Alternative Title

Chinese Etymology of "Pagoda"


Cohen, Gerald Leonard


Western reference works regard the architectural term pagoda as being of uncertain origin, but an overlooked etymology proposed by Liang Sicheng convincingly solves the mystery: The word is Chinese, with the literal meaning “eight” (pa) “cornered” (ko) “tower” (La). Liang Sicheng, who pioneered the serious study of classical Chinese architecture, pointed out:

‘The octagonal pagoda, which first appeared in the Tomb Pagoda of Ching-tsang in 746, was the first “pa-go-da” in the real sense of the term.’

This 746 date is of course centuries before the first appearance of pagoda in a European language, viz. 1516 in Portuguese, so the chronology presents no problems.

In a speculative vein D. R. Tien adds that a specific pagoda constructed later (between 1597 and 1600) probably played an important role in helping the term to become entrenched in English and other European languages: the Pazhouta, standing in the Pearl River Estuary.

Also, besides the architectural term pagoda in China, there are similar sounding words used elsewhere (pa-god\ pagotha, pagoda, etc.) pertaining to pagan deities or idols - very possibly homonymous with the Chinese architectural word but not its source.


Arts, Languages, and Philosophy

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Article - Journal

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© 2017 Gerald Cohen and David Robbins Tien, All rights reserved.

Publication Date

01 Apr 2017