Hangzhou, like Rome, wasn’t built in a day. But Leifeng Pagoda (雷峰塔) was erected, “within a moment of a finger snap”—so proclaims a Buddhist votive inscription from over 2,000 years ago when the pagoda was first built. Archaeologists found inside it one of the hollowed out sacred Buddhist bricks that originally formed this architectural treasure that towers over the southern banks of West Lake.
These sacred bricks rest in ruins under the foundations of the current Leifeng Pagoda, which was reconstructed and brought back to its former glory in 2002.
To ascend this octagonal tower of ancient lore, one can climb steps or take an escalator—the latter for the convenience of handicapped, elderly, and adults carrying babies. Once up the hill, the mystery of this pagoda starts to unfold.
This was a fortress for sacred Buddhist learning and power. Remaining ramparts of its excavated base attest to its strength as a foreboding specimen of time—as its master King Qian Chu might have willed it.
The last ruler of the coastal kingdom of Wuyue in the tenth century, Qian was a devoted Buddhist. Countless pagodas and temples were built under the court’s patronage in its capital city Qiantang, present day Hangzhou, including the Leifeng Pagoda. One tale of its origin states that King Qian built it to celebrate the birth of his prince by Consort Huang, hence the pagoda’s old name, Huangfei Pagoda (黄妃塔, Consort Huang’s Pagoda). This noble lady’s family name happened to have the same pronunciation as the word “royal”, so people began to call it “The Royal Consort’s Pagoda” (皇妃塔), which was technically still correct. Today, you can find these three words inscribed on a plaque at the exit of the Leifeng Pagoda, reminding visitors of its early history.
Looking at the dusty bricks in the spacious rotunda, one can be reminded of the distant past—and that early travelers here during the Song considered the pagoda too new to be noteworthy, considering the ancient temples and shrines nestled in the surrounding hills. It would take several more centuries before it would enter the permanent imagination of Chinese poets and literati.
The pagoda’s upper floors host bricks inlaid with gold characters, trinket shops, and video presentations of archaeological undertakings.
Above this floor is the entrance to the glass elevator that propels visitors skyward into the modern pagoda. One feels the commanding views King Qian must have marveled at over a millennium ago. Sublime views wait in every direction. To the south is Jingci Temple (净慈寺) abutted by lush hills; to the north is the immense West Lake itself, deep and green. Far in the distance is Baochu Pagoda; on the west are rolling hills of leafy trees; and to the east, the city’s urban core. In the foreground, the lake reveals a tuft of green: the Lesser Yingzhou Islet (小瀛洲). Running languidly north to south, the lake is cut by the Su Causeway (苏堤)—which rolls out like a snake with its famous moon arches. With breathtaking views like this, it is understandable why it holds a place in the Chinese literary imagination.
A bird’s-eye view of Leifeng Pagoda
With the setting sun and when viewed from afar, the pagoda is bathed in a magical orange shimmer. Against the background of the burning sky, the pagoda seems to glow—a light the ancient observers put down to the holiness of the Buddha. The magnificent view gave birth to the term “Leifeng Pagoda in Evening Glow” (雷峰夕照) and is among the Top Ten Scenes of West Lake.
Of course, it would see an altogether less auspicious glow in 1555. Pirates and coastal bandits wreaked havoc and turned it into a towering inferno. Over 3,000 of these rogue characters seized the monastery as their barracks, according to Compendium of Local Histories of Wulin, sending the monks, “scurrying like rats,” as, “all the bamboo was razed,” with the wood eaves and staircase incinerated. It left the building nothing more than an “empty shell”.
However, the fire and its eerie demise may have fueled the pagoda’s association with the myth of the white snake. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, a legend arose that under the pagoda a white snake demon was trapped. But behold, this is not a horror story but a heartbreaking romance that made Leifeng Pagoda a symbol for undying love.
Leifeng Pagoda in Evening Glow
By Mo Fan
The setting sun bathes the ancient pagoda in ever-dimming red.
The shadows of mulberries and elms half-shroud the houses along the western shore.
The reflection of the evening glow lingers on the waves like washed brocade.
This Buddhist kingdom amid a cloud of flowers is no mundane realm.
Ten miles of pleasure boats nearly all beached on the shore,
The lake reverberates with the chants of fishermen and water chestnut gatherers,
a landscape apart.
In a lake shore pavilion, a person waits for the moon to rise.
Red curtains rolled up, the railings await the return of the visitor.
Excerpt taken from Hangzhou At A Glance by TWOC. You can pick up a digital copy on our China Dispatch app. Go get your copy now.