These are pagodas of a special style. During the Five Dynasties the king of Wuyue, Qian Hongchu, constructed eighty-four thousand small pagodas in imitation of the legendary eighty-four thousand pagodas built by the Indian king Asoka. These box-shaped pagodas were used to hold Buddhist sutras. Since they were said to have first been made by King Asoka, they were called Pagodas of King Asoka. Those made of gold- painted metal were called gilded pagodas. Such pagodas have been found not only in China but also in Japan, where they became an important style of pagoda construction.
The origin of box-shaped pagodas for keeping Buddhist scriptures was recorded in the book Bao Qie Yin Jing Ji (A Record of Box-Shaped Pagodas for Keeping Buddhist Sutras) by a prominent Japanese monk in 965. The book is now kept in Vajra Temple in Japan. The Japanese monk said that he had seen a box-shaped pagoda in China. It was "nine cun" (about 30 cm) in height, decorated with carved images of Buddha on the sides. Inside the structure a small niche in the shape of a horse's ear held a statue of Buddha as big as a jujube pit. When the monk picked up the pagoda to have a closer look, a small hag dropped from it. When he opened the hag, he found a tiny volume of Buddhist sutras. A line on the volume read, " Commander-in-chief under Heaven, King of Wuyue, Qian Hongchu, has printed 84,000 volumes of Buddhist sutras and enshrined them in pagodas." It was dated 956.
The year 956 in the Japanese account corresponded to the period when unearthed pagodas of this kind were estimated to have been made in China. Gilded pagodas of the same type unearthed in China were made in different years. Those recorded in Wang Chang's Jin shi Cui Bian (Selected Inscriptions on Bronzes and Stone Tablets) were dated 955. The fifteen little gilded pagodas unearthed in 1957 from the underground palace of Wanfo Temple in Jinhua, Zhejiang Province, were dated 965. The gilded pagodas made of cast iron excavated from the underground palace of Huqiu Pagoda in Suzhou were made around 961. The kingdom of Wuyue had close cultural exchanges with Japan, particularly between their Buddhists, so the Japanese monk's account of his trip to China and of seeing a pagoda should be reliable. His account also provides important data for the study of this type of pagoda.
Judging from ancient carvings, murals and pagodas, box-shaped pagodas developed from the spire of the multistoreyed and pavilion-style pagodas. For example, the carved stone pagodas of the Northern Wei Dynasty at Yungang grottoes and the spire on the Four-Door Pagoda in Licheng of Jinan are both the same style. During the Tang and Song dynasties this form of pagoda was used to keep Buddhist relics in temples and the underground palaces of large pagodas. After the Song and Yuan dynasties stone pagodas of this style, on a small scale, were erected in the open air in temple compounds, but there was some change in structure. For instance, Duobao Pagoda at Puji Temple on Mount Putuo in Zhejiang Province has three storeys. The same style was adopted in the construction of Heshang Pagoda at Lingguang Temple in Beijing's Western Hills, with changes made in the construction of the base.
Existing pagodas of this type can be divided into two groups--big and small. The small ones are used for keeping Buddhist relics in temples and underground palaces beneath pagodas. Sometimes dozens of such pagodas have been excavated from the underground palace of a large pagoda. They are mostly made of bronze or iron and gilded. Many such small pagodas have been unearthed in China since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. At Wanfo Pagoda in Jinhua, for instance, fifteen were unearthed at one time. Another one, dug out from the basement of a pagoda in 1967 and now kept at the Anhui Museum, is a well-preserved gilded cast-bronze pagoda. It was kept in a silver box with a silver plate with an inscription indicating that the pagoda was made between 1131 and 1162 of the Song Dynasty, much later than Qian Hongchu's time. That means that pagodas of this type continued to be made after Qian Hongchu. Large pagodas in this style were mostly erected in the compounds of temples, such as Guangxiao Temple in Guangzhou and Kaiyuan Temple in Chaozhou.