Brian Salter's Blogs: The First Temple Under Heaven

 

I recently wrote about the Tianningsi pagoda, not a 10 minute walk eastbound from Beijing West station. A mere 10 minutes walk away, almost due north of Tianningsi is another temple that is also surely worthy of inspection.

The White Cloud Temple ( 白雲觀 – Bái Yún Gùan, or literally White Cloud Compound) is one of "The Three Great Ancestral Courts" of the Quanzhen School of Taoism, and was first established in 793 AD during the Tang dynasty.

Initially it was known as Tianchang Abbey (天長觀 – Abbey of Celestial Perpetuity) but after Beijing was captured by the Mongols in 1215, the abbey was taken over by the Quanzhen patriarch Qiu Chuji, and became the headquarters of the Quanzhen movement until the establishment of the Ming dynasty.

Qiu renamed the abbey Changchun Gong (長春宮 – Palace of Eternal Spring). This Qiu fellow, it turns out, was pretty well regarded and in October 1222, he gave an exposition of Taoism to Genghis Khan. Qiu's successor built a memorial shrine over Qiu's grave which became a temple in its own right called White Cloud Temple. Today it is a fully functioning temple and is the seat of the Chinese Taoist Association.

The temple is fronted by a magnificent peifang, or archway, and its buildings are laid out around three parallel axes in several courtyards.

Taoism is a religion home-grown in China. It goes back some 1,800 years, so it is nearly as old as Christianity. It originated from various practices which attempted to achieve immortality during the Qin (221-207 BC) and Western Han (206 BC-AD 24) dynasties.

Laozi, the Chinese philosopher, is the chief deity and is honoured as Taishanglaojun (or ‘Lord the Most High’). Taoists believe that Tao (the Way) – Laozi's school of thought – is all-embracing and includes everything, including the sky and the earth. They also believe they can attain longevity and become one with the Tao through special practices of meditation.

In order to become a Taoist priest, novices first had to spend three years living in a temple. Only after this could they be ordained. The ordination was extremely harsh. Each novice had to undergo 100 days of brutal training that sometimes resulted in death. Nowadays, this has been reduced to 53 days, and is not nearly as dangerous. If they got through this training period, they had exams on Taoist classics, poetry and precepts. Afterwards, successful novices were ordained as full Taoist priests.

The Centre of the Chinese Taoist Association, founded in 1958, is located next door to the temple.

The White Cloud Temple is not only the biggest Taoist temple in Beijing, but is also known for its annual Spring Festival ‘temple fair’ which usually starts from Chinese New Year's Day and lasts for 18 days – the longest temple fair in the city.

Around the walls you can see prettily carved stone reliefs, such as this one with a preponderance of lotus flowers. There are also three monkeys depicted in other relief sculptures around the temple. It is said that the monkey is the incarnation of a god; thus, visitors to it always touch the monkey for good luck. The monkeys can be found on the front gateway and the other two in the first courtyard.

Like most other Chinese temples, the White Cloud Temple is laid out on a north-south axis, a bit like a Buddhist temple, with the entrance at the south end. There are five main halls, which house the gods of Taoism, built upon the main axis beginning with the Main Gate, a pool, a bridge, Yuhuang Hall (玉皇殿), Laolü Hall (老律堂), Qiuzu Hall (丘祖殿) and finally the Sanqing Hall (三清殿). On either side of the main axis are two smaller axes, each containing halls dedicated to a variety of lesser deities. In the rear of the complex is a garden which hosts the abbey’s ordination platform.

The middle section includes the main buildings which contain over 50 halls, spanning an area of about 2 hectares. You enter the grounds through a gate in the outside wall which has three portals, delicately engraved with clouds, cranes, and flowers.

Yuhuang Hall (玉皇殿 – the Jade Emperor Hall) was first built in 1661, and was rebuilt in 1788. It is three bays long with a gabled roof, and is flanked by drum and bell towers. (The Jade Emperor is the master of all deities and presides over the heaven, the earth and the nether world, just in case you are not fully clued up on your deities!). He also controls all happiness and disasters. Paintings on the wall were drawn during the Ming and Qing Dynasties and are SO cute!

Beyond the gate is a single-span stone bridge named Wofeng Bridge (Wofeng means stopping the wind).

Walking across the bridge, Lingguan Hall is the next hall that you see. It houses Wang Lingguan, the guarding deity of Taoism. The wooden statue of the god was sculptured during the Ming Dynasty, and is about 1.2 meters high.

As this is a fully operational temple, you won’t be surprised to see loads of incense burners and the air is thick with pungent smells.

Naturally with so much incense being burned, the authorities are highly safety conscious especially where ‘firo’ is concerned, and you don’t have to look very far before you find a ‘firo extiguishor’ box.

Next up is Laolu Hall (老律堂means Hall of Commandments), which was originally named Qizhen Hall (Qizhen refers to seven people, as it’s the place where the seven disciples of the founder of the Quanzhen Sect of Taoism are worshipped).

The hall has the same design as the Yuhuang Hall (maybe they had a shortage of budding architects in those days) and was first built in 1456. The monks hold twice-daily prayers here and it is also where ordination certificates are issued. I’m led to believe that it is also the place where people gather to chant Taoist sutras. But I’m a bit rusty on my sutras, so I decide not to join in.

In the temple are some 30 Taoist priests, who wear blue-black robes and have long hair which is tied up and held in place with a headband.

It is said that Qiu Chuji comes back to the human world to meet fated persons, which is why there are always so many candles burning (yet another ‘firo extiguishor’ box).

In Laolu Hall there are also seven statues of Taoist saints, including one of Qiu. There’s also a drum dating from the Ming Dynasty with a dragon painted on the leather drumhead.

The Qiuzu Hall (丘祖殿) was originally built to enshrine Qiu, and was first built in 1228. Every year on the 19th day of the first lunar month a festival is held at the abbey in celebration of his birthday. It was believed that Qiu would return to earth as an immortal on this day.

At the centre of the hall is a huge wooden bowl made of the knotted root of a tree and which was given to the temple by Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). After Qiu’s death, his ashes were buried under the bowl.

Unfortunately no photos are allowed inside the hall, so I couldn’t snap this relic…

But there are some nicely carved wooden reliefs on the side walls (oh… did my finger press the camera key? How clumsy of me!)

Only one of the halls in this temple complex has two floors.

In front of it is a gilded copper incense burner, which was cast in the Ming Dynasty and is delicately engraved with 43 dragons. These dragons are obviously a big hit with the visitors as they all are really shiny where they have been stroked by passers-by.

The West and East sections of the temple have even more halls where yet more gods – such as they who master the changing of the weather are worshiped. But it’s really cold today so I decide not to worship the weather god and instead cast my covetous eyes on some artificial peonies that would look splendid in my apartment. A snip at 30 kuai each? Well, maybe not this time…

Baiyunguan Temple is located at 6 Baiyunguan Jie, Xibianmenwai which is about 1,500 metres southeast of Muxidi subway station on Line 1.