Hidden Temples of China

"Hall of the Three Pure Ones"--Statues of Taoist deities. (Photo by Alan Phillips)

One our most recent trip to China, my wife and I by chance happened to visit many different religious sites.  While religious practice is not outlawed in China today, it is low-key.  During the last decade of Mao Zedong’s life religions were effectively banned and religious leaders and worshippers persecuted.  The climate is more relaxed today, but there is still tight control.  All religions are officially run by the government and no religion is allowed to be controlled by a foreign source.  So the Chinese Catholic church takes its orders from the Communist party rather than the Vatican for example.

Chinese traditional beliefs run strong however, and since they weren’t organized under an international network or hierarchy like Western religions such as Christianity or Islam, they tend to flourish quietly in hidden corners.  One example of this is the little temple at Tai Bai Yan park in Wanzhou, my wife’s home town.

Entrance to the temple on Tai Bai Yan. (Photo by Alan Phillips)

Tai Bai Yan is one of several steep mesas that jut out from the inland hills almost to the Yangtze River.  It’s name means “Tai Bai’s Cliff”.  Tai Bai was a Chinese poet who lived a thousand years ago during the Tang dynasty.  His name is variously rendered in English as Tai Bai, Li Bai, Li Bo or Li Po depending on the translator.  The poet supposedly spent a sojourn among the cliffs here composing poems during his years of exile.

The mesa was once the edge of the city, but now Wanzhou has grown and high-rises sprawl on either side of the ridge.  The park is a narrow forested area between a major street and the summit of the cliff where it is impossible to squeeze any more apartment buildings.  Much of it is neglected so the carved stone steps leading up the cliff are overgrown in places and the occasional rusty iron staircases often look perilous to climb.  But half-way up the cliff, on carved-out ledges and hidden by the dense foliage is a small temple.  To reach the temple you have to pass through a gate and pay an entrance fee to an old man in a booth.  Few people actually come here because the main part of the park below is free to enter and much better maintained by the city.  Only those who want to hike the steep narrow steps to the temple would bother.  As a result, the temple area seems to be earning less and less money and this part of the park is slowly being swallowed up by the subtropical vegetation.

Cliff side inscriptions on Tai Bai Yan. (Photo by Alan Phillips)

Despite its neglect, the temple has one of the best views of the city.  You can see for miles across the valleys of the Yangtze and its tributaries as well as the mountains beyond.  All around the cliff edge and along the stone staircase leading up to the temple are inscriptions carved in the rock.  Many of these are in very beautiful calligraphy date to the nineteenth century but they are steadily being eroded by seeping water and vegetation and may not last a few more decades.  Strangely, there were also small tombs carved into the cliff side just off the path.  Some of these had recent offerings of candles and tinsel on them, while others were overgrown with bushes and were starting to look like parts of the natural world rather than man-made monuments.  You can often see isolated tombs in China’s countryside.  Most farmers will bury the ashes of their deceased family members on their farmland.  However, as China’s cities expand and develop, last year’s countryside may become this year’s housing development, so you can stumble upon tombs in odd corners of many cities.

Zen (Chan) Buddhist temple at Liang Ping in Chongqing province. (Photo by Alan Phillips)

Calling this place a “temple,” though, is a bit of an overstatement.  This is no actual temple building—there was no room really to fit any big structures on the ledges.  The front of the temple was a cement wall with a yin-yang symbol and trigrams painted recently.  Beyond that was a short overhang where several statues were carved out of the cliff side.  The statues are the oldest part of the temple.  No one could seem to give me an accurate date on them, but they probably aren’t much more than a hundred years old.  They varied in size from a foot tall to life-sized.  I wasn’t sure who the statues were supposed to represent, whether Buddhas, Taoist gods or even historical figures.

Turtle pond within the Buddhist temple. (Photo by Alan Phillips)

Though the place was empty, there were plenty of signs that this was an active temple.  The statues were covered with red cloths and small porcelain figures of Buddhist bodhisattvas were placed next to them.  In front of the statues were tubs of water over which prayer candles are set.  The water tubs were to prevent accidental fires I figured, judging from the number of candle stubs and the large amount of melted wax covering the ground.  Along the cliff side were other devotional sites, all part of the same temple.  There were simple alcoves with a circular entrances that had a crude altars covered in red cloth.  And as we walked along the stone path we met other statues carved out the cliffs.  The largest of these were three big seated figures about ten feet tall, painted to be lifelike, but now fading from the rain.  They were beneath a makeshift roof decorated with Christmas lights and a plaque that said “Hall of the Three Pure Ones”.  The statues represented three Taoist deities.  Hundreds of strips of red cloth were tied in knots in front the statues and symbols and Chinese characters had been painted recently on some of them.

Details of temple architecture at Liang Ping. (Photo by Alan Phillips)

The combination of neglect along with signs of lots of human activity seemed to be a common feature of traditional Chinese religious sites in mainland China.  People don’t come here on a regular basis.  They make offerings and prayers during times of crisis or on Chinese New Year, but otherwise folks wouldn’t make the trek up the cliffs.  It reminded me of when I had taught at a college in Chongqing.  The local temples near the college always seemed to be full of student worshippers right before final exam time.  The French teacher from Paris would chastise her students for this.  “Buddha can’t help you,” she said.  “He didn’t speak French.”

We also went to another temple while visiting my wife’s home town.  This one was further away though.  It was supposedly a larger, more active temple and had been a local tourist attraction in the area.  In years past it was a difficult to get to, being so far out in the countryside.  But now with the superhighway running from Chongqing to Wanzhou it was only a 45 minute drive away.

We flagged down a taxi in the morning in Wanzhou and negotiated with the driver for a round trip out to the countryside.  He agreed to do it for 500 yuan (about $70) which was a hefty price by Chinese standards, but the alternative was to ride the bus which would take hours, so we went along with it.

The new highway was built exactly like an American interstate with the same style of barriers and guard rails and same white-on-green signs marking the exits.  The difference of course is that the signs are bilingual Chinese and English—and sometimes very fractured English at that.  But the landscape in Chongqing province is unlike anywhere in the U.S.  The mountains and valleys rise and fall at a near vertical slope, so in many places the highway is a series of alternating bridges and tunnels.  Some of these tunnels run for three kilometers beneath the mountain ridges.
Finally the highway reached a wide plain between two mountain ranges.  Here was the town of Liang Ping where the temple was located.  Though my wife described Liang Ping as a remote country town, it actually was a small city.  New factories and industries were under construction here and the town’s streets were wide, busy boulevards.  But even so, it was not as crowded as Wanzhou and it had wide stretches of farmland just outside the town center.  The countryside was very beautiful with endless fields of corn and flooded rice paddies.  The farmhouses here were new and were mostly of the standard concrete boxes one can find all over China.  They weren’t however, all crowded together and the farmers seemed fairly well off judging by the children’s new bicycles and the adult’s new motor scooters.  In China you can get a feeling of claustrophobia at times—everything seems to be “all city, all the time”.  But there is space to breathe in the countryside if you travel far enough.

The temple was located several miles outside of town.  In years past, before the highways and paved roads, this place must have been nearly inaccessible.  There were a few cars in the parking lot at the temple and not many other people.  I got the impression that not many tourists actually made it out this far from Wanzhou (which itself is something of a remote city).  The temple is a Zen Buddhist (or “Chan” Buddhist in Mandarin) temple and was founded in the seventeenth century.  The whole compound was collection of intricately detailed halls, courtyard gardens full of trees and pools filled with turtles and sculptures.  There were many meditation halls and prayer halls filled with golden statues of the Buddha and other Buddhist saints.  But despite having the space for hundreds of residents there were very few monks there.  We saw a few tending the grounds and one monk playing a stringed instrument in what looked like a library but the main activity seemed to be tourism.

Outside the main temple was a large building called the “Hall of the Luohans” which the English signs translated unhelpfully as “Hall of the Arhats”.  A luohan (or arhat in India) is a Buddhist holy man who hasn’t yet reached the stage of enlightenment that the Buddha has.  When we walked in, we were confronted with aisle upon aisle of statues of the luohans.  These were life-size figures, apparently recently made in plaster or something similar and all were painted in full color.  There were a few hundred of them and each one was sculpted in a sort of exaggerated cartoon-like style.

Some were laughing, some were grimacing and some looked serene.  But none of them looked serious or dignified—it was as if someone had captured these holy men when they thought no one was looking.  I thought it was the most original and awesome collection of artwork I had seen in China.  Each one was unique, like the terracotta warriors unearthed in Xi’an at the first emperor’s tomb.  But unlike those grim, stoic warriors, the luohans all looked like people you would want to meet and chat with for a while.

And the variety of the luohan sculptures was amazing.  Though all were dressed in Buddhist robes and most were Chinese-looking, some looked Indian, Middle-Eastern, African or European.  I could swear there was a Native American-looking one who was the image of Sitting Bull in a monk’s robe.  There were also a few blue and green-skinned luohans as well.  Perhaps they represented some future Martian ethnicity?  The luohans, however, were all men.  No girls were allowed in their fraternity it seems.

Statue of Buddhist monks releasing a turtle from captivity. (Photo by Alan Phillips)

But the hall wasn’t just a place to show off their sculptures.  You could have your fortune told here also.  The process was complicated.  You had to pick a number at the front desk and the lady there gave you a card.  You had to then pick one of the aisles and start counting off the statues one by one until you come to the number you chose.  Each luohan has his own ID number on a card next to his statue.  You had to write down this number and then go to one of the monks in the center of the rooms and he would determine your fortune based on the numbered card you started with and the random luohan you ended up with.

So I went through the process of choosing a card and counting off statues along the aisles until I reached my luohan who turned out to be a pale, contented-looking fellow.  I made note of the luohan’s ID number and then went to the center of the hall and waited my turn for one of the monks.  The monk who told my fortune was a middle-aged man in glasses and an orange robe.  My wife translated for me as he read my card and indexed it with the number of the luohan I ended up with.  His first comment was, “You’re a teacher, aren’t you?”  A good guess, but probably most foreigners who travel this far are either teachers or business people.

He also said, “You like Chinese girls.”  A less impressive guess since my Chinese wife was with me and I doubt anyone who actively disliked Chinese women would bother making the effort to visit China.  He then told me my fortune for the upcoming year, which was vague enough that neither I nor my wife could later remember accurately but it was full of good things to come and warnings of bad things to avoid and in general foretold happiness to come.  At the end he stamped a yellow cloth with a red seal and I held this in my hands with my eyes closed as he touched my head and chanted a prayer.  There was a donation box where next to the fortune-telling tables where you could put in what ever amount you wished after your fortune was told.  I was going to drop in twenty yuan, but I saw in the guest book that the several people who were before me had donated up to 500 yuan.  So I put in a hundred—I still had to pay for the taxi ride home, remember.

Hall of the Luohans. (Photo by Alan Phillips)

As we were leaving the temple, a tour guide was leading a group of Chinese tourists in.  We overheard him talking about how the temple survived the Cultural Revolution.  Apparently the army had taken it over and used it as a barracks in the sixties and seventies.  This had preserved the temple until it was later returned by the state to its original use.  It’s often that old architecture in China is saved only because it had been repurposed or occupied by untouchable factions such as the army during China’s political upheavals.  Other temples and structures that were not of use by the state or were too close to the cities were often destroyed.

But even though this temple has been saved, it is still suffering from damage.  My wife has a photo of her and her father in front of this temple when they visited it in the 1980s.  Comparing that photo to the ones we took this summer, it’s obvious that the plaques and paintwork on the exterior of the buildings have faded badly.  The temple has been saved from soldiers and ideological revolutionaries, but like the cliff side temple at Tai Bai Yan, it may succumb to the forces of nature in the end.

Alan Phillips is the technology coordinator at the Asian American Civic Association.

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