The Beacon of Ningbo

Easily the best known and most celebrated pagoda in Ningbo is the centrally located Tianfeng Pagoda. Known both for its elegant design and its great age, this pagoda has become a symbol of Old Ningbo, and it is definitely one of the monuments you must see while in town. We visited the pagoda during the summer of 2010 on our first visit to the city and even climbed to the top of the pagoda; the staircase was very narrow and steep and I felt a little claustrophobic in parts. At the time of writing, the pagoda is once again closed for repairs, but you can still see it from outside.

The history of this tower is in some sense emblematic of the history of Ningbo. Like the city itself, the pagoda was first established during the Tang Dynasty. In the case of Tianfeng Pagoda, its widely accepted founding date is 695. Though it is now dwarfed by the many skyscrapers of this booming mercantile city, at 51 metres tall this seven-storey pagoda must once have seemed like a Tang Dynasty skyscraper itself; for many centuries it was the tallest structure in the city. The original tower did not survive but a replacement was constructed during the Southern Sung Dynasty, probably being completed in the year 1144. Though it has been restored and reconstructed several times since, the current tower still incorporates many Sung Dynasty elements and remains a fine example of a brick and timber Sung Dynasty pagoda.

Many of the travel sites about China just cut and paste the same information from other sites without doing any independent research. As a result, you will sometimes find the same erroneous facts being reproduced twenty times. Such is the case with the claim that this pagoda was “reconstructed in 1989”. It is common for the words renovated, rebuilt and reconstructed to get confused on Chinese websites in English, creating some very misleading results. With the case of Tianfeng Pagoda, this temple was thoroughly diassembled and rebuilt from 1984 to 1989, because wide fissures had opened in the brickwork, but it is wrong to say this temple was constructed in 1989. Unlike the city walls of Datong, for example, this is not a modern imitation of an ancient structure. Hundreds of seals and other relics from the Tang and Sung dynasties were found in the body of this pagoda during the 1980s renovations. If it was merely a modern structure these seals would certainly not have been found in the brickwork. The truth of the matter is that there was a major fire at the pagoda in 1798, which destroyed the timber superstructure of the tower. For over a century, the tower was without its seven stories’ worth of projecting wooden eaves; all that remained was the brick shaft. But these eaves have now been replaced. Attractively turned up at each of the six corner points, with a bell hanging down from each, these eaves make the structure seem light and airy.

The importance of this pagoda in history is attested to by the large quantity of valuable relics which have been left here by devotees. These include gold and silver coins, silver ingots, various examples of fine bronze work and, most famously, a 50 cm high model of a palace, which is in parts coated in gold. This particular artefact is so rare that it has been declared a national cultural treasure. Clearly, for many centuries Tiangfeng Pagoda was an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists. In recent years, more has started to be made of this pagoda’s links with the Maritime Silk Road as well. It turns out that in centuries past large lanterns were attached to this pagoda (then the tallest building in the city), which helped it to serve as a beacon tower (lighthouse) for ships on the nearby Yong River. By virtue of this connection, Tianfeng Pagoda is being promoted as a reminder of the maritime history of this port city. It follows that it will remain one of the city’s best-loved monuments in the decades to come.


The 51-metre tall Tianfeng Pagoda