Brian Salter's Blogs:
BJ's Most Disappointing Temple Museum?

 

In my last blog, I was writing about a little gem of a temple – TongJiaoSi – that I had found in the Dongzhimen area of Beijing. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for my next “discovery” – another temple which was built six centuries ago and which left me with a profound feeling of wondering why I had ever bothered going in search of the place.

ZhihuaSi (智化寺), which roughly translates as "Temple of Wisdom Attained", is located in the Lumicang (禄米仓) hutong about ten minutes walk from Chaoyangmen station. It was built in 1443 at the order of Wang Zhen, a powerful eunuch in the Rites Supervising Office of the court of Emperor Yingzong. (Wang Zhen was the first eunuch in the history of the Ming dynasty to make conspicuous use of his power for personal ends.)

He not only ordered many mansions to be built and expanded Buddhist temples, but also discriminated against anybody with different views from his own and made false charges against loyal court officials. In other words, he was a pretty rotten fellow!

According to china.org.cn, the temple is one of the largest and finest examples of Buddhist architecture from the period. Beginning from the front gate and extending to the Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas, seven principal halls are comprised in the temple complex. A notable feature of the temple is the glazed tiles which line the roof ridges of the major buildings, augmenting the solemnity of the complex.

planetware.com adds its own praises: This Buddhist temple is one of the most important original building complexes from the Ming period in the old town.

mytravelguide.com informs its visitors that the temple has 10 halls in three courtyards, housing 1,521 pieces of historical relics, and a set of wood blocks for printing the Great Buddhist Scriptures. They are the only existing official wood blocks for printing Chinese-character Buddhist scriptures in the country. But the most valuable cultural relics here are the Beijing music and music scores dating back to the Ming Dynasty.

Wikipedia, too, adds its ha’porth of accumulated knowledge: The Zhihua Temple became a nationally preserved cultural and historic relic in 1961. In 2005 the Chinese government undertook a renovation of the temple (which is now complete) in preparation for the numerous international visitors expected at the time of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

It all sounds very tempting, so I make my way over to Chaoyangmen and without too much difficulty locate the said temple.

There are two entrance portals and I make my way through the first gate and attempt to buy a ticket from the guard, who is more intent on topping up his forty winks worth of sleep. But it appears I should have bought my entrance ticket from the ticket office in the other entrance, not from this security entrance and I am politely pointed in the right direction.

I go to the ticket office which is standing forlornly empty. I knock on the glass and call out NiHao a few times, but to no avail. But this is Beijing, and the sight of a laowai calling out in the middle of a hutong does raise the interest of some of the locals. A kindly old man beckons me to follow him through the second entrance and back to the first security guard where he hands me over with a triumphant flourish and I find myself back to square one in a state reminiscent of Groundhog Day.

With my limited Chinese vocabulary and a number of hand gestures, the guard finally gets the message. Hmm. Going back to the ticket office and actually getting me a ticket would obviously be too easy a solution. Instead, his wife – whom I suspect to be the ticket agent all along – happens to turn up with a cup of the hot and steaming in her hand. She asks for 20 kuai and I hand over a 100-note. Hmmm. All the change is in the ticket office. No worries. She dives into her handbag and hands me over 80 kuai and the 100-note ends up in her bag. I somehow suspect that that is where the entrance fee will end up, too. However, I am now inside the hallowed portals of the temple.

Unlike other temples, the roofs of the temple are covered with black glazed tiles, symbolizing the vanquishing of demons and monsters, so beijingtoday.com.cn tells me.

In front of me is the Zhihua Gate and to my left and right are the drum and bell towers. The bronze bell was cast in 1444 and apparently there are more than 20 kinds of Sanskrit mantras carved on it. There used also to be a Ming style drum with dragon patterns and both surfaces covered in ox hide. But in 1987 the drum was ‘moved out’ and a replica of the drum was displayed in the drum tower.

But this is all academic, as far as I am concerned, for the entrances to the Zhihua Gate, drum tower and bell tower are all firmly padlocked shut with rusty padlocks looking like they haven’t been opened in eons.

To my left is a map – or to be perfectly accurate… two maps, positioned side by side. Not to take any chances, some bright spark has noticed that the toilet in the north west corner is not accurately positioned; and instead of it facing north-east/south-west, the second map has it facing east/west. OMG – just think of how many people must have walked past that loo not realising what it was. Oh, and also another trifling matter (some may think) in that on the right map is marked Temple Men, whilst on the left map is marked Temple Gate. Phew, I guess you can never be too careful!

So, with that potential confusion safely put to bed, I step into the next courtyard. Ahead of me is the Zhihua Hall with the Scriptures Hall on my left and the Great Wisdom Hall on my right.

A little notice informs the visitor that the Zhihua Hall equates to the Hall of the Heavenly Kings in ‘ordinary’ temples. In the past it had a throne with a statue of Maitreya Buddha in its front and a statue of Skanda at its rear. I am soon to discover that ‘ín the past’ is a somewhat over-used expression in this place.

Similarly, The Great Wisdom hall on the east side of the Zhihua hall used to enshrine statues of Avalokitesvra, Manjusri and Samantabhadra riding a dog-like beast, a lion and a six toothed white elephant respectively. Nowadays they are gone. Or to put it another way, the said hall has now been converted into “The exhibition hall of museum creative souvenir” – selling tourists’ kitsch.

But back to the Zhihua Hall where the white marble Sumeru thrones were once placed in its central section. This hall apparently also enshrined gilt, wooden statues of three Buddhas, as well as seated statues of the 18 Arhats. Unfortunately they were moved out. (The three smaller statues displayed now were originally enshrined in the Great Mercy Hall.)

Unfortunately, the official blurb continues, the exquisite caisson ceiling was sold to the USA and is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

According to the Philadelphia Museum, the caisson ceiling measures 891.5 cm by 1137.9 cm with a thickness of 10.2 centimetres. It depicts as its central motif a writhing dragon surrounded by clouds around which are bracketing and panels each depicting another smaller sized writhing dragon flying among the clouds. Lining this central Dragon Well are further panels upon which are carved images depicting lotuses, flying apsaras and other Buddhist symbols showing the strong influence of Tibetan Buddhism as it prevailed when the Temple was opened.

Ah well, there are at least one or two pretty modern-looking statues still filling up the space…

… even if Lord Dhama has lost the use of his hands.


My mind races back to mytravelguide.com and its mention of the most valuable cultural relics here are the Beijing music and music scores dating back to the Ming Dynasty.

According to chinaculture.org, legend says, from 1436 to 1440, more than three thousand court musicians were dismissed, and some of them converted into monks or nuns. It is believed that some of the monks of the Zhihuasi temple were dismissed musicians.

I avidly read on… Zhihuasi temple is well known for its collection of Buddhist music. Monks today continue to perform music from Buddhist rituals dating back to the late Ming Dynasty, using many instruments, including different gongs, sheng, a bamboo mouth organ, di, a kind of flute, and taigu, drums. Now, it has become a key representative of popular Buddhist music.

Wikipedia adds a little more to the melting pot of information. At the temple, a group of musicians regularly performs centuries-old ritual music which has been handed down over 27 generations. The six-member group is led by the octogenarian Buddhist monk Zhang Benxing (张本兴, born c. 1922), the only surviving member of the 26th generation of musicians, and the last person to have learned the music in the traditional manner.

chinaculture.org jumps in once again: Nowadays, because more and more senior monks are passing away, and young successors do not have a good command of this skill, Beijing zhihuasi temple music urgently needs protection.

drben.net informs us that on a limited number of days, mostly during the spring and summer high seasons for tourism, one can actually come and enjoy life (sic) performances of this original music at the Temple. The monks playing the instruments in this performance are truly masters at their play.

I look around and spy a ringing bowl (the type that “hums” a pure tone when you stroke its circumference with a wooden stick at just the right speed.) There is also a battered drum. And that’s about it. Maybe Mr Zhang Benxing has now passed away. Whatever the reason, again this temple scores a big fat resounding zero in terms of having anything mildly interesting on display.

But what have we here? Have I spoken too soon? The Scriptures Hall, it appears, is famous for the only octagonal Ming-style scripture cabinet (Zhuanlunzang) in the whole of Beijing (oh Wow!). Or, on the other hand, some other web sites will tell you it is hexagonal (or even hectagonal!). I manage to count six sides, so will plump for the hexagonal description!

Either way, here is a unique collection of wooden carved printing blocks made in the first half of the 15th century, the only such collection in existence today. The wooden blocks are stored inside the Zang, which is an equally unique made-to-fit hexagonal cabinet decorated with hand carved deities and other divinely inspired depictions.

Completed during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, it contains 724 sections in more than 7,240 volumes and 1,675 Buddhist sutras. It weighs 400 tons and is one of only two wooden versions of a Tripitaka in the world. (The other is a Korean Version, which is kept in the Haiyin Temple in Korea.)

Maybe I have been too critical in my expectations. I move on to the next courtyard…

Ahead of me is a building that is of the greatest historical importance, in art, in the complex – the two-storey Tathagata Hall (Rulai Dian), named after the statue of the transcendental Buddha (5 Tathagata) which is housed here.

The hall is also known as "10,000 Buddha Hall" because of the numerous small Buddha figurines (originally about 9000, but then who is counting when there are that many?) whose shrines adorn the walls.

The particularly fine octagonal cupola, I now learn, was also removed from the temple in the 1930s and is now in the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas. In fact, according to poly-plaza.com, from 1930 to 1934, some monks stole and sold a number of the best pieces in the museum. So now we know!

Yet again wondering why I had bothered coming here at all, I spy a helpful looking notice pointing to a little pathway behind the Tathagata Hall.

To be honest I hadn’t even noticed the pathway, so my expectations rising once more I move on to where I read that the Great Mercy Hall is also called the Hall of the Great Bliss.

According to www.drben.net/ChinaReport, this otherwise not very opulent building is historically the all important shrine where the statue of the founding father of the Temple, the court eunuch Wang Zheng, was honoured.

But why am I not surprised that the eastern side room which used to be the abbots courtyard is now gone. And on peering in, all I get to see is a room full of chairs and some casually stashed away ping pong tables…

… while outside there is an inscribed piece of stone that has broken in two and which has been dumped unceremoniously near a drain.

I guess, looking back, I should have seen the warning signs well before setting out on today’s little trip. www.drben.net sums it up best of all when it says Although plundered, the interior of the hall still holds a few minor treasures, adding a little further down that The current day Zhihua Temple regrets it severely that these statues were moved out of the Temple.

So, dear blog fans, lest you too have been tempted by those over-zealous web sites that describe some of BJ’s must-see attractions without ever having set foot in the place, may I strongly advise you that your time would be much better spent staying in bed and dreaming about what might have been once upon a time, one of Beijing’s must-see attractions… and just leave it at that.