Two thousand years is a long time for any building to serve a single purpose. Since the stupa was introduced to China, the utility of this Buddhist architecture has expanded to serve quite different purposes, some of the new functions having nothing to do with Buddhism at all.
Three-Pools-Mirroring-the-Moon is a famous scenic spot at Hangzhou's West Lake, featuring three 2.5-m-tall stone towers standing 2 meters above water. Their hollow body can be seen through five evenly spaced round holes around which are engraved floral patterns. On the occasion of moonrise, candles in the hollow body are lit up, throwing to the surface of the lake many "light moons" to dance around the reflection of the real one.
Playful as they are, the three towers were in fact built as demarcation points for a West Lake dredging project sponsored by celebrated Northern Song poet Su Dongpo (1037-1101) when he served as the magistrate of Hangzhou. No water chestnuts or lotus roots were allowed to grow in the area marked by the three towers, in order to guarantee the smooth flow of the lake water and prevent silt deposits from forming. Unfortunately, the original towers were destroyed in the Yuan Dynasty and the ones described here were rebuilt in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Many ancient towers bear the Chinese character "wen" (intellectual) in their name, like Wenchang, Wenbi, or Wenfeng towers. Collectively known as Wen towers, they are usually slender in shape, somewhat resembling upside-down writing brushes. The name and shape point to the connection with scholarship and intellectual achievements. A Wenchang Pavilion was often located in the local Confucius Temple (also known as Wen Temple). In later periods, some of these structures were expanded in both height and width, producing something that resembled storied houses. Men of letters would visit the local Wen tower before they sat an imperial examination. Some even placed a handcrafted tower on their desk as their lucky charm.
The Greater Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an was built in the Tang Dynasty, and is famous as the site where Monk Xuanzang translated the Buddhist scriptures he brought back from India. Later, the pagoda was used as a "signature wall" by scholars. Historical records attest the first one to inscribe his name on the pagoda was Zhang Ju, a jinshi – the academic title and collective term for those who passed the highest civil service imperial examination the dynasty offered. Many jinshi scholars later followed suit, finally establishing a local custom out of the practice. After attending a complimentary banquet given by the emperor, the jinshi would visit the pagoda en masse and have their names inscribed on the wall. In feudal times the imperial court selected government officials from the ranks of the inscribed which, in the strongly preserved status quo of that time, was the only way for ordinary people to change their fate. Any who were later promoted to prime minister would have their names redone in vermilion.
The scholars whose names appeared on the pagoda were the pride of not only their immediate family but of their kinfolks generally. Since these Tang Dynasty inscriptions were done in beautiful calligraphy, some people in the following Song Dynasty copied them where they could – carving them on stone tablets and making volumes of rubbings – thus leaving precious cultural relics for later generations.
The Greater Wild Goose Pagoda was originally an unclimbable, five-storied, solid brick-and-earth structure. In the reign of Tang Empress Wu Zetian (624-705), a renovation expanded it into a seven-storied structure, and added a staircase that allowed visitors to ascend. Ever since then the pagoda has remained a famous sightseeing tower. There were frequent rhapsodic references to it in ancient poems.
Towers, in times of war, also have great strategic value. Watchtowers, the military name, were critical facilities in ancient China. The best known watchtower in existence is the one in the Kaiyuan Temple in Hebei's Dingzhou. During the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), the border area of Dingzhou between the Northern Song and the Liao (916-1125) was torn by their incessant conflicts and battles. Under the pretext of honoring Buddha, the Song garrison troops built a tower inside the temple to surreptitiously observe Liao military movements. Construction lasted more than half a century. The 11-story brick octagon sits on a high foundation, taking it to 84 meters, the tallest brick tower in China. Meanwhile the Liao were not to be outdone. Yingxian County in Shanxi Province was also a territory trapped between the Song and Liao and site of the famous Yang Family Army, a force for the Song against the Liao. The Liao army built a 67-meter-tall wooden pagoda in Yingxian County to observe the movements of the Song garrison.