Formerly the Shanxi Provincial Museum, the Forest of Stelae is situated in a former Confucian temple (ca. 1087) that the literature describes as "unsophisticated and elegant." Originally forming the basis of a Tang university, many of the stelae have traveled a long way to get here; they were floated downriver on rafts to Luoyang during the Song dynasty before returning here in 1087. Stelae are often borne on bixi, legendary turtlelike creatures descended from the Dragon King (longwang) that were renowned for their incredible strength and endurance. As there is little English signage, the stelae can be a little hard to appreciate for non-Chinese-speakers, but the serene atmosphere of the courtyards and their contorted time-old trees require no translation.

In the main courtyard, the first major stele was composed by the Xuanzong emperor in 745; the exposition on filial piety predated the influential "three character classic" (san zi jing). Room 1 houses the Confucian classics, including The Analects, The Spring, and Autumn Annals. Candidates for official examinations would pore over rubbings taken from these stelae and would be expected to know the classics by heart -- an educational style that unfortunately still holds sway in China. Immediately to your left in room 2 is the Nestorian Stele. Nestorian Christians were drummed out of the Church for maintaining that Jesus was both human and divine and that Mary was the mother of "the man Jesus," and not the mother of God. The stele records the visit of a Nestorian priest to Chang'an and the founding of a Nestorian chapel, providing evidence of a Nestorian presence in China as early as A.D. 635. The influence of other faiths is clear -- the Maltese cross is set amid Daoist clouds, supported by a Buddhist lotus flower. Rooms 2 and 3 also house the work of master calligraphers, such as Wang Xizhi, whose writings are still used as models by calligraphy students. Room 4 has pictorial stelae, including a famous image of Confucius. Here you will encounter a demonstration of "rubbing," whereby moistened paper is hammered onto the inked stones, color is tapped on using a wooden disk wrapped in a cloth, and the impression is dried before being gobbled up by Japanese tour groups. It isn't a gentle process, and it's easy to see why many stelae are almost unreadable. Double back to your left to enter rooms 5 to 7, as well as a gallery of stone sculpture containing an exquisite statue of a bodhisattva that shows Indian and Grecian influences.