Also known as "Cold Mountain Temple" the name conjures up images of a snowy alpine monastery. But Hanshan Temple isn’t named for its setting. Rather it honors one of its former abbots, the legendary monk and poet Hanshan. Still, the temple’s contemplative park-like atmosphere, its refined architecture — and especially its famous bell — have inspired both serenity and poetry since its founding 1,500 years ago.
Hanshan Temple is located three miles (5 km) west of the old city of Suzhou along the banks of the Grand Canal. In addition to elegant structures like the Mahavira Hall, the Bell Tower and the Puming Pagoda, the temple houses a remarkable collection of stone tablets etched with Buddhist sutras and Chinese poetry.
The temple, considered to be one of the 10 greatest temples in China, owes its fame to a classic Chinese poem called “A Night Mooring by Maple Bridge.” These days, it’s also known for its yearly midnight bell ringing. Every Lunar New Year’s Eve, thousands of visitors come from across China and beyond to hear the monks strike the temple’s enormous bell 108 times to ring in the new year.
"A Night Mooring by Maple Bridge"
Composed by the famous Tang dynasty poet Zhang Ji, “A Night Mooring by Maple Bridge” condenses the anguish and homesickness of a man who is far from home and has just failed an important exam into one wistful moment. The heartbroken poet is lying awake, unable to sleep. He’s on a boat next to Maple Bridge. Then suddenly, he hears the ringing of Hanshan Temple’s giant bell reverberate throughout the midnight air.
The poem has been loved across East Asia for centuries, and it is still taught in school in China and Japan today. Even now, the words “Hanshan Temple” instill a sense of peace and tranquility in many Chinese people because of the temple’s appearance in “A Night Mooring by Maple Bridge. You can find the classic poem etched on stone tablets in the temple’s Tablets Corridor and on the towering 50-foot (16-meter) stone tablet in the temple’s Great Bell Garden.
History of the Temple
Hanshan Temple was founded during the reign of Emperor Tianjian in the Southern Liang dynasty (502-557). According to legend, the monk and poet Hanshan joined the monastery and became its abbot one hundred years later during the reign of Emperor Taizong (627–649). Also around this time, the poet Zhang Ji wrote his famous verses. The great bell mentioned in the poem is long gone, but the current bell was crafted to the same specifications.
The temple itself has also been rebuilt more than once over the centuries, first by a local governor named Sun Chengyou during the early Song dynasty (976-983) and then by a Ming dynasty monk named Changchong after it was destroyed in a battle in 1367. The temple’s present structure dates to the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). During the Republic of China era (1912–49), the temple was deserted for a long time. Then in 1941, the politician and military leader Gao Guanwu rebuilt the Sutra Library. The temple’s newest building, the Puming Pagoda, was built in 1995.
Overlooking the Grand Canal, Hanshan Temple features three acres of picturesque gardens, spacious courtyards, ancient bells, stone tablets and elegant buildings. The temple’s most important buildings include these mostly Qing Dynasty treasures:
- The Mahavira Hall, or main hall of the temple, houses the temple’s most important religious icon: a large statue of Buddha Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism. Lining two sides of the hall are 18 gilded iron statues cast during the Ming dynasty. They represent the Buddha’s original students, known as Arhats.
- Visit the Sutra Library to see statues of Hanshan and his student Shide.
- The Hall of 500 Arhats contains gilded statues of 500 Buddhist saints. Notice how each statue has a different face, personality and pose.
- The two-story Bell Tower contains a modern replica of the massive iron bell that Zhang Ji described hearing in his famous poem. The new bell, built in a foundry in Wuhan, is said to be the largest Buddhist bell in the world. At almost 33 feet (10 meters) tall and more than 16 feet (5 meters) wide, it has the entire 70,000-word Lotus Sutra engraved on it. Ring the bell three times for good luck (ticket: ¥5). And if you happen to visit on the eve of the Chinese New Year, you can join thousands of visitors to listen as the bell is is rung 108 times. The ritual is said to take away the troubles from the previous year and bring in luck and happiness and in the new one.
- A recent addition to the temple, the Tang dynasty-style Puming Pagoda was completed in 1995. At 138 feet (42 meters) tall, the five-story pagoda offers a panoramic view of the temple complex and the city beyond. Climb to the top floor, take photos and toss a coin for good luck. But don’t get there too late. The upper floors close a little while before the rest of the temple.
Experience Hanshan Temple Like a Local
More than just a tourist attraction, Hanshan Temple is also a functioning Buddhist temple. As such, it draws in Chinese Buddhists and others looking to make prayers and wish for good fortune. You’ll see them lighting incense and candles, throwing red ribbons at a tree, walking around the Puming Pagoda and even throwing coins from the top floor of the pagoda. When in Suzhou, do as the locals do. Who knows? Your wishes might even come true. Here’s how to join them:
- Buy a pack of joss sticks and red candles and make a wish as you light them.
- Write your wish on a red ribbon and toss it into the designated trees branches. If your ribbon hangs, you’ll get your wish. If it falls, try one of the temple’s other opportunities to bring good fortune.
- Ring the giant bell in the Bell Tower three times for good luck.
- Walk around the Puming Pagoda three times clockwise and you’ll “have measureless fortune and destroy measureless guilt,” as the sign next to the pagoda promises.
- Instead of a wishing well, the Puming Pagoda has a wishing roof. Toss a coin onto a rooftop below and make a wish!
Note: although many temples require visitors to remove their shoes inside prayer halls, Hanshan Temple allows visitors to keep their shoes on.
- Plan on spending an hour or two, including time to visit to the nearby Maple Bridge — and more if you explore the handcraft exhibits and shops in the historic neighborhood on the other side of the bridge
- Beat the crowds and arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon for a more peaceful visit.
- Most of the buildings, bells, tablets, sculptures and artwork lack English signs. Enhance your visit by hiring a local guide to explain the historical and cultural significance of the temple’s treasures and traditions.
- Relax in the tea garden outside the temple complex’s south wall after you’re done exploring the temple and listen to live music while you sip your tea.
- Take a river tour and enjoy the scenery along the Grand Canal. You’ll pass under the Maple Bridge and get a close-up view of the charming houses along the canal.
Location: Gusu District — No. 24, Hanshan Temple Alley, Fengqiao, Suzhou
Hours: Open from 7:30am to 5:30pm. Plan to spend 1.5 to 2 hours for your visit.
Admission: ¥20 (¥10 for children, teens and seniors aged 60 and above)