Saturday, August 6, 2016

Dai Temple Art in Jinggu County

                                                       by Jim Goodman

rural life in Jinggu, 17th century carving
       Pu’er Prefecture, with nine counties the largest prefecture in Yunnan, is one of the least visited in the province.  It doesn’t have the dramatic scenery that draws people to other parts of Yunnan.  Ethnic minorities, like Yi, Hani, Lahu, Dai and Wa make up a large proportion of the population.  But except in the southwestern counties, they mostly live and dress like their Han neighbors.  Other than Menglian, which has the original Dai town right next to it, all the cities are modern, with no surviving old quarters, with the only traditional buildings being a few pavilions in the city parks.
       Nevertheless, since I acquired the ambition to see the entire province, I had to make a trip through Pu’er Prefecture as well.  I had a pleasant time in Pu’er city, then called Simao, because of encounters with friendly folks in restaurants and at the reservoir.  There wasn’t much to see in the vicinity, other than sprawling tea gardens and a mini-Stone Forest at Caiyun.  Ning’er, then called Pu’er, and Jiangcheng were boring, even in the markets, and Zhenyuan dirty and ugly.
Dai woman in Jinggu
Tabaoshu--the Pagoda-Wrapped Tree
       I had hopes for Jinggu, though, just because it was a Dai and Yi Autonomous County.  Living in Thailand for several years, it was bound to be of some interest.  Jinggu city lies in a broad valley of the Chengyuan River, which eventually joins with the Lancangjiang (the name of the Mekong River in China).  It’s a manufacturing center, very modern, but with royal palms lining the downtown streets.  In the markets I did see people who were definitely Dai, not Han, recognizable both by their faces and by the women wearing the wrap-around  gray or pastel -colored jacket, with a blouse, black sarong, apron and turban that was the local Dai women’s outfit.
Guanmian Temple in Jinggu city
       Modern Jinggu is an appendage of the original Dai villages around a couple of knolls in the southern suburbs of the city.  The houses are modest versions of the typical mud-brick, tile-roofed Yunnan countryside house.  Lots of fishponds lie in the area and the rice fields begin just beyond the last houses.   Each settlement has its own small temple, with a few resident monks in each.  The people are friendly to strangers, but only the older generation of women dresses in Dai style
       Jinggu city’s one famous monument, Guanmian Temple, sits on a knoll beside Dazhai village.  Built in 1601, wooden, with three tiers of tiled, gently sloping roofs, its only artistic embellishment is the pair of stone lions flanking the entry stairs.  The interior, though, is quite ornately decorated with various things suspended from the ceiling and a large seated Buddha, swathed in yellow robes, sits in the rear.
collaring a dog, the Tree-Wrapped Pagoda
       In the temple courtyard stand two brick and stone, bell-shaped stupas, called the Tree-Wrapped Pagoda and the Pagoda-Wrapped Tree.  In the former, the roots of a tree wrap around the stupa from the base and form into a trunk above the top.  In the latter, the tree grows out of the center of the stupa and rises through the top.
       The stupas stand on square bases with carved stone plaques surrounding the bottom sides.  Here the Jinggu Dai artists of the early 17th century showed off their skills.  Religious themes do not dominate the sculptures, though.  Instead, the low-relief carvings depict vignettes of daily life, like strolling in a garden, plowing a field, collaring a dog, as well as portraits of people, elephants, wolves, bats, flowers and trees.  It was like the artisans were making a record of their times, carved in stone, for future generations.
       From the courtyard I had a good view of the city and its environs, but unfortunately it was dominated by smokestacks and their emissions.  Just seeing the stone carvings at Guanmian Temple made the trip worth it to me, but I didn’t stay any longer.  However, many years later, traveling through Pu’er Prefecture in the monsoon season, intending to go north from Jingdong to Dali, I wound up in Jinggu again.  Heavy rains had triggered landslides and closed the road north of Jingdong.  The best option was to swing around to Lincang and get to Dali from the southwest.
Yongping temple's library
phoenix strut under a library roof
       I took the bus south to Jinggu, but didn’t stay there.  I headed west to Yongping to stay the night and catch the bus to Lincang from there next morning.  Yongping is a quiet little town with a tree-lined main street, no real restaurants, but an open square at the top of the main street where I could get grilled food and beer.  As it was near dark when I arrived, I didn’t explore the town much.  But I would get my chance.
assembly hall of Yongping's 18th century temple
       The next morning the skies were gray but it wasn’t raining, so I anticipated a long but sure ride to Lincang.  But as soon as we got off the paved roads of the Yongping suburbs and got on the dirt connecting road to the highway to Lincang, that already began to look problematical.  The dirt road was now a slippery mud road full of puddles of unpredictable depths.  After very slow progress, the bus finally got stuck in a puddle in which it seemed stuck until dry season.  A bus coming the other way informed us that the road was blocked.  Landslides again.  Nearly all the passengers were only going several kilometers, so they got off the bus and walked.  I returned to Yongping, which was just two kilometers away.
       Now I would have to go all the way back to Kunming to get to Dali.  I couldn’t do that until the next morning anyway, but as it turned out Yongping and vicinity had attractions that more than compensated for the long detour ahead.  Most of Jinggu’s Dai live in the west and southwest of the county.  The older Dai women around Yongping dress like those in Jinggu city, but the Dai men and the younger generation wear modern clothes.  
rural scene carved on the temple's stone base
Dai shoppers in Yongping
      They are Theravada Buddhists, but apparently, judging by the dearth of hilltop pagodas and village shrines, not so religious-minded as the Dai in Xishuangbanna, Dehong or even Gengma.  They do have a couple of temples in the area, though; one on the southern edge of town and another, truly outstanding, 17 km south at Qiannuo.
       Yongping’s temple is an 18th century wooden structure with three wide, tiled roofs and an extra roof added over the entrance.  It’s a darker color and a little longer than Guanmian Temple in Jinggu, which gives it a more harmonious look. It has no struts supporting the roofs, the corners of which are not upturned.   The building sits on a stone base, carved panels around it, most of them completely worn.  A few are still in good condition: one of a boy, another of an elephant and the best one, a farmer playing a flute while riding a water buffalo.  A very large Buddha image sits in the rear of the temple’s interior, along with other images, while several long, narrow cloth banners hang from the ceiling, woven by the local women as gifts to beautify the temple.
Qingfo Temple, Qiannuo village
       In the courtyard, the library, a three-tiered wooden building on a brick and stone hexagonal base, houses the temple’s religious manuscripts, keeping them high and dry and safe from floods and insects.  Unlike the main building, the library features much more artistic embellishment, like carved shutters, eaves and brackets and the dragon and winged phoenix struts that support the tiled roofs.  These additions make the library an altogether more interesting building, artistically speaking, than the relatively unadorned assembly hall.
       To see the highest achievements in Jinggu County art and architecture, one needs only to proceed along the valley south from Yongping 17 km to Qiannuo, a large Dai village that’s home to Qingfo Temple.  The wooden assembly hall, built in 1778, has three tiers of wide, sweeping tiled roofs with upturned corners and also stands on a stone base with carved panels all along the sides.  Unlike the Yongping temple, though, artisans have covered practically every space on the Qingfosi temple with some kind of artistic enhancement.  
musicians on a carved bracket
       The walls between the roofs feature rows of wooden blocks, mostly bright blue, like a grill around all four sides.  Underneath these on the top level are panels of different kinds of vases, and occasionally people dressed in classical Chinese robes, in gold against a black background.  From the apex of the roof hangs a slender, red wooden fish, outlined in white, a symbol of water to counter the threat of lightning.
       The walls of the ground floor, brackets, eaves and some of the supporting posts are dark red, with all the designs lacquered in gold.  The pillars in front of the entrance are gray, but also with gold designs, only on the upper half for the side posts, but from top to bottom on the two central pillars.  These two are covered with repeating motifs of wavy spirals, resembling the lines of flower petals seen from above.    Near the top of each post the front part of a dragon’s body comes right out of the pillar, with the end of its tail emerging from the other side.  To the right, under the eaves, sits a paper white elephant that’s taken out for a procession on Guanmenjie, the beginning of the Buddhist retreat season.
       Like the bases of the two pagodas in Jinggu and the temple library in Yongping, that around the main hall of Qingfo Temple is also a gallery of pictures carved in stone.  Some of them are animal portraits, like birds, deer and elephants.  Others are wider panels, with vases full of vegetation bracketing low-relief vignettes of daily life:  enjoying a banquet, riding horses, hunting with a crossbow, riding boats, sitting at a lecture, confronting a tiger, etc.
monk with his manuscripts, inside Qingfo Temple
       Two and a half centuries of wind and rain have worn some of the edges of these stone sculptures, but the carvings on the wooden doors, brackets and shutters, all lacquered in gold against a dark red or black background, are in pristine condition.  Many of them are the usual birds, flowers, zodiac animals, dragons and lions, all of them skillfully rendered.  But, as with the stone panels, it’s the scenes of human activity that are far more interesting.
       On the brackets near the entrance musicians play flutes and lutes.  On the door panel a man sits astride a camel.  On another panel a man confronts a tiger in a scene resembling one of the stone sculptures on the base.  A pair of shutters features flanking kings on horseback and another of four panels depicts scholars in gardens.
       The surprise when examining all this imagery is that none of it is religious.  A huge Buddha image sits inside, but the array of images on the exterior is all secular, all derived from nature and daily life.  Unlike Dai Theravada Buddhist temples elsewhere in Yunnan, the artistic embellishment of Qingfo Temple’s exterior did not include images of Buddha, heavenly angels or the mythical hybrid animals one finds in, for example, Xishuangbanna temples just south.   
       A lot of the temple wall imagery resembles that in Chinese Mahayana Buddhist temples, like the vases, the pavilions in the garden scenes, the clothing worn by the human figures.  Where did Qingfosi’s artisans learn to make such sculptures?  The nearest center of Han culture was a long way from the remote and not very rich Qiannuo village.  There wasn’t any local crafts school.  I don’t think the temple hired Chinese artisans from someplace else in Yunnan.  They must have been local Dai artisans.  So what inspired them?
riding a camel
jungle confrontation
       Some of the imagery obviously came from observing activities of contemporary life, like farming, hunting and riding boats or horses.   Portraits of kings on horseback or scholars in a garden simply must have been imagined.  Most of the animals, the birds, wolves, tigers, deer and buffaloes, they would have seen in their environment.  It’s too far north here for elephants, but maybe a sculptor visited Xishuangbanna, not too far and back then full of elephants.  As for what inspired the perfectly realistic camel, the nearest of which are in faraway Xinjang, that remains a mystery.
       I had plenty to speculate upon on my long bus ride to Dali.  I also came to appreciate even more the innumerable attractions of the province.  Bad weather had sabotaged my original plans, but instead steered me to an aesthetic experience that was all the more thrilling because it was unexpected.  Exciting prospects for future exploration began to occupy my thoughts.  How many more interesting sites existed in the unpublicized, scarcely explored, remote counties of Yunnan?  When traveling in this endlessly fascinating province, truly, every landslide has a silver lining.

18th century hunting scene in stone at Qingfo Temple

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