In 960 CE, Emperor Taizu (太祖) of Song unified China and established the Northern Song dynasty. This dynasty is known for its elegant living, artistic achievements, and high intellectual pursuits. Between 965 and 995, the famous architect and structural engineer Yu Hao (喻皓) designed and built a magnificent wooden pagoda (塔) as a part of the Youguo Temple (佑國寺) in the capital city of Kaifeng (開封).
The Youguo Temple was a Buddhist monastery complex that included 280 halls and 24 monasteries. The emperors of the Song Dynasty often visited this temple and the imperial civil service exams were also held at the temple. This meant that applicants from throughout China came to the Youguo Temple to take civil service exams. The Song rulers staffed the central government with professional bureaucrats who obtained their positions through competitive exams.
The Chinese pagoda evolved from the Indian stupa which was a tomb-like structure which held relics sacred to Buddhism. As Buddhism spread into China, the stupa fused with the traditional Chinese tower to form the classic shape of the pagoda. In his book Architecture, Jonathan Glancey writes:
“The multiple stories of Chinese pagodas were designed to impress and delight. Their hollow structures, giving access to balconies under swooping roofs, initially rose over underground chambers for Buddhist relics.”Like the stupa, the pagoda was originally intended to house sacred relics and writings.
The original pagoda at Yougou was an octagonal wooden tower of thirteen stories. The contemporaries of Yu Hao considered it to be an architectural and artistic marvel. In 1044, however, the pagoda was struck by lightning and burned to the ground.
In 1049, under the orders of Emperor Renzong (趙禎), the pagoda was rebuilt on the site of the earlier wooden pagoda. The new pagoda was built as a solid-core brick tower with an inner spiral stone staircase. It has an octagonal base. Like the earlier wooden pagoda, the new pagoda also had thirteen stories. It rises to a height of nearly 57 meters (about 187 feet).
The color of the bricks resemble iron and so the pagoda become known as the Iron Pagoda (鐵塔).When viewed from afar the pagoda has iron-gray color even though its bricks were glazed red, brown, blue, and green. Today it is considered a masterpiece of Song Dynasty architecture.
There are 50 different varieties of glazed brick on the pagoda’s exterior. The exterior also has 1,600 detailed and intricate carvings which include images of both a standing and a sitting Buddha, singers, flying dancers, standing monks, heavenly kings, celestial guards, flowers, lions, and legendary beasts such as dragons and unicorns. Under the eaves are 104 bells--when the wind blows, the bells ring.
The earlier wooden pagoda is remembered in the architectural features: the doors, windows, pillars, brackets, bracket supports, pent roofs and balconies are modeled after wooden ones. They are made from standard brick components.
Inside the Iron Pagoda are frescos depicting classical Chinese stories, such as the Journey to the West (a Chinese novel written in the sixteenth century about the Buddhist monk Xuanzang).
The Yougou Temple was destroyed in 1847 when the Yellow River flooded. However, the Iron Pagoda survived. Overall, the pagoda has survived through 38 earthquakes and six other floods.