Built in the Southern Song dynasty, the Leifeng Pagoda is a pavilion-style tower which stands by West Lake’s southern bank on Nanshan Road. The pagoda takes its’ name ‘Leifeng’ from Leifeng peak, on which it stands. Leifeng is a peak of Xizhao (literally “Sunset Glow”) Mountain, an arm of the Nanping Mountains.
Completed in 975AD after six years’ construction, the pagoda is said to have been built by order of the Wuyue Kingdom emperor Qian Hong Chu to celebrate the successful birth of a son by his favourite concubine Huangfei. For this reason, the tower was christened ‘Tower of the Royal Courtesan’.
In the Ming and Qing dynasties (early sixteenth century) Japanese pirates invaded Hangzhou. Suspecting that Ming army troops were hiding in the Pagoda, the Japanese set fire to the structure, destroying its wooden superstructure – the flat base, ornate railings, flourished eaves and roof, and leaving only the bare brick support structure intact.
In later ages, rumours that the bricks from the tower’s ruins had mysterious healing powers spread. Locals began to excavate sections of brick, some grinding the brick into ‘medicinal’ powders, others carving out sections of scripture from walls to sell at profit. On the afternoon of September 25th, 1924, the tower’s damaged foundation could no longer stand and collapsed entirely.
Hangzhou’s public office made the decision to reconstruct Leifeng in October of 1999, judging the towering pagoda to be an essential element of the area’s sunset scenery. Constructed on the same ground as its predecessor, the new pagoda was completed on October 25th, 2002. The base of the new tower houses an exhibition hall, which showcases a range of historical documentation on the pagoda.
The old Leifeng Pagoda was an octagonal, five-levelled structure of brick and timber. On the inside, the eight faces of the interior walls were screened with solid stone carved with the Buddhist Avatamsaka Sutras. Enshrined here originally were statues of the 16 Guardian Arhats (the first disciples of the original Buddha). Later the Arhats were moved to the Monastery of Pure Compassion in Tianjin City, China.
On the 11th March 2001, prior to completion of the new pagoda, a chamber beneath the Leifeng Pagoda site later named the ‘Underground Palace’ was opened for the first time. A number of ancient relics were uncovered. In the centre of the palace hall archaeologists found a steel Buddhist Śarīra box surrounded by copper coins, four bronze mirrors and a small bronze idol. When opened, inside the Śarīra box was a tiny gold-gilded model pagoda, a square bronze mirror, a tiny gilded box, a well-preserved buckled leather belt and a small blue glass bottle. It is worthwhile to note that enshrined within the small gold-gilded pagoda was the spiral coil hair of a master monk.
Known for its beauty and a noted attraction of West Lake, Leifeng Pagoda’s fame is in part attributed to its’ mention in Chinese legend – namely in the Legend of Madam White Snake.
As the legend goes, Xu Xian – a young innocent man, unwittingly helps a magical demon-snake living in the West Lake to take human form. Grateful for his help, the snake takes the form of a young woman named Su Zhen and the two fall in love. However, a Buddhist abbot - Master Fahai, knows Su Zhen’s true form. Eventually, Fahai manages to trap Su Zhen inside Leifeng Pagoda, separating the loving couple for eternity.
At the time of the old pagoda’s collapse a ‘new cultural movement’ was taking place in China. The movement in part sought for the right to freedom of love and marriage in this dark period of nation-wide upheaval. In connection with the pagoda’s symbolism from the Legend of White Snake, influential author/philosophers of the time made sentimental comments on the pagoda’s collapse, viewing it as an epoch marking a new chapter in history. These author/philosophers included Lu Xun (鲁迅, 1881-1936), Xu Zhimo (徐志摩, 1897-1931) and Yu Pingbo (俞平伯, 1900-1990).