Morning Edition,March 10, 2009 · Everyone's heard of the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City. But who knew that China had its very own Leaning Tower? Certainly not most Chinese.
On a hillside just 25 miles outside Shanghai is a 900-year-old tower that could well be the most tilted building in the world.
The Huzhu pagoda leans over Tianma village in Songjiang suburb, its seven-story structure so lopsided it seems in imminent danger of toppling over altogether.
It was built in 1079 — well before Italy's famous Leaning Tower of Pisa — by Gen. Zhou Wenda to house five Buddha relics given to him as a reward by Emperor Song Gaozong of the Southern Song dynasty. But from the start, it began to tilt.
"Part of the foundation was built on rock, part of the foundation was built on mud," explains Yang Kun, who works at the Songjiang Museum and has studied the pagoda's history.
He adds that leaning pagodas are not uncommon in the area.
The 900-year-old Huzhu pagoda (right) in Songjiang, 25 miles from Shanghai, leans at a 6.87 degree angle and could be the world's most tilted tower. It leans more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa (left), currently at 3.97 degrees, which is far more famous. NBC NewsWire via AP Images/Yang Kun
But a temple fair in 1788 also contributed to the Huzhu pagoda's tilt. Villagers set off firecrackers too close to the tower, burning down its wooden infrastructure, so its tilt became even more pronounced. And Yang says the unfortunate tower's troubles still weren't over.
"Back in the 19th century, there were rumors that ancient coins were hidden in the pagoda, so the villagers near here all came to try to dig up the treasures. They found nothing," he says. "But when people kept digging they left a big hole here, and so the leaning was irreversible."
The excitable treasure hunters actually dismantled a section of the tower, leaving an enormous hole at its base, further destabilizing the structure. The top of the pagoda is now seven and a half feet off-center.
In the 19th century, rumors of hidden ancient coins caused treasure hunters to dig around the base of the tower and dismantle part of the pagoda itself.
Even after a stabilization attempt in the 1980s, the tower leans at a 6.87 degree angle. That's more than Pisa's current 3.97 degrees — and more even than the Suurhusen church steeple in Germany, which tilts at 5.19 and is currently listed in Guinness World Records as the world's most tilted building.
According to Guinness World Records, the Suurhusen church steeple in Germany is currently the world's most tilted building, which leans 5.19 degrees. AP
The Italian tower enjoys 6,000 visitors a day. In contrast, ticket seller Mrs. Yuan says, the Huzhu pagoda is lucky to get 20 tourists a day. That might not be surprising, given the local lack of enthusiasm.
"The tower is just so-so, very average," says Wang Haonan, who on a recent day was canoodling with his girlfriend near the foot of the tower.
"We local people see it every day, we don't think it's very interesting," says Mrs. Dong, to nods of assent from her elderly companions, all of whom live in the village below the tower.
The 900-year-old pagoda probably attracts fewer visitors than a nearby replica of an English country town, known as Thamestown, built just three years ago. And an official from the Songjiang tourism bureau said there are no plans to promote the tower. It seems without the validation provided by streams of free-spending tourists, China has yet to appreciate its own history.