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The Hanging Monastery

The Hanging Monastery
The Hanging Monastery

I thought you might be interested in something we visited yesterday: the hanging monastery outside of Datong. It is breathtakingly beautiful, yet also, in a way, sad.

The monastery was built about 1400 years ago up on the side of a cliff, and contains several temples of various sorts with statues of buddhas and other gods in them. It’s not any bigger than you see in the photo: the monks did not carve caves into the cliffs, but built walls onto the cliffs to support their structures.

 As you can see from the photos, the workmanship is beautiful. Most surfaces are painted and the detail of the ceilings and roofs are exquisite. Walkways are narrow and precarious and built of stone or wood.

roof detail at the hanging monastery

roof detail at the hanging monastery

hanging monastery support beams

hanging monastery support beams

images in the hanging monastery

images in the hanging monastery

hanging monastery detail

hanging monastery detail


Apparently they built on the side of the cliff because there was a river below that flooded at times and washed earlier monasteries away. I presume there was also that monastic inclination to solitude involved as well.

Both of these points — the river below and the monastic lifestyle — are gone now, which is why I see this as sad as well as beautiful.

the dam being built upriver from the monastery

the dam being built upriver from the monastery

A dam is being built just up the canyon above the monastery. At the moment absolutely no water is moving through the valley, though it looked a bit muddy so presumably some water is allowed through at times.

As for the monastic lifestyle: there are no monks there. There are, however, swarms of tourists and their noise. They drive down the access road honking their car horns (people honk A LOT here). Their tour guides carry portable loudspeakers so that everyone in the place hears everything they say. And if there are two tours near each other, one doesn’t wait for the other to finish; they just both talk louder.

The narrow walkways are not designed for the number of people using them; I hope someone is keeping an eye on their condition! There are signs telling people to follow one direction through the monastery, which makes sense, given how narrow the stairways and balconies are, yet many tourists ignore the signs and go where they want.

It’s sad to think that for so many centuries the monks could use this place for prayer and contemplation and peace, and that its intended purpose is no longer possible. Nevertheless, it is beautiful, even swarming with tourists, and this way more of us can enjoy it. I don’t know which is better.

One comment on “The Hanging Monastery

  1. Susan
    August 29, 2010

    Thank you for sharing this–the photos are great, the recounted history and observations worth reading.

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This entry was posted on August 6, 2010 by in China, Travel and tagged , , , .
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