Royal ancestral hall boasts a wide array of architectural gems

Tan Weiyun
As the most famed temple complex in Shanxi Province, Jinci Temple is an intensive carrier of ancient Chinese architectural art that spans almost every dynasty.
Tan Weiyun
Royal ancestral hall boasts a wide array of architectural gems
Ti Gong

Jinci Temple is the most famed temple complex in Shanxi Province and China’s earliest surviving royal ancestral hall.

As the most famed temple complex in Shanxi Province, and China’s earliest surviving royal ancestral hall, Jinci Temple is an intensive carrier of ancient Chinese architectural art that spans almost every dynasty.

It was first built in Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC) to commemorate the founder of the Jin Kingdom (today’s Shanxi Province, still called “Jin” in written Chinese for short) Tang Shuyu and his mother Yi Jiang.

After hundreds of years’ expansion and renovation, the temple has a diverse collection of 110 sculptures, 300 carving stones, 37 art castings and 98 buildings over 300 years old.

The main Shengmu Hall (Sacred Mother), built in AD 984, is a representative work of Song Dynasty (960–1279) architecture.

Among the 43 colored clay sculptures is the Sacred Mother Yi, wearing a phoenix crown, who sits in the center on a wooden square seat. In a solemn manner, she looks quiet and dignified, with one hand on her chest and the other on her leg.

On each side stands her maids, dressed in different robes and accessories, which offers up valuable information to historians on Song Dynasty fashion design and its clothes culture.

Xiandian (Sacrifice) Hall was the main venue to hold memorial rituals and functioned as a buffering area for people to collate their garments before entering the Shengmu Hall.

The bridge “Yuzhao Fei Liang,” or “Flying Bridge Across Fish Pond,” links the Shengmu Hall and the Xiandian Hall.

The cross-shaped bridge, supported by 34 stone posts on the square Yuzhao Pond, is one of a kind in ancient Chinese bridges. No other similar bridge has been discovered.

Seen from above, its northern slope and southern section look like two giant wings, which earned the nickname “flying bridge.”

Built at the junction of Xuanweng Mountain and Jinshui River, the temple is regarded as an early example of feng shui, a Chinese geomantic concept that had taken form thousands of years ago to harness the relationship between human and natural environment.

Jinshui River has three sources: Shanli, Yuzhao and Nanlao springs, which are all located near the temple.

Nanlao (Ageless) Spring is the main water, where Jinshui River runs out. Nicknamed as the “eye of the South Sea,” the spring water comes from the broken rock strata, which flows all year round.

The ancient Chinese built a small pavilion by the spring, decorated with many inscriptions of famed poets and calligraphers such as Li Bai (AD 701-62), who described the spring water “as green as jade.”

It’s been a golden rule in ancient Chinese architecture for a temple to “lean against a mountain and be surrounded by a river” because feng shui theory maintains that a mountain is the shield from wind and rain, while water helps qi, or healthy energy, to flow and circulate in space.

The Jinci Temple complex took full advantage of the mountain and water to get itself fully integrated into nature. Yet on the other hand it strictly followed the traditional architectural principle of balance and symmetry, as well as keeping to a feudal ethical code and the patriarchal clan system.

The whole complex was expanded and extended with the Shengmu Hall at its core. With the main axis running from south to north, architecture was symmetrically built to balance the east-west space. This rule has been widely practiced in almost all ancient Chinese architecture, from a private residence to a government building and a grand royal compound.

However it’s not 100-percent balanced and symmetrical, because of the landform and topographic features.

Seen from above, Jinci Temple complex’s northern part looks in good order with the Tang Shuyu Hall and the Guan Yu Temple, but the southern part is scattered with some single constructions, which seems rather uneven. Ancient architects cleverly added an octagonal lotus pond and a riverside kiosk to adjust the position and echo with the opposite.

Not only a memorial place to remember ancestors, Jinci Temple is also a perfect combo of Taoism and Buddhism, which is a spiritual home for pious religious followers.

Sarira Shengsheng Pavilion is a Buddhist shrine with a towering silhouette, which breaks the dullness of the routine layout and enriches the skyline of the Jinci Temple complex. It’s been a landmark and people can climb to the top to have a bird’s-eye view of the whole area. 

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