Ying County Buddhist Pagoda, situated in Shanxi Province in northern China’s Yellow Plateau, is the oldest surviving timber-frame pagoda in the world.

The pagoda was built in 1056 during the North Song Dynasty, measuring 67 metres tall and 30 metres in diameter, supported by a double-layered timber-frame structure, with 24 columns in the external supporting system and 8 columns forming the internal network. Both frames are further reinforced by timber bracings, beams, and short columns.

Such structure has helped the pagoda to survive a dozen major earthquakes in a thousand years, with 3 measuring more than 6 on the Richter scale.

Section of Ying County Buddhist Pagoda
Section of Ying County Buddhist Pagoda: the oldest surviving timber-frame pagoda in China today
Details of Ying County Buddhist Pagoda
Details of Ying County Buddhist Pagoda
Details of the pogoda dougong
Details of the pagoda dougong in exterior
pagoda dougong inside the building
Details of the pagoda dougong inside the building
Timber frame and non-load bearing walls
Timber frame and non-load bearing walls in classic Chinese architecture

Dougong is the essential part of the classic Chinese timber-framed structure that uses interlocked wooden brackets resting on columns to support deep eaves and huge roofs, while the walls in traditional Chinese buildings are commonly not load-bearing.

A 1: 0.15 model of the timber pagoda
A 1: 0.15 model of the timber pagoda

Dougong system has been widely used in traditional Chinese architecture since the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BC). The highly developed Chinese carpentry craft with precision and quality since the time of Lu Ban allows the timber parts to be fitted together by joinery alone without glue or fasteners.


Eric Horrobin
Without glue or nails, yet it can withstand an earthquake because of its ability to flex and shift while under great stresses.

I really do think it’s the clever construction free from being solid in joints that allow for movement in a major quake. We could learn a lot from these ancient craftsmen. 

All Things Chinese
This is certainly one of the major advantages of the nailless dougong system, coupled with freestanding columns.

How the timber pagoda was structured
This is how the timber pagoda was structured
Buddhist statues in the pagoda
Buddhist statues in the pagoda
A street leading up to the timber pagod
A street leading up to the timber pagoda in Shanxi Province in northern China


Eric Horrobin
This is truly representative of my view of Asian buildings, so different from the evolution of western buildings yet with many similarities. The Asian world has a distinct aesthetic.

All Things Chinese
The pagoda is 1,000-year-old, but I suspect the terrace houses on both sides are pretty new – the traditional Chinese street front houses with mixed commercial and residential usage wouldn’t have big dougong (brackets) like that.


Sheila Nagig (Dec 29, 2015)
Traditional Japanese joinery is impressive too. I’m pretty sure it came originally from China along with a great many other things. I find it fascinating how resistant to earthquakes buildings like this are. Some of them have been standing for several hundred years. No earthquake in that time has managed to knock them over.

All Things Chinese
Traditional Chinese buildings have a better quake-resistance capacity mainly due to the following factors:

a) the nail/hinge-free & mortise/tenon-based architecture improves the structural integrity (that is a bit like how the bones are joined in our body);

b) timber-frame structure is detached from masonry units, which means even when some walls collapse, the building could still stand on the ground.

You’re right. The root of Japanese written scripts, the costume, the tea ceremony, bonsai art, martial arts, ink painting and architecture are in China’s Tang and Song dynasties a thousand years ago. Tang was the beginning of cultural exportation to Japan, but most things Japan borrowed from China were those from the Song era.

The Song was a culturally and technologically highly developed dynasty, and the people of Song had a love for refined simplicity.

You may have noticed that old Japanese buildings often keep the original timber texture and colour, which looks graceful and elegant, unlike some old Chinese buildings (particularly in Beijing) with columns and beams painted in bold red and yellow (which were built in the later Qing dynasty).

Sheila Nagig
I’ve seen Song dynasty art and objects. Now that you mention it the style is consistent with the Japanese style and aesthetic taste. If they had to choose a culture to take their pattern from, I think they made a good choice. I like the simplicity of Song objects.

I like the concept of incorporating a bit of giving into the building method too. It makes sense that if it can move along with the quake it will sustain less damage. It’s really a sophisticated system. It only looks simple. That kind of joinery takes a lot of skill and experience to do right.

All Things Chinese
Yes, some best aspects of the classic Chinese culture have been preserved wonderfully in Japan, but lost in China, including some highly valuable books, such as Tian Gong Kai Wu.

Valeria Elisabeta
This joinery technique is amazing and its effectiveness was proven over time. Also, the furniture made using this traditional method looks absolutely great.

Hyoon-dae Cheon
And, if the time came/comes, aside from the foundation, one could literally “pack up and pick up house” and move.

All Things Chinese
Since the walls bear no load, the move is possible.

Hyoon-dae Cheon
They may not easily scale for mass population growth or for use in large cities. Probably it (the tech) can from time to time be built for wealthy or reclusive, or traditional but secluded families or sharers of such construction in modern times, I suspect.

All Things Chinese
3D printing technology may help to address these issues.

Sheila Nagig (Jan 6, 2016)
My favourite multi-family traditional structure is Fujian Tulou. I think it’s an architectural style that could be adapted to cities. It’s not as technically impressive as the joinery techniques shown here, but as a traditional method suitable to modern circumstances it stands up.

All Things Chinese
The circular Tulou, indeed. It is structurally more stable.

Also, even when it is not a complete circle but just a semicircle, it can create a feeling of neighbourhood and community and belongings that is seriously lacking in a modern city dominated by the “machines for living” — the stacked matchbox-style flats.

2 thought on “The World’s Oldest & Tallest Surviving Wooden Pagoda”
  1. I visited Yingxian Pagoda in 1994 & was allowed to climb up to the 5th floor but any higher was dangerous back then.

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