Daniel Garst

Heavenly temples many may overlook

By Daniel Garst (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-10-11 08:12
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Beijing once had thousands of temples, more than any other city in Asia. It was both a political capital and a holy city that attracted thousands of pilgrims each year from all over China.

Although most of these temples have disappeared, many of the major ones remain standing.

And, in recent years, national and municipal authorities have made commendable efforts to preserve this aspect of Beijing's cultural heritage.

Among Beijing's existing historic temples, the Temple of Heaven and Lama Temple grab most of the glory and attract most of the visitors but neither rank as my personal favorites.

The Temple of Heaven has lovely grounds and its main hall is a stunning example of traditional Chinese architecture. However, the interior is now closed to the public and visitors have to fight the crowds and crane their necks through small windows to get a view of the inside.

In addition to being jammed-packed, especially at weekends and during the Spring Festival, the Lama Temple is surrounded by tacky shops selling Buddhist kitsch.

Fortunately, people seeking a respite from the Lama Temple's tourist hordes and overly commercial atmosphere need only stroll a short distance down the nearby Guozijian to the Confucian Temple.

For those of us who are unable to hoof it over to Confucius' Qufu Shandong hometown, going to this temple is the best way of paying homage to the great sage.

Thanks to an absence of crowds, one can engage in quiet contemplation amid the fantastically gnarled trees and stately pavilions in front of the temple's Dacheng Dian main hall. Each individual pavilion commemorates different historical events and a small but good museum with interesting displays on the life of Confucius is now housed in the building off to the side of this hall and courtyard.

The Confucian Temple is also home to the Imperial College, where students prepared for civil service examinations and governmental careers.

I especially love three things about this place. The first are the steles just behind the Confucian Temple's entrance gate listing the names of every Imperial College scholar who endured the "examination hell". The second is the single-eaved decorative archway with its three white marble fringed gates and fantastic green and gold tiles. The third is the twin-roofed, gold knob topped Biyong Hall. Visitors can gaze at the impressive throne from which the Emperor delivered his annual address to the scholars and admire the huge roof with elaborately painted beams.

Finally, the Imperial College wing of the Confucian Temple also has a small museum hosting good special exhibits, including a very interesting one showcasing historical photos of the Great Wall.

Taoism is China's other main home-grown religion and the best place in Beijing to appreciate it is the White Clouds Temple, which is also the headquarters of the Chinese Taoists Association.

Thanks to its northern Fengtai location, the temple normally has few visitors. One can soak in the spiritual vibe created by the burning incense and Taoist monks with their distinctive black robes, peaked hats and hair twisted into top-knots without being jostled about by crowds.

While all of the temple's halls have beautiful interiors, my two personal favorites are the ones devoted to Bixiao Yuanjin, the Taoist Goddess of Love, and the Taoist true saint, Qiu Changchun. The former is the perfect place to visit on Valentine's Day, while the latter also has a large map detailing Qiu's epic 1219-1223 journey back and forth across China to visit Genghis Khan on its outside back wall.

Spring Festival is the one time of the year when the temple becomes, as the Chinese say, a "people-mountain, people-sea". But I still like going there at that time of the year because it hosts Beijing's best temple fair.

This fair has the usual delicious street food and good live entertainment, especially martial arts performances. However, it also offers visitors something unique.

One can join Taoist worshippers seeking to enhance their luck first by rubbing a polished stone in front of the temple and then by tossing small discs at oversized coins suspended from a bridge spanning the small pool near the temple's entrance.

Despite its ongoing modern makeover, Beijing still has lots of places for appreciating traditional Chinese culture.

Visitors and residents intent on doing that should put the White Cloud and Confucian temples at the top of their list of places to visit.

(China Daily 10/11/2010 page26)