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  • Guoying Stacy Zhang

The Hanging Sculptures of the Little Western Paradise

Qianfo’an (千佛庵), the Temple of One Thousand Buddhas, better known as Xiaoxitian (小西天) or the Little Western Paradise, is located in present-day Xi County, Linfen Municipality, in China’s Shanxi Province. The temple complex was built on top of Fenghuang (鳳凰), or Phoenix Mountain, and occupies an area of 1,100 square meters. According to the earliest account of the temple, its construction was initiated by the travelling Buddhist monk Dongming between the second and 17th year of the reign of the Chongzhen Emperor (r.1627–44) at the end of the Ming dynasty (1368­­–1644). Today, the Little Western Paradise is most admired for the more than 1,000 polychrome clay sculptures housed in the 169.6-square-meter Upper Main Hall. Crafted at the beginning of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), these sculptures are integrated into the building’s wooden structure, creating palatial and extravagant scenes of a Buddhist Pure Land.

Owing to the exceptional quality of the sculptures, the temple was inscribed on the List of Cultural Relics Sites under State Protection in 1996. However, because Xi County has remained underdeveloped since the Ming dynasty, the temple and its sculptures remain relatively unknown, even within Shanxi. My study of the Little Western Paradise is based on extant local gazetteers—the 1709 Kangxi edition and the updated 1898 Guangxu edition—as well as my own visits. While much fascinating information about the temple has come to light, this article focuses on the clay sculptures.

The temple complex of the Little Western Paradise and its natural environment. Image copyright Wang Wei

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