The modern pagoda is an evolution of the Indian stupa, a tomb-like structure where sacred relics could be kept safe and venerated. The architectural structure of the stupa has spread across Asia, taking on many diverse forms as details specific to different regions are incorporated into the overall design.
The Chinese word for stupa, ''ta'', is an abbreviated translation of the Sanskrit Stupa. The origins of the word Pagoda are obscure. In modern usage, the word Stupa and Pagoda refer to the same thing.
The Pagoda's original purpose was to house relics and sacred writings. This purpose was popularized due to the efforts of , pilgrims, rulers, and ordinary devotees to seek out, distribute, and extol Buddhist relics. Although it no longer stands, the tallest pre-modern pagoda in Chinese history was the 100 m tall wooden pagoda of Chang'an, built by Emperor Yang of Sui. The Liaodi Pagoda is the tallest pre-modern pagoda still standing, yet in April of 2007 of Changzhou was opened to the public; this pagoda is now the tallest in China, standing at 154 m .
Symbolism and geomancy
Han iconography is noticeable in Chinese Pagoda architecture. The image of the Shakyamuni Buddha in the '''' is also noticeable in some Chinese pagodas, while Buddhist iconography can be observed in the symbolism embodied in the pagoda. In an article on Buddhist elements in Han art, Wu Hung suggests that in these tombs, Buddhist iconography was so well incorporated into native Chinese traditions that a unique system of symbolism had been developed.
The late Ming Dynasty Zhang Tao—a local magistrate of Sheh County in Jiangsu—had a pagoda built precariously at the summit of a large hill, a placement which he believed would influence the success of young students taking the for a civil service degree. When a pagoda of Yihuang County in Fuzhou collapsed in 1210 during the Song Dynasty, all the local inhabitants believed that the unfortunate event was directly correlated with the recent failure of many exam candidates in the , the prerequisite for appointment in civil service. The pagoda was rebuilt in 1223 and had a list inscribed on it of the recently successful examination candidates, in hopes that it would reverse the trend and win the county supernatural, cosmic favor. This curved, circle-based pagoda was built in 523 during the Northern Wei Dynasty, and has survived for 15 centuries.
Sui and Tang
Pagodas built during the Sui and Tang Dynasty usually had a square base, with a few exceptions such as the Daqin Pagoda:
Song, Liao, Jin, Yuan
Pagodas of the Five Dynasties, Northern and Southern Song, Liao, Jin, and Yuan Dynasties incorporated many new styles, with a greater emphasis on hexagonal and octagonal bases for pagodas:
Ming and Qing
Pagodas in the Ming and Qing Dynasties generally inherited the styles of previous eras, although there were some minor variations: