Religions (Sep 2021)

Generating Sacred Space beyond Architecture: Stacked Stone Pagodas in Sixth-Century Northern China

  • Jinchao Zhao

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 12, no. 9
p. 730


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A large number of stone blocks, stacked up in diminishing size to form pagodas, was discovered in northern China, primarily eastern Gansu and southeastern Shanxi. Their stylistic traits and inscriptions indicate the popularity of the practice of making stacked pagodas in the Northern dynasties (circa the fifth and sixth centuries CE). They display a variety of Buddhist imagery on surface, which is in contrast with the simplification of the structural elements. This contrast raises questions about how stone pagodas of the time were understood and how they related to contemporaneous pagoda buildings. This essay examines these stacked pagodas against the broader historical and artistic milieu, especially the practice of dedicating Buddhist stone implements, explores the way the stacked pagodas were made, displayed, and venerated, and discusses their religious significance generated beyond their structural resemblance to real buildings.