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Famensi, or Monastery of the Gate of the Dharma, was founded in the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534) at Fufeng in Shaanxi province, about 110 kilometers west of modern Xi'an. One of only four Chinese monasteries believed to possess a true body relic of the Buddha, it was closely associated with no fewer than seven emperors of the Tang dynasty (618–907). Originally called Chongzhensi, it was renamed Famensi in 1003.

In 1981 after heavy rainfall, the thirteen-story octagonal brick pagoda of the Famensi, built in 1609, finally collapsed. Excavations in April 1987 revealed not only the circular foundations of the brick pagoda, but also the square foundations of a Tang dynasty wooden pagoda, with steps, a corridor, and three stone chambers, unusually constructed to allow access from the outside. History records that in 631, 660, 704, 760, 790, 819, and 873, the relics were recovered and conveyed to the capital.

Most of the objects found in the excavation date from 874, after which the entire deposit remained untouched. A pair of large stone tablets, engraved with a text written in 874 by monk Juezhi of the Xingshan Monastery and placed at the inner end of the corridor, give precise details of the 122 gold and silver objects presented in 874 by emperors Yizong and Xizong.

The first chamber of the crypt contained a stone stŪpa, painted both outside and inside, enshrining an elaborate model gilt-bronze stūpa, itself containing a tiny silver-gilt reliquary holding one of the four "finger-bone" relics. In the second chamber, a larger shrine, dedicated in 708, contained a second relic. Beyond it, and close to the doors leading to the innermost chamber of the crypt, was a large cylindrical box containing a number of celadon bowls and dishes, the so-called mi se or secret color ware, sent as tribute to the court from the Yue kilns in Zhejiang province. A third relic was found in a tiny solid gold stūpa, the innermost of a series of eight nesting caskets, in the third and innermost chamber, which was filled with the majority of the accompanying gold, silver-gilt, glass, and sandalwood offerings. Finally, sealed in a cavity beneath the rear wall of the innermost chamber, a fourth relic was enshrined in a tiny jade coffin, inside a very small crystal sarcophagus, within a silver-gilt casket bearing forty-five esoteric Buddhist images, protected by a larger iron casket. The other three relics, carved from jade, were all close copies of this fourth relic. About two inches long, it is made of a softer substance resembling bone, hollow and engraved on the inside with the seven stars of the Northern Dipper.

According to the inventory tablet, the iron casket and crystal sarcophagus (with its enclosed jade coffin), were brought from the monastery to the capital in 873. Along with the painted stone stūpa and the gilt-bronze pagoda from the first chamber, they may well be the earliest items in the entire deposit, followed by the larger stone stūpa in the second chamber, and a set of miniature embroidered garments, including a skirt presented by Empress Wu (r. 684–705), which is also mentioned in the inventory tablet.

While a full report of the excavation has yet to be published, this incredible array of sumptuous objects has already provided invaluable evidence for metalworking and textile techniques of the late Tang period, the tributary system, ritual implements (water vessels, staffs, incense burners and stands, containers for incense) and evidence of the practice of esoteric Buddhism at the Tang court.

See also:MaṆḍala; Relics and Relics Cults; Ritual Objects


Wang, Eugene Y. "Of the True Body: The Famensi Relics and Corporeal Transformation in Tang Imperial China." In Body and Face in Chinese Visual Culture, ed. Wu Hung et al. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Asia Center and Harvard University Press, 2003.

Whitfield, Roderick. "Discoveries from the Famen Monastery at Fufeng and the Qingshan Monastery at Lintong, Shaanxi Province." In The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries from the People's Republic of China, ed. Yang Xiaoneng. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1999.

Roderick Whitfield