est really. When I read about the Tianning Pagoda (Tiānníng Bǎotǎ; 天宁宝塔), I felt compelled to visit.

 

From Shanghai the trip to Changzhou is now quick, easy & comfortable. Changzhou is on the main Beijing - Nanjing - Shanghai High Speed Rail (gāotiě; 高铁) line so, at a top speed of 300 kph (186 mph), with a couple of stops it takes around an hour to get there from Shanghai & during the busiest times at as little as 10 minute intervals! Take the train from the terminus known simply as Shanghai Railway Station (Shànghǎi Huǒchē Zhàn; 上海火车站). Beware, there are several other major stations in Shanghai, including Hongqiao (虹桥), South & West stations. 

 

Changzhou's combined train & coach station is, like those in most larger Chinese cities, more closely resembles an airport terminal in many other countries. As you approach it & the gaotie slows down you can see the golden spire of the pagoda above the surrounding buildings. It appears that city planners have resisted allowing nearby buildings to overshadow the pagoda but recent visits have revealed more clusters of high rise apartments ever closer to the pagoda. As you exit from the south side of the station you can pretty well head south east down Guanhe Donglu (关河东路) & walk about 1.2 km (0.75 mi), then turn right into Zhulin Lu (竹林路), where you'll find the pagoda situated in Hongmei Park (红梅公园).

 

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Area map

 

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Winter morning at Tianning Si

 

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Sunrise at Tianning Si

 

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The approach to Tianning Si

 

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Buddhist temple at Tianning Si

 

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Burning incense at Tianning Si

 

I would have been happy just to say I had visited the tallest wooden building in the world at 153 m (505 ft). My research has not yet revealed any taller but I would be happy to be corrected on this. It's certainly the tallest pagoda; for comparison it's around 10 m (33 ft) taller than the Great Pyramid. However approaching the pagoda as you walk through the beautifully tended Hongmei Park, what is revealed as you finally look across the small lake is not only a very imposing but also an incredibly beautiful building. Having been a draftsman in a previous life I can imagine the complex geometry required to achieve those levels, gradually reducing in size, with roofs curving in two directions on an eight sided building, 

 

There's a small kiosk near the main gate into the Tianning Temple (Tiānníng Sì; 天宁寺) complex. The cost is ¥80, if you want to explore the inside of the pagoda.

 

The temple has been around since the Tang Dynasty, which began more than 1,350 years ago, and has undergone construction, destruction & rebuilding several times. The pagoda itself is very recent, started in 2002 and inaugurated in April 2007, in a ceremony which included more than 100 Buddhist monks from around the world representing the international fund raising effort to find the ¥300 million required to build it.

 

Set on an enormous white plinth, surrounded by some formidable statues, the entrance to the main door is already up several flights of steps. Being China I am expecting a 150 m climb to the top on foot. After admiring the brass bas-reliefs, enormous buddhist deities & hundreds of small statues stacked in tiny glass cases in the first level I am surprised to find a lift (elevator). It's possible to stop on the way up & explore the cornucopia of treasures stored in the pagoda. Some floors are however between stops so, if you want to see everything, and I suggest you do, you may need to take the narrow stairs to access some of the galleries.

 

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Inside the pagoda at Tianning Si

 

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Bas-relief at Tianning Si

 

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And you thought hands were hard to DRAW

 

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Carved character study at Tianning Si

 

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Detail of a carved wooden panel at Tianning Si

 

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Detail of a carved wooden panel at Tianning Si

 

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Detail of a carved wooden panel at Tianning Si

 

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Detail of a carved wooden panel at Tianning Si

 

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Detail of a carved wooden panel at Tianning Si

 

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Hundreds of small gold Buddhas at Tianning Si

 

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Life size figures at a gallery at Tianning Si

 

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Belfry at Tianning Si

 

The galleries are segregated by various media, paintings, wood carved panels, statues, jade, etc. While China has sadly gained a reputation for cheap, shoddy consumer goods the workmanship on display here is another story entirely. A reminder of the craftspeople who took pride in their work in the medieval cathedrals of Europe, the standard of most of the work in the Tianning Pagoda is absolutely incredible. Each time I visit I have the same sense of awe looking at the carved wooden panels in one particular gallery. Around 3 m (10 ft) wide and 2 m (6.5 ft high), they are crammed with detail, some figures little bigger than a finger but with postures and facial expressions that speak volumes, carved textures so intricate & detailed it is difficult to imagine in some cases how they were executed.

 

Wood carving in fact seems to be a speciality of Chinese craftspeople, the larger carvings of life size figures embody a style & a sense of humour rarely seen in what is basically religious work. The look of satisfaction on the face of the Buddhist monk cleaning his ear with a stick is as striking as it is unexpected.

 

On my first visit, thinking I had seen everything, I was about to return to ground level when a helpful cleaning lady showed me the way past the “Staff only” sign to a higher level with balconies from which you can get panoramic views of Changzhou if you're lucky enough to get a clear day. I then found yet another level, the belfry, with what is claimed to be the largest hanging bell in the world. At 3.2 m (10.5 ft) high and 15 tonnes it's certainly big. For ¥300 you can even ring it, using the horizontal striker suspended on ropes, peculiar to Buddhist temples. They'll even let you ring it more than once. Be careful, it's very loud when you are standing next to it. 

 

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The bell at Tianning Si

 

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Tianning Si casting a long shadow

 

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View of the temple from the top of Tianning Si

 

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Looking down on 35 storey apartment blocks from the pagoda

 

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A view of Changzhou from Tianning Si

 

In the evening the lights in the pagoda are turned on. If it's a calm night and you go to the far side of the lake you will be rewarded with a perfect reflection of the tower in the water. It's one of those sights that only China can offer. I, for one, have never grown tired of visiting one of China's best kept secrets.

 

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Tianning Si by day and by night

 

 

 

About Writer

Dave_Lambert.JPGDave Lambert is currently teaching English while living in the ancient and venerable city of Yangzhou, Jiangsu, where the Grand Canal meets the Yangtze River and where Marco Polo once reputedly held a government post. He is also a musician, writer, photographer and traveler. Born and raised in England's East Anglia, he has lived in Botswana, Australia and now China. In the last 5 years he has visited numerous places in this enormous and varied country, but still feels he has just scratched the surface. He now divides his time between the activities mentioned and studying for a languages degree, with a major in Chinese.

 
 

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