Baoguo Temple: Ningbo’s Architectural Wonder

Our first stop on our trip to Ningbo was Baoguo Temple, which was located fourteen kilometres from the centre of town on Lingshan Mountain. Despite being one of the first cultural relics in the country to be preserved at national level, Baoguo Temple was still little known to most tourists. Yet we had placed it atop our Ningbo wish-list and took a taxi straight out there from the Ningbo Inter-City Bus Terminal. Unlike in neighbouring Hangzhou, taxis were plentiful in Ningbo and easy to flag down. Having shown the driver the characters for Baoguo Temple, we climbed into the taxi and set off towards the ancient structure.

The trip to the temple took around a quarter of an hour and ended up costing 60 yuan. It took us mostly through the suburbs of Ningbo and we only found ourself in rural surroundings in the immediate vicinity of the temple itself. Small mountains- or perhaps just tall, wooded hills- rose up before us, offering a respite from the concrete-coated city. As the taxi driver pulled over outside the temple, a family of three (in China most families are families of three) spotted the taxi and started waving at it. For the first time, the face of the driver brightened up; we guessed he had expected to be heading back to the city without a passenger.

We walked over to the ticket-booth for the site, which was housed in an attractive timber building fronted by the obligatory pair of stone lions. Traditional Chinese music was playing in the background, which created a relaxing, almost spiritual atmosphere, but the music notwithstanding, there were few other tourists about. We weren’t surprised by the lack of Western travellers- you don’t have to venture far off the well-travelled path to lose them in China- but important cultural sites are usually thronged with domestic tourists. Our research had led us to believe that Baoguo Temple was not a major tourist attraction, and that impression was confirmed upon our arrival; there were only a few families present at the entire site during our stay.

We paid 20 yuan to get into the temple, and immediately started our ascent to the former temple and monastery. We followed the stone path headed up the hillside, with the sound of cicadas humming in the threes. It was the middle of July, the height of Summer, and despite the overcast weather, the insects were out in force. Apart from cicadas, the other thing we noticed were redberries- a type of mulberry-like species were which were present in abundance on the hillsides. Parts of the path had even been stained dark red by the abundance of berries that had been squelched on them in the past.

At the top of the first flight of stairs was a small Chinese pavilion, whose tips were turned up at the corners. Though it was in the traditional style, it did not appear to be of any great age; nonetheless, it afforded good views across the lowlands below. A canal ran along the bottom of the hills, with clusters of houses gathered here and there along its length. Cameron suggested that although the Zhejiang landscape was still far from ‘natural’, it was much less of an indsutrial landscape than that of Jiansgu to the north. This seemed a fair assessment: in parts Zhejiang retained a rural appearance, despite the obvious population pressure. From the pavilion, the path zigzagged up to the Baogao Temple itself, which was set at the top of the rise and surrounded by thick, moss-green woodland.

Out front of the temple is a large courtyard with stone pavers and an ancient pool. However, the most important of the antiquities here are a pair of stone pagodas, dating from the Tang Dynasty in the second half of the ninth century. The West Pagoda, the better preserved of the pair, dates from 856 and the East Pagoda, whose top has been damaged, dates from 853. These pair of stone pillars feature some original Budhdist iconography and attest to the fact that there was already a Buddhist community here twelve centuries ago. These pagodas would have marked the site of important Budhdist relics.

Behind these pagodas are a series of buildings, which includes the most ancient timber structure in all Eastern China- the Main Hall of Baoguo Temple. Arranged along the central axis are the Heavenly King Hall, the Main Hall, the Hall of the Goddess of Mercy and the Sutra Attic, with the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower and other strutcures around the edges. These buildings form an impressive ensemble, but it is the Main Hall which has generated most of the interest. Dating from 1013, this millennia-old structure is the oldest surviving timber building south of the Yangtze. Even more importantly, it is a masterpiece of ancient design.

The main hall of Baoguo Temple, an architectural marvel

The main hall of Baoguo Temple, an architectural marvel

While many of the sights of China suffer from over-restoration, this hall has an authentic flavour; its weathered timber boards announce that here conservation has been more of a focus than “prettification”. The timber and stone temple has a patina of age which greatly adds to the dignity of the monument. It is very welcome that not only haven’t they painted and lacquered the old boards, but the interior isn’t artificially lit either; its air of perpetual gloom enhances the “old world” atmosphere.

We entered the temple and had a look about. The roof is raised on timber pillars and at the centre of the sacred space is a brick platform on which the central Buddha image would have been enshrined. It has long since vanished, but the architecture itself remains, and the roof in particular is a marvel that is worth close inspection. The brackets and beams interlock in an highly elaborate fashion, enabling the timber frame to support a 50 ton roof without the use of a single nail! This ingenious design was to prove widely influential in temple construction throughout China, Japan and Korea.

The innovative design of Baoguo Temple

The innovative design of Baoguo Temple

Aside from its design genius, the temple also has remarkable “pest-free” properties. Caretakers noted that the temple was never home to birds, insects, spiders or even dust, which sparked a flurry of theories until finally the mystery was solved. It turns out that the timber, variously referred to as yellow cypress or Chinese juniper, gives off a pungent aroma which acts as a natural pest-repellant. Furthermore, the way air circulates within the structure means that dust does cannot settle; the circulation also helps to ensure that birds and insects don’t remain inside. This is certainly one of those structures that convinces people of the wisdom of the ancients.

From the temple, we descended via a different path. Along the way we passed a stream which was running out of the mouth of a cave. This being China, a dragon legend has sprung up around the cave, and a dragon statue has been built here for local tourists. Its claws grip the edge of a pool and the water trickles out through its mouth; meanwhile, its giant tail is said to be hidden inside the cave. Upon reaching the bottom we walked out to the street, saying how much we had enjoyed the trip. There is a bus station just opposite the entrance, and waited for there for the bus back to town. The 332 bus ran back into Ningbo in about 30 minutes for a mere 2 yuan. Travellers not wanting to spend a lot of money on taxis should avail themselves of this option.