The Hanging Monastery at the foot of Heng Shan (Heng Mountain, aka Henshan Mountain), Shanxi Province, is located some 5 kilometers south of the village of Hunyuan, and about 65 kilometers southeast of the largest regional city, Datong. Although Henshan Mountain is one of the Five Sacred Mountains of Taoism/ Daoism, the Hanging Monastery is in fact a Buddhist temple.* However, the Hanging Monastery, which is Hengshan Mountain's principal attraction, pays homage to Confuciansim and Taoism as well as to Buddhism, with sculptures of Confucius and Lao-Tzu alongside sculptures of the founding father of Buddhism, Sakyamuni Buddha. The main reason why Hengshan Mountain in Shanxi Province is not as exclusively Taoist as one might expect is owing to its northerly location in a region that was often controlled by invaders. Taoist pilgrimmages to Hengshan Mountain by Chinese people were therefore impossible over long periods, and thus the Taoist significance of Hengshan Mountain gradually waned.
Construction of the original monastery on the the west cliff of the mountain, facing Jinxia Gorge, was a lengthy affair, spanning the period CE 471-523, circa, during the Northern Wei (CE 386-533) Dynasty. The monastery was renovated and expanded during successive dynasties, notably during the Tang (CE 618-907), Jin (CE 1115-1234), Ming (CE 1368-1644) and Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasties. The structural components of the Hanging Monastery as it exists today stem from renovations/ expansions undertaken during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The latest restoration of the monastery took place in 1900.
Suspended some 50 meters over the ground and consisting of 40 pavilions and halls, the Hanging Monastery is constructed with the help of wooden pillars that are anchored into the cliff face behind the edifices, though no one today can say for certain whether the holes into which the pillars are anchored were manmade or natural. The monastery is reached via a bridge that leads up a stone staircase that has been chiseled into the cliff face. The monastery's 6 main halls are intricately and ingeniously linked by winding corridors, bridges, and boardwalks that offer a perilous glimpse of the ground below, increasing the visitor's awareness that this truly is, quite literally, a hanging monastery.
The temple boasts a fine collection of statues – 80 in all – including statues in bronze, iron, terracotta and stone. The most notable of the monastery's statues, from an artistic point of view, are those of Sakyamuni, Weituo, and the Fairy in the Three Saints Hall, which are all remarkably voluptuously true-to-life. The most outstanding feature of the Hanging Monastery, however, and something which continues to provide encouragement to those who seek universal, or cross-sectarian, religious understanding and cooperation, is the side-by-side presence of the sculptures of Lao-Tzu, Confucius, and Sakyamuni, the founders of the three main religions of China: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, respectively.
The Hengshan Mountain of Shanxi Province should not be confused with the Hengshan Mountain of Hunan Province farther south, though – to increase the confusion – both mountains are among the Five Sacred Mountains of Taoism, so for this reason the two mountains are often referred to as Northern Hengshan Mountain and Southern Hengshan Mountain, respectively.