Though it was the fashion to build Buddhist pagodas during the period from the Northern Wei to Sui dynasties, as recorded in historical documents, few have survived. Most were made of wood. Construction of brick and stone pagodas was in a trial period, and few of these have survived either. According to historical records, Emperor Wendi (601-604) of the Sui Dynasty issued decrees to all counties and prefectures, ordering them to build pagodas. Sample designs were distributed so that the pagodas would be constructed according to the standard style and in great numbers. Unfortunately, all the pagodas built at that time were wooden structures and none has survived over the years.
Wooden pagodas had many advantages, such as being easy to climb and earthquakeproof, but they also suffered many shortcomings. For instance, timber easily became rotten and insect infected; wooden buildings were susceptible to fire. This last, in particular, was a fatal weakness. In fact, many magnificent wooden pagodas burned to ashes, the years of hard work wiped out in no time. The famous Yongning Temple Pagoda had been a lofty building decorated with a gilded bottle-shaped top, thirty tiers of gilded dew basins, and red lacquered doors with gold nails and rings. Unfortunately, this grand building with all its gorgeous ornaments burned to the ground less than twenty years after its construction. People began to think of ways to make their pagodas last longer. Great changes were made first in the building materials; instead of wood, bricks and stones, which were fireproof, were used. Most of the ancient pagodas still existing today were made of brick and stone; a few were bronze, iron, ceramic or glazed.
Both pagodas, Renshou Pagoda and Zhen'guo Pagoda, erected on the east and west sides of Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou, originally made of wood, burned to the ground, were reconstructed, then burned again. Zhen'guo Pagoda caught fire twice between 1155 ad 1227 and was finally replaced by a brick-and-stone structure.
One of the earliest pagodas made of brick and stone was the three-storeyed futu at Taikang Temple described in Stories About Buddhist Temples in Luoyang. Built in 285 during the Jin Dynasty by Wang Jun, marquis of Xiang-yang, it had only three levels. The earliest extant brick pagoda is the one at Songyue Temple in Dengfeng County, Henan Province, built in 520 during the Northern Wei Dynasty. By then great progress had been made in the structural techniques for brick and stone buildings. It is a 40-metre, exquisitely shaped building that has survived more than a thousand years. The earliest extant large-scale stone pagoda is a four-door pagoda at Licheng, Shandong Province, built in 611 during the Sui Dynasty. It is not a very big building, probably because stones were heavier than bricks and therefore not so convenient for construction.
During the Tang Dynasty techniques for building brick pagodas developed to a high level. Architects succeeded in creating both multistoreyed and multi-eaved pagodas modeled after wooden pagodas. Although various changes were made in different parts of the country over the years, the two styles have been passed down from generation to generation as the basic architectural forms for pagodas. Construction of pavilion-style brick and stone pagodas, either single-or multistoreyed, reached its height during the Tang Dynasty. The pagoda with relief sculptures on bricks at Xiuding Temple in Anyang and the Dragon and Tiger Pagoda with stone sculptures at Shentong Temple in Licheng are both good representatives of achievements at that time. The art of single-storey pavilion-style pagodas began to decline afterwards, however; during the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties it reached a low ebb, not to be compared to the Tang Dynasty.
In contrast, multistoreyed brick and stone pagodas reached their highest levels during the Song, Liao and Kin dynasties. The 84-metre Liaodi Pagoda, the exquisitely shaped Small Wild Goose Pagoda, Qianxun Pagoda at Chongsheng Temple, the Fawang Temple Pagoda, and the many multi-eaved pagodas with their gorgeous sculptures and ornaments built during the Song, Liao and Kin dynasties were superior not only to those of the Sui and Tang dynasties, but also to most of the brick and stone pagodas of the later Ming and Qing dynasties. An outstanding feature of brick and stone pagodas during the Song, Liao and Kin dynasties was the general transformation from square to hexagonal and octagonal styles. It was an improvement of great importance, in at least two aspects. First, it strengthened the antiseismic property of pagodas. The fundamentals of mechanics and statistics obtained from actual investigation have proved that under the same conditions the degree of destruction of a square building after an earthquake is more serious than that of a polygonal building. Second, it broadened the field of vision on the pagodas. Since the eaves of a brick or stone pagoda do not usually protrude too much and the balustrades around each storey are mostly decorative in function, it is not convenient for viewers to come out of the building to look around. Therefore, a hexagonal or octagonal pagoda can provide a broader view than a square pagoda because people can look from six or eight directions instead of four.
As architectural levels rose, pagoda builders during the Song, Liao and Kin dynasties combined the strong points of brick and wood, which was more elastic and easier to work with, and created a new structure using both bricks and wood. For instance, while building a brick pagoda, they placed a number of wood blocks between the bricks to strengthen the antiseismic capability of the building. They also used timber to make the eaves, verandas and banisters, so people could come out of the buildings and look around at the scenery.