There is a legend associated with the appearance of the first stupas and pagodas in china. Emperor Ming of the Eastern Han dynasty (reigned 58- 75 CE) dreamt one night of a golden man over three meters tall. He flew about the palace filling the building with a glowing, inspiring atmosphere. He had a halo upon his head, and was to the emperor, foreign and unknown. Immediately the next morning, Ming called upon his closest ministers to advise him on the matter. When asked of their interpretation, one of the men, Fu Yi, told him of a strange god in the west. He talked of a god named Buddha, who closely resembled the spirit in Ming's dream. The ruler immediately dispatched high officials to India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan to find out about this mysterious religion. In central Asia, the party met up with two Buddhist monks who offered them religious scriptures and a statue of Buddha.

In order to follow his new religion, to show his devotion to Buddha, and to spread the word of Buddhism, Ming built the first pagoda in China. He based his stupa on the Buddhist architectural form  introduced to him by the two monks. The White Horse Temple, built near Luoyang, was completed in 68 CE. The Pagoda was surrounded by other buildings and statues which made a place for prayer, for ceremonies, and for monks housing.


Buddhist stupas and temples first introduced in China did not appear in the same form they took in India. Rather than keeping the structure of the stupa as it had appeared for centuries in India and Central Asia, the Chinese adapted them to fit their architectural styles. Long before Buddhism first seeped into the culture, multi-storied, elaborate buildings were widespread and popular. To be high in the air was considered powerful and wonderful. Palaces were built high up in the air, rising toward the sun. High government officials and the rich also built houses that had more than one level. 

When the Chinese incorporated the Indian stupa into their architecture, they combined Indian style with their own Chinese architectural patterns. Their first pagodas were made of wood, as opposed to the stone and mud used commonly in India. They built the bases square, using  one of the original stupa patterns. But they layered them, with fancy roofs, columns and walls that were entirely new to the stupas. In fact, the only part of these early pagodas which originated from the stupa was the steeple. Since the steeple was the most important facet of the structure, they elevated its form to the top of the pagoda, disregarding the hemispherical Indian base. This, in the eyes of the Chinese, made their temple even more powerful and meaningful.

The first pagodas built in China were the largest and most numerous of all the ancient buildings. They were always from the start, built with at least three, but up to nine stories. During this time period, in the first several centuries, most pagodas were built out of wood. The White Horse Temple and the Yongning Temple are examples of these. The Yonging Temple, located near Luoyang was glazed with red paint, decorated with gold nails, chains and bells. The chiming of the hundreds of tiny bells could be heard miles away on a windy night.


In addition to the multi-storied early pagodas of China, at the same time another style was developing. The pavilion pagoda resembled Indian stupas more closely than the multi-storied ones, but were far less common, and did not appear quite as quickly. They were usually smaller, round in shape instead of square, and made either of wood or of stone.

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