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Treasures Faraway From Home> Archive
UPDATED: July 24, 2009 NO. 30 JULY 30, 2009
High and Mighty
Sacred Wutai Mountain gets World Heritage Site status


HOLY LAND: The long history of Buddhist culture of Wutai Mountain draws thousands of Buddhist pilgrims and tourists annually 

China now has 38 World Heritage Sites, after the holy Wutai Mountain was added to the prestigious list as a world cultural heritage at the 33rd session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

Located in Xinzhou, north China's Shanxi Province, 240 km from the provincial capital of Taiyuan, Wutai Mountain is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China and the third world heritage site in the province.

Experts of the World Heritage Committee agreed that Wutai Mountain, added as a cultural landscape, meets four criteria for world heritage status. They also said the preservation and protection of the heritage site is in good condition.

"The World Heritage Committee defines cultural landscapes as a work of nature and mankind, and Wutai Mountain meets this standard," said Ren Zaigang, a member of the work team in charge of the application of Wutai Mountain for world heritage status during an interview with Shanxi TV Station on July 10.

According to him, the site has well-preserved Buddhist architecture and treasures including statues, sculptures, frescoes, Buddhist scripts and music, a priceless legacy to humanity.

The value of Wutai Mountain listed in the application to the World Heritage Committee includes the Buddhist architecture built from the fourth century to 19th century, a period covering the Northern Wei, the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, and unique scenery of the sacred Buddhist mountain. These Buddhist buildings reflect the outstanding achievements and characteristics of architectural art and technology in different periods and the long-standing cultural traditions of Buddhism, as well as the harmony between man and nature, Ren said.

Buddhist haven

The Chinese see Wutai Mountain as "a Buddhist holy land." According to the Shanxi Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs, there are around 2,000 Buddhist monks living on the mountain.

The mountain has 53 Buddhist temples, most of which are well attended by pilgrims and tourists daily. Of these temples, the Wanfo Temple, or Ten Thousand Buddha Temple, is the most popular. It is said that the wishes people make in this temple will materialize. According to Abbot Changqing, who became a Buddhist at the age of 7, the temple accepts more than 3,000 visitors every day.

"For a long time, the temples built on Wutai Mountain have been an important venue for religious rites," the abbot told the Beijing-based Economic Information Daily, adding that only a few temples that need to be more strictly protected do not serve as venues for religious ceremonies today.

"Wutai Mountain is a site for both Tibetan Lamaism and Chinese Buddhism, which shows the perfect mergence of cultures. The good natural environment of the site is a benefit to Buddhist study," said Zhangyang Molan, Deputy Director of the Buddhist Association of Wutai Mountain.

The Buddhist architecture on the mountain is the direct reflection of the profound Buddhist culture in the area. Cui Zhengsen, a researcher at the Shanxi Academy of Social Sciences, told Xinhua News Agency that the religious buildings on the mountain are both a comprehensive textbook on ancient architecture and a museum of it, having high value in historical, artistic and cultural research.

The most famed building is the East Hall of the Foguang Temple, or Temple of Buddha's Light, built along the slope of the mountain and embraced by green hills on three sides. It is the largest wooden building of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) surviving today with life-size clay sculptures. Another important building is the Shuxiang Temple, or Temple of Manjusri Bodhisattva's Statue, built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It features 500 large-scale arhat statues presenting Buddhist stories. The buildings on the site show the way that Buddhist architecture developed, which has influenced the palace architecture of China for more than 1,000 years.

Apart from the wooden architecture, Cui said that Wutai Mountain is also famous for its pagodas built with various materials, such as bricks, stone, wood, iron, colored glaze, copper, silver and crystal. Big pagodas normally are around 60 meters high and the smallest one is only 0.05 meter in height. According to him, the mountain boasts 150 pagodas built in different dynasties and is seen as an exhibition for China's Buddhist pagoda architectural art.

The most famous pagoda is the Big White Pagoda, which is also the symbol of Wutai Mountain. With a base circumference of 83.3 meters and a height of 75.3 meters, the pagoda is the highest Nepalese style pagoda built in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) found today. The sound of the wind chimes tied on the pagoda transports people into the sacred world.

Wutai Mountain got the name for its five terrace-like peaks with different shapes in the north, south, east, west and the center. The average height above sea level of these five peaks is around 2,000 meters, with the north peak being the highest at 3,061 meters.

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