Foguang Temple

Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as part of the Mount Wutai ensemble in 2009, Foguang Temple is one of the finest examples of Tang Dynasty architecture remaining today.

Where We Work

Built during the Tang Dynasty (7th-10th centuries AD), Foguang Temple is a tribute to the peak of Chinese Buddhist art and architecture. Its main structure, the Grand East Hall is the second oldest and one of the most important remaining wooden architectural jewels of ancient Chinese civilization.


The location of the temple was forgotten for centuries and was rediscovered by the great architectural historian Liang Sicheng in 1937, based on a wall painting from Mogao Grotto, depicting the location of the temple in Wutai Mountain.

Wutai Mountain is honored as one of five sacred Buddhist mountains in China, and the epitome of Buddhist spirituality. Wutai Mountain’s Buddhist history and culture is not only one of the brightest pearls of traditional Chinese culture but represents the earliest achievements of Sino-Indian cultural exchange. The temple has not had repair or conservation work since the 17th century, and suffers from extensive structural damage caused by falling rocks from landslides and leaking roofs; therefore wooden beams and pillars are threatening irreparable structural damage.

Foguang Temple is built on multiple levels up a hillside valley, following the slope of the mountain embraced by green hills on three sides. Listed as a major site of historic value under state protection, the temple covers an area of 34,000 square meters. It was constructed during the reign of Emperor Xiaowen (471-499) of the Northern Wei Dynasty after he purportedly witnessed Buddhist halos, or bright lights, in the sky; hence its name Foguang (Buddhist Halo) Temple.

Foguang Temple was founded between 471-499 AD under the reign of Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty, and was widely known throughout the world. In 845 AD, all the buildings of the temple were destroyed in Tangzuwong’s campaign to eliminate Buddhism. In 857, the temple’s East Hall was renovated and then enlarged with a more sophisticated architectural design. It is generally regarded as one of the architectural gems of ancient China, and a primary model for Tang Period architecture across China and the rest of Asia, including the more famous Todaiji Temple in Nara.  Foguang Temple is considered to be the ‘Fountainhead’ of classical Chinese architecture.


Shanxi Province possesses some of China’s last remaining examples of original early architecture. Many of these treasures have survived due to their previously remote location that spared the region during the major wars, and its dry climate that prevents wood rot and termites, the primary threats to wooden architecture.  Historically, major temples in China have undergone major conservation every 50-100 years. Foguang Temple has not seen major conservation work since the 17th century and today, is in danger of its roof collapsing due to deteriorating beams, supports, pillars and overall structural integrity. Because of the lack of regular repair works, a number of threats are endangering the very survival of Foguang Temple including:

  • Rapid deterioration of roofing structures, beams, supports and pillars
  • Decomposing sculptures and interior reliefs, mosaics and ornamentation
  • Weathering of all exposed wooden structures due to lack of treatment, threatening
    structural integrity
  • Damage from falling rocks from the surrounding mountainside and earthquakes

Additionally, Nanchan Temple recently lost the head of its 1,500-year old Buddha residing in the Dafo Hall, despite being surrounded by steel bars, to looters who cut through the cage and sawed off the head of one of China’s most important treasures for a private collector.

What We Do

The wood-built temple has been threatened by a lack of maintenance over the last few centuries, and its integrity and stability has been severely compromised as a result.  GHF is providing funding and expertise for the investigation, planning, and scientific conservation of this 1,200-year old temple in the environs of sacred Wutai Mountain by working with Shanxi Province’s Cultural Relics Bureau on the investigation and planning for Foguang Temple’s conservation requirements.


The Foguang Temple project was completed under a collaborative agreement with Shanxi Institute of Ancient Architecture Conservation and Research (SIAACR). After five years of collaboration, the Master Conservation Plan for all the cultural resources in and around the temple compound has been completed and approved by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH). The restoration plan for Grand East Hall is in its final refinement and pending national (SACH) approval is expected in 2010. Architecture and site surveys, structural analysis, conservation plan and site conservation were completed with aid by GHF’s co-funding.

A team of specialists in historic temple architectural design and mapping was assembled.  The team completed world-class computer models of the Main Temple to be used in scientific conservation.

Conservation Science

Until GHF’s initiative, Foguang Temple had not been repaired or conserved since the 17th century. The temple had suffered from extensive structural damages caused by a landslide, water damages from leaking roofing, pests, and foundation settlement, all of which threatened to permanently damage Foguang Temple, the last of China’s oldest wooden architectural wonders. The Foguang Temple project was completed under a collaborative agreement with local Shanxi government ministries.

Foguang’s Dongda Palace is the largest and oldest ancient wooden–structure architecture existing in the world. Unlike its sister Nanchan Temple nearby, which was poorly restored in the 1970s, Foguang’s Dongda Palace has never been conserved in modern times, offering a unique opportunity to employ the latest and most authentic ancient conservation techniques and methodologies. Emergency supports for the northeast and northwest corners of the Grand East Hall (Dongda Dian) are now in place, and flood protection now works on both sides of the temple. The Conservation Plan for the eight historic tomb pagodas in the surrounding vicinity, the most famous of which is Monk Zhiyuan’s Tomb Pagoda, has been completed and submitted for review.  Restoration of the Master’s Tomb Pagoda, adjacent to the Grand East Hall, has been completed.  In 2007, SIAARC submitted the conservation plan for the Grand East Hall to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) and invited six national experts to review the plan in-situ. Their final approvals are still pending, but the Shanxi Provincial authorities have confirmed that the restoration costs of the Grand East Hall will be funded by the national government once the conservation plan receives final approvals.

In 2009, a workshop was also conducted by GHF Director of Conservation John Hurd and China Program Manager Kuanghan Li on the subject of conservation to Shanxi Institute of Ancient Architecture Conservation and Research (SIAACR) staff.

Community Development

Throughout the Foguang Temple active project years (2005-2009), GHF has witnessed the dedication and determination demonstrated by the local partners and the challenges they faced while trying to protect one of the most significant examples of classical Chinese architecture.  GHF is working with local and provincial authorities to develop community-based regional and site tourism plans and promotion, new roads and infrastructure, and to establish permanent Site Trusts to fund site maintenance and enhanced security.

GHF established a Technical Advisory Council of experts from Tsinghua University, Shanghai TongJi University, Shanxi Institute for Historical Preservation and Beijing Cultural Relics Bureau to review all architectural and conservation planning and science and to monitor progress in scientific conservation.

A Mission was organized which visited the USA on a study trip to learn about the conservation and management of American heritage sites.  Lectures and training on conservation concepts and techniques were provided by GHF’s John Hurd, Director of Conservation and Kuanghan Li to SIAARC staff in Taiyuan. An archive was established where movable cultural heritage and documents relating to Foguang Temple that are scattered in different places can be collected and exhibited.

Additionally, GHF has participated in and supported the environmental improvements of the main roadways, ground paving, landscaping, drainage and flood prevention, power and security systems, fire access route, flush system toilet, etc.


  • Shanxi Cultural Relics Bureau
  • Shanxi Institute of Architectural Preservation
  • Tsinghua University

Why It's Important

The temple has not been repaired or conserved since the 17th century, and extensive structural damage from falling rocks and rotting roofing, beams and pillars is threatening irreparable damage.



  • Legal and Scientific Site Master Plan completed and approved
  • Grand East Hall Conservation Plan completed and submitted
  • Post-project site maintenance plan prepared and submitted
  • Foguang Temple Complex was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2009 as part of the Mount Wutai ensemble


  • The monks’ housing has been repaired
  • Architectural conservation has been performed on the Entrance Gate, Garden Gate and Xiangfeng Huayu Building
  • Restoration of the Master’s Tomb Pagoda has been completed
  • Flood protection has been implemented around the Grand East Hall
  • Completed cleaning of over 400 polychrome clay sculptures inside the Grand East Hall


  • Lectures and training on conservation concepts and techniques by John Hurd, GHF Director of Conservation, and Kuanghan Li, China Heritage Program Manager, to Shanxi Institute of Ancient Architectural Conservation (SIAARC) staff in Taiyuan
  • Mission from SIAARC visited USA on a study trip to learn about the conservation and management of American heritage sites


  • Conservation funding secured from provincial and national governments as a result of approved Master Conservation Plans
  • $290,000 in-country funding raised
  • $1.2-1.6 million in funding from the national government for conservation of the Grand East Hall based on GHF’s Master Conservation Plan


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