An enchanting corner of Shanxi

North China’s Shanxi province has plenty of wonderful sites and sights. But three particularly unusual ancient relics and strange bits of architecture have been around for hundreds of years and can be visited within a day. 

These attractions include a cliff temple, hanging coffins and a village built on the face of a cliff in the Luya Mountain Scenic Area of Ningwu county.

The three sites are great choices — compared to the rest of the delights the country has to offer — and are located on a somewhat remote mountain with good access.

They are within an hour’s drive, about 30 kilometers, of downtown Ningwu and 180 km to the northwest of the city of Taiyuan, the provincial capital.

The drive from Taiyuan is itself interesting as it takes you through small towns and villages. The road goes through some undulating countryside cut with steep ravines in the loess soil and endless fields of green planted with corn and other vegetables on plots of varying sizes.

The hanging temple was built with the help of an ingenious plank road no more than 2 meters wide that dates back to the Zhenyuan period (785-805) of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), a prosperous and fervent period for Chinese Buddhism.

The temple was constructed out of wooden poles inserted into bore holes in the practically vertical cliff and then covered with wooden planks, more than 100 meters above the ground.

The road ran for more than 21 km in the olden days, and connected a number of temples and pagodas, the locals told us, but few of those temples and pagodas remain today.

There is, however, a unique one built into a cave on the cliff, during the Tang dynasty, and supported by wooden pilings.

It took members of our group more than 20 minutes to climb the steep steps to the hanging temple, which has two floors.

It gained its name from its location and, interestingly enough, the temple is not only for Buddhists but also for devotees of Confucius, making it somewhat of a rarity. The simple local folks worship different gods in hopes of improving their lives.

There is a similar but more famous temple in Hunyuan county, about 180 km to the north of Ningwu, which was built during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) period. During the popular season it sees many tourists flocking there and making the narrow stairway exceedingly crowded.

This temple in Ningwu, which is less known, provides an opportunity to enjoy the temple view in a much more relaxed way, even if it can be somewhat unnerving for some to be up there on the narrow cliff face.

The temples got their name, xuan kong si, because of a dream the emperor had of having a temple up in the clouds, with the added benefit that it can represent the heavenly, noble thoughts contained in the sutras.

Perhaps an even more unusual sight is the number of hanging coffins at some 200 sites, making them a standout in China in terms of their numbers.

They also rank high as antiquities because of the variety of positions — some are in a cave, but others are hung on the cliff face, supported by wooden poles or secured by lines.

Archaeologists have put forth many possible explanations for these curious coffins, one of which is related to the particular geological location.

Ningwu was a hotly contested site with many battles for hundreds of years, involving government armies, invaders, rebels, or other ethnic groups, and many soldiers lost their lives. To preserve them, their fellow soldiers suspended them up on the cliff.

Also, for strategic reasons, a hanging village was built in the area at the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

It is about 30 km from Ningwu Pass, the last pass before entering the Chinese capital, Beijing, during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911).

When a rebel leader, Li Zicheng, took the Ningwu Pass from the Chongzhen emperor (1628-1644) of the Ming, dethroning him, the emperor sought to save his fourth son by hiding him in a temple in the remote mountain area, while searching for a way and a chance to retake the strategic pass.

The soldiers who were assigned to protect the son and the area, which is about 2,300 meters above sea level, all changed their family names to Wang and the village got the name Wanghua.

Unfortunately, the father committed suicide and the son died only a few years later out of grief, but the village stayed on the remote mountain.

It was a bit hard to find and, even after the founding of the New China, government leaders still considered the remote mountain area a difficult place to locate. So they used it as an arsenal, although that has long been abandoned.

One 69-year-old villager, Wang Runquan, said he is delighted to see more tourists coming to the area in recent years. The local government does not impose taxes on the villagers if they open teahouses or restaurants to serve the visitors.

At the same time, sadly, many of the 160 villagers who previously lived there migrated to cities in search of a better life. They left behind mostly the elderly, amounting to not much more than 20, with the youngest among them aged above 40.

Wang said: “Most of the houses are empty and the land is overgrown with weeds, so it’s really fortunate to see a growing number of tourists.

“They like the village’s history, the mystery of the nearby coffins and the rarely seen hanging temple. It’s a great place for them to stay, here in our simple village.”


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