The Holy Hill of Qixiashan

In June 2014, during China’s annual Dragon Boat Festival, Cameron and I headed to Nanjing with our American friend, Karen. Qixiashan, often known in English sources as Qixia Mountain, was the first place we visited. We had originally planned to go there on the second day, but upon arriving in Nanjing by train, we realized the bus stop for Qixiashan was right alongside the railway station. Rather than heading back out to Nanjing Railway Station the following day, we decided to go to the mountain right away. We were helped by a young woman from Shandong, who was in the area for the Dragon Boat Festival weekend. She was heading most of the way out to Qixia herself and offered to show us where the bus left from.

The cost of the bus was a mere 3 yuan, even though it was twenty-two kilometres out to the mountain. Having rarely caught local buses in China, I was surprised by the low cost;  this was how the ordinary people traveled. The trip out to Qixia took us through the outer suburbs of Nanjing, which imperceptibly morphed into a series of roadside villages. We never really got from civilization, as nondescript, concrete houses and shops lined the road all the way. Arriving in Qixia District, locally known for its autumn foliage, I was dismayed to see refineries and factories pouring out effluent. While Nanjing is certainly known for its smog, I hadn’t expected it to be even worse out in the hills.

Just short of Qixiashan, our Shandongese helper stood up and handed us a note she had written in English. She advised that if we needed help in finding somewhere in China, it was always best to ask young people, as they had studied English in school for years; Older people might not know any English. Worst of all, she warned, was asking a taxi or pedicab driver for help: they would probably just take advantage of foreigners and drive them round and round in circles!

A few minutes later we were dropped by the side of the road. Nothing about the place looked very inviting. There were some drab concrete buildings along the main road and a filthy canal just ahead. Not seeing any young people about, we asked a middle-aged man and he gestured that we had to head straight and then make a right turn. Following his instructions, we walked about five minutes through a strip of shops and arrived at the entrance to Qixia Temple, which was located at the foot of Qixia Hill.

From this point things rapidly started to improve. The complex was fronted by pine, maple and gingko trees, giving the place a cool, peaceful feel. We found the ticket booth, paid the 25 yuan entrance price (which included three sticks of sandalwood incense each) and headed towards the main temple. There were a few Chinese pilgrims making their way towards the temple, but by Chinese standards this was a very quiet place. Cameron commented that he had rarely been to any tourist sight in China with so few people about. We passed a bell-tower, a large, semi-circular pond, and then we arrived at the first of the temple courtyards.

The temple itself is still an active Buddhist monastery and there we spotted a few monks and nuns. However, most of the visitors were devotees. There were burning incense sticks in the courtyard of the first hall, The Hall of Heavenly Kings. Long metal vessels were filled with soft ash and a low flame ran through the most recent incense sticks, rapidly consuming them too. We lit our incense sticks and stood them upright in the ash, where they stood with their tips slowly burning. From there, we proceeded to the first wooden hall, which was fronted by a pair of bronze elephants. It had mustard-yellow walls, a black-tiled roof and arched doorways.

Beyond was a second courtyard with a balustraded terrace of white stone and a pair of gingko trees. Here we find the main Buddha Hall, the Vairocana Hall, which is the object of much veneration from local pilgrims. This large hall has fine wood-carving and a dramatically slanting black roof, which turns up at the corners. Inside there are embroidered cloths which hang down from the rafters and towering wooden statues depicting key figures from Chinese mythology. Yet colorful as all this is, these halls are of fairly recent construction, dating only from the late Qing Dynasty. To really get a sense of the immense age of Qixia Temple, you need to look out back of the monastery.

Here we found an 18-metre high stone pagoda, which definitely has a look of great age. The octagonal stone structure, known as the Sheli Pagoda or the Sharira Pagoda, dates back to the short-lived Sui Dynasty and was first constructed in 601. This makes it one of the oldest stone pagodas in all China. Sheli Pagoda retains some crisp carving on its sides, showing eight different Buddha images, one on each aside. The trunk of the pagoda has rows of projecting stone eaves, some of which are damaged, but this rather adds to the sense of antiquity of the structure. Even in its damaged state, it is an elegantly proportioned structure, a slender spire in five tiers.

Yet old as the Sheli Pagoda is, it is not the oldest surviving monument at the site. That honour goes to the so-called Thousand Buddha Cliff, a series of rock-hewn niches and “caves” which honeycomb Qixia Hill, a natural landform situated directly behind the pagoda. There are not actually a thousand niches here- that is a bit of ancient Chinese hyperbole- but there are a sizable number of Buddhas notwithstanding. Three-hundred and fifty is a more accurate number. The caves and niches exist in three main levels, but most of the larger and more impressive ones are on the lowest level at the base of the hill. Even the largest of the niches are rarely more than a couple of metres deep.


Sandstone niches at Qixiashan

We all agreed that the most impressive of all the caves is Number 19, which has a large stone facade in the form of a ceremonial gateway. The oldest of the rock-cut temples, dating back to around the year 500, it was conceived by Ming Shengshao, a scholar-recluse who had “once had a dream of the shining image of Tathagata at the cliff.” After his death around fifteen hundred years ago, the Southern Qi crown prince decided to create the first cave temple in Southern China there. His workers carved out a cave deep enough to house a 7.8 metre tall Amitayas Buddha sitting on a 2.1 metre tall throne. Though badly damaged today, this monumental figure flanked by two Boddhisattvas is still an impressive sight. It is by far the earliest example of Buddhist cave art in Jiangsu.

The following Liang kingdom saw royal patronage of Qixia continue. Fresh caves and niches were dug until the sandstone cliffs of the hill were covered in niches, reliefs and statues. Though nowhere near as impressive as the magnificent grottoes of Yungang in Shanxi, these caves often a glimpse of the earliest stages of Buddhist monastic and religious life in Jiangsu. The niche-carving continued as late as the Southern Tang Dynasty, just before the end of the first millenium, when the last of the niches were dug and the Sheli Pagoda was restored for the final time.

We clambered up to the top of the hill along the narrow stone staircases, spotting niches and carvings here and there. Most of them were in a poor state of disrepair. Karen found it rather depressing that so many of the heads were smashed. Cameron and I discussed why this may have been the case. We suggested that these ravages could have occurred during the Cultural Revolution, but we had no proof that they were damaged by idol-busters of a much earlier age. Notwithstanding the extensive damage, we agreed that the site is a valuable reminder of the early history of the Nanjing era, and a rare glimpse of the Six Dynasties period in Southern China. And quite apart from the history, we also appreciated the solitude. Particularly on the upper slopes, there is almost no one else around. It isn’t often you find yourself alone in China, but it is still possible at Qixia Hill.