Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Black Pagoda and the White Pagoda (Fujian)

The crown of Fuzhou, or the "dragon's horns," are the two pagodas, the Black Pagoda and the White Pagoda. Together, they are "the twin towers of the Banyan City."

More than a thousand years ago, before the region around Fuzhou became part of the Song empire, Fuzhou and its environs were ruled by a local king. He was not consent being king of the region, however. He wanted to rule a larger area and so kept this desire in his heart, hoping, biding for a chance to be a greater fish in a larger pond, to become even an emperor one day.

One day a Taoist priest traveling through the area had an audience with the king.

"Ahh, your Banyan City, Fuzhou, is indeed a lucky place, Your Majesty!" the priest told the king.

"Oh? How so?"

"Well, the northwest hills resemble the undulating back of a dragon, leading up to its head, the city itself. This is a very good sign for you, Your Majesty, presaging your rise to emperor one day. Yes, it's a pity . . ."

"What is a 'pity'?"

"Something's missing in this pattern I see with the dragon's back and its head. What's missing is there are no horns for the dragon. No horns for the dragon means an incomplete dragon, an incomplete promise of greatness for this region . . . and for you."

The king was interested; after all, a vision of tremendous majesty for him had just been foretold and was now, just as quickly dispersing like smoke in the wind.

"What can be done, Priest? What do you suggest?"

"You need to let the dragon have its horns!" Build two pagodas--one on Wushishan and the other on Yushan. Then will your dragon come to life!"

The king was delighted. He immediately posted notices in the area calling for men to build the pagodas. He also employed two builders, a master builder and his student. The master was in his sixties, a very dedicated professional; his student was very young--only thirty--but was very clever and talented. They had both built many towers and pavilions in Fujian but had never undertaken as lofty a project as two tall pagodas. Nevertheless, they were hired by the king for the job.

The master builder and his student then mustered a large workforce of laborers to begin the project. The laborers first went to the quarry to extract slabs of stone. Then, under the direction of the master builder, they carried the many heavy slaps to the first construction site, Wushishan, where what would be the future Black Pagoda was to be built. When the first floor of the first pagoda was finished, the master builder had his men cover the outer circumference of the first floor with packed dirt.

"Why did you have the men pack the base of the pagoda with earth that way, Master?" asked the student.

"Each slab weighs several hundred jin," the master replied. "If we don't do so, how can the men carry the slabs up to the second floor?"

Well, the student thought this was mighty foolish, wasteful of time and labor, but he held his tongue and did his part to help the master.

By the time the fourth floor was ready two months later, the dirt surrounding the growing pagoda resembled a small mountain.

"This is taking too long, Master," said the student. "Surely there must be another way other than building high dirt ramps all the way round the pagoda!"

"What do you know?!" snapped the master. "This is a time-honored method. If you have a better way, go ahead!"

The student then left to see the king. He asked the king's permission to begin building the other pagoda on Yushan. The king gave him authorization.

When the master builder found out, he said to his student, "All right, fine. You go right ahead. Let's see what you can do. You're still my apprentice, so I'm obligated to helping you if you end up needing my help. Just make sure you don't allow the pagoda to lean."

So the apprentice began work on what was to become later known as the White Pagoda. And there would be no mounds of dirt built up around each successive floor of this pagoda! No, thank you, indeed! Instead, he would build this pagoda the way it should be built--with more ease. There would be no shortcuts regarding quality, durability or permanency; however, it would be built in a manner that didn't require needless backbreaking labor and time delays. It would be built of bricks without the need of having huge slabs lugged up ramps of dirt. He also decided to have bamboo scaffolding, not the dirt, for the workers to ascend the pagoda. The scaffolding could easily be extended higher and higher as the pagoda grew.

All went well, maybe too well.

When the sixth floor of the master's pagoda was still being built, the student had already completed the second floor of the pagoda. By the time the master was finished with his sixth floor, the student was finished with his, as well.

And then it happened--the seventh and final floor of the apprentice's pagoda was finally completed, while the master and his crew still labored on their tower!

The apprentice catered a huge feast and lots of wine. He invited his teacher over and the two celebrated. They ate and drank too much and ended up sleeping it off in the work tent where construction of the pagoda was overseen.

The pair woke up early in the morning. A huge windstorm had blown down the tent. They scrambled out to look at the pagoda.

It had noticeably tilted.

"I'm done! I'm doomed!" cried the student. "The next time the king pays a visit and sees the pagoda leaning like that, he'll have our heads for sure!"

He now deeply regretted having been such an upstart maverick, unwilling to listen to caution or to follow the proper way.

"Don't panic," said the master. "Leaning pagodas and towers can be straightened, but it's not easy, and we have to act immediately. As your teacher, I'll help you. There's one thing you must promise me, though."

"Yes, yes! Anything! What is it, Master?"

"Once we're done with your pagoda, you and your men must help me finish the seventh floor of my pagoda."

The student agreed, of course. The pair then quickly gathered many, many wooden pegs.

Taking an iron mallet, the master turned to his student and said, "I'm going inside. I'll hammer pegs to redirect the way the pagoda must lean. You wait outside and keep an eye out to let me know as soon as the pagoda begins to move back in the right direction."

And so the master entered the pagoda with his mallet and innumerable pegs. He proceeding to hammer away.

Day and night, skipping meals and sleep, the master desperately hammered away as his apprentice assistant kept watch outside. The master hammered and hammered until he was worn out but he continued.

The sound of blows coming from within the pagoda began to diminish and become softer.

Some time during the seventh day, the student shouted, "Master! You can stop now! The pagoda has returned to an upright position!"

No response came from inside.

The student entered. There, sitting on the floor of the pagoda with his mallet resting beside him was the master, a smile on his face, but he would breathe no more . . .

The student cried and cried. Then he realized the next day the king would show up to observe the progress of the two pagodas.

The student had the pagoda painted white to show his filial devotion to his late master.

The king indeed showed up the next day. When he saw that one of the pagoda's was white, the color of mourning, instead of black like the unfinished one, he became livid.

"What on earth!" the king thundered. "What were you thinking, doing such a thing?! Are you trying to subvert my reign, my plans?"

The student just stood there, unable to answer.

"You didn't have permission from me to mourn your teacher by painting my pagoda white!"

The king snapped his fingers for his guards. He had them bind the student and prepare to behead the young man on the spot.

"Your Majesty, please don't let anger overtake your good judgment!"

The king turned his head to see who had addressed him thus. His prime minister was there.

"Your Majesty, might it not be a better idea to let this man finish the other pagoda first? You can always execute him later."

"Fine," said the king. Then, turning to the student, he said, "By tomorrow, have this white pagoda painted in five colors. I'll also give you one month to complete the other pagoda. Now, get to it!"

He was untied and left in the dust as the king and his men departed. He picked himself up. With great fury but also deep grief over the loss of his mentor, he stormed into the White Pagoda.

If this tyrant ever became an emperor, heaven help us all! he thought. He then took a brush and wrote the following poem on the top floor of the pagoda:

The completion of the seventh floor of this pagoda
Is a disaster for Fuzhou.
We must overthrow and kill this dissolute despot
And change the dynasty.
Pull up the new weeds by the roots,
And you won't need to worry about them ever again.
Anyone want to be the next king?
You'd better act fast!

He then left the pagoda and escaped into the night, never to be seen in those parts again.

The next morning, the prime minister and one of the king's generals came by to see if the pagoda had been repainted. When they say it was still white, they became furious. They looked for the student, but he was nowhere to be found. They then grabbed a pair of nearby monks and pressed them for answers. Frightened, the first monk concocted a story.

"I saw what had happened!" the monk said. "It was last night. A great whirlwind descended from the heavens and whisked the young builder right up! It circled three times and then zoomed up into the heavens and out of sight!"

The prime minister and the general now turned to the second monk, who was no less frightened than the first.

"Yes, Excellencies, I saw all that too! What's more, I heard celestial music as the young builder rode a crane inside the whirlwind funnel up into the night sky!"

Instead of being suspicious, the prime minister was actually afraid, though he didn't show it. In fact the monk's story confirmed something for him: the student was some kind of immortal or even a god in human form.

The pair let the monks go and entered the pagoda. At the top, they spotted the poem and had workers quickly paint over it. Then they left to report back to the king.

"Your Majesty," said the prime minister, having told the king that the student had disappeared, "I suspect the missing apprentice is some kind of deity or demigod . . . "

"Do l look as though I care what he is?" the king replied. "I need that pagoda finished, and I'm leaving it all up to you and your friend the general here. Now, within the next three days, you'll need to paint dragons, phoenixes, and Buddhist images upon the pagoda. Not only that, I'll give you one month to finish the top of the pagoda. There need to be three more floors for the Black Pagoda, nine in all! Get this job done, or you'll both lose your heads!"

Now they were in a jam. Neither was, of course, by profession an architect or builder. They quickly gathered a work crew together and, unable to find an architect or builder, they plunged ahead to the best of their abilities. The result? Masonry came loose and fell; many workers died. A few more days into the ongoing and already deadly fiasco, the prime minister and general sat down together to discuss the progress.

"We might as well as forget about the ninth floor," said the prime minister. "Let's just cap the pagoda with a pointed roof."

"Fine," said the general. "I'll order the men to remove the dirt ramps."

The roof was put in place and the dirt was removed. It was now the nineteenth day. The king was asked to come and inspect his now completed Black Pagoda. The prime minister and the general now openly discussed the unmentionable that was already obvious in their hearts.

"Tomorrow the king arrives," said the prime minister.

"Yes, I know."

"And the Black Pagoda is clearly tilted."

"I know."

"That means tomorrow the king will see this and have us both beheaded. I wonder if there's anything we can do . . . "

"'Anything we can do'!" snorted the general. Then he became quiet for a moment, as if in a reverie. "If he wants our lives, he'll take them, unless . . . we . . . take . . . his . . . first . . ."

"Ha! Yes! Do you remember what that immortal, the student builder, wrote before we had it covered up?"

They looked at each other and smiled; they had some planning to do . . .

The next day, as soon as he left his palace to head out for the Black Pagoda, the king was ambushed by the general's men and killed by a single arrow. The general and his force then stormed the palace and put to the sword every member of the king's family.

Their project completed, the prime minister and the general agreed to share power and each rule as king. Before long, relations between the two "kings" had deteriorated; the men propping them up then broke into two factions that loathed each other. And soon, all out fighting between the two broke out. Neither man had been popular with the people of Fuzhou. During the struggle, the people rose up and slew both the former prime minister and the general.

The people wanted the apprentice builder to serve as new king; however, he was nowhere to be found . . .

And so, Fuzhou never did get another king. A few decades later, Fuzhou became part of the Song empire.

And the Black Pagoda and the White Pagoda? They still stand in Fuzhou, black and white, "dragon horn" landmarks of the Banyan City!


from Wuta baita (The black and white pagoda), the Association for Research of Chinese Folk Literature, ed. Fuzhou: Fujian Renmin Chubanshe, 1982; pp. 7-12.

The king alluded to in the story was no doubt a member of the Wang family who founded the Kingdom of Min (909-945 A.D.). "Min" is the alternative name for the province of Fujian, and its character occurs in other names related to Fujian (i.e., the Min River; Minbei, Minzhong, and Minnan, dialects spoken in Fujian, with the later serving as the main dialect of Taiwan). The story seems to have an anachronistic element: the Black Pagoda was built in 799 A.D., but the White Pagoda wasn't constructed until 905 A.D.


  1. I especially enjoyed this one...

  2. Hi, Sydney and Jimmy
    thank you for your comments. I appreciate them!
    Fred Lobb