Saturday, August 31, 2019

Classic Temples in Kunming

                                  by Jim Goodman

Yuantong Temple, in the heart of Old Kunming
       Compared to some of their neighbors, like the Tibetans, Thais and Burmese, the Han Chinese as a whole have not been especially noted for their religious piety and practice.  The country has always had temples and monasteries, but these were mainly for private devotional exercises or retreats.  Individuals might spend many years or even a lifetime in a monastery, but not, like in Thailand or Myanmar, because the culture required at least a temporary monastic residence for males.  Chinese monks did not go out in public in the mornings with their begging bowls, either, and lay devotees did not include among their pious acts the grueling Tibetan custom of successive full body prostrations.  And there was no Chinese city where religious architecture dominated most of the urban area, as at Angkor, Bagan or even Chiang Mai.
the West Pagoda, from the Nanzhao era
       Kunming was no exception.  The city certainly had houses of worship since its founding, but they were not impressive enough to have left any trace, physically or historically.  The earliest surviving religious monuments went up during the Nanzhao Era, when it was the second most important city in the empire.  These are the East Pagoda and the West Pagoda, about 200 meters apart from each other in the southern part of the city.  They were originally part of the Chengle and Huiguang Temples, which disappeared log ago.
the East Pagoda
       Built in the close-eaves style in the mid-9th century, ten and thirteen stories high, they resemble the Lone Pagoda in Dali or the central tower of the Three Pagodas.  With minor renovations, the taller West Pagoda has stood ever since.  The East Pagoda fell in earthquakes in the Yuan and Qing Dynasties and its current incarnation dates to the late 19th century.
       The most recent renovation, around the beginning of this century, involved paving the road to the West Pagoda and lining both sides of this street, closed to vehicular traffic, with shops, teahouses and restaurants built in classical Chinese style.  At the same time the city reconstructed the former South Gate, next to the West Pagoda, which had been demolished in the early 50s.
the main worship hall in Yuantong Temple
       Besides Chengle and Huiguang Temples, the Buddhist Yuantong Temple was also built in Nanzhao times, actually a century earlier.  Nothing of the original building has survived, but after the Mongols conquered Yunnan in mid-13th century, the province’s first governor, Ajali Shams al-Din Omar, a Muslim, had it rebuilt.  He also sponsored the construction in the city of two mosques and a Confucian temple, which doubled as a school and a center for the promotion of Confucian ideas and customs. 
       In the late 14th century the Ming Dynasty replaced the Yuan Dynasty and by 1382 had expelled the Mongols from their last stronghold Yunnan.  Ming officials surrounded the city with a fortified wall.  The Ming governor’s palace was first set up on an island in Green Lake, not far from Yuantong Temple, at the foot of Yuantong Hill in the center of the old city.  
stairway to the pond, Yuantong Temple
mythical beast in Yuantong Temple
       It was the largest monastery within the city walls.  Expansion and renovation in later centuries have given it its present look, filling the compound with buildings in the Ming and Qing style.   Its four gardens contain specimens of all the main flowering trees in the province, each blossoming at a different time.  Thus, no matter what month it is, flowers of some kind are blooming in Yuantong Temple
shrine in the Tanhua Temple compound
       Today it is still a quiet, capacious and beautiful sanctuary in the heart of an otherwise noisy, bustling modern city.  Placed around a pond, the orange-red sloping roofs of its buildings reflect in the waters, as do the white stone bridges connecting them.  Carvings of mythical animals decorate the railings of the bridges and potted plants fill the steps to the edge of the pond.
       The older buildings feature embellishments of carvings, paintings and calligraphy.  The Buddhist imagery inside is derived from both the Mahayana and Tibetan traditions.  And the newest building in the compound, erected late last century, is a Theravada-style shrine housing a golden Buddha image donated by devotees from Thailand.
pavilion in Tanhua Temple
       During the Ming Dynasty the suburbs beyond the city walls did not extend anywhere near as far as now.  Forests lay beyond and in quiet, secluded spots on the slopes of the hills religious-minded patrons sponsored the building of temples.  Most were too far for an ordinary excursion, though they are easy to reach by car or bus now.  One such temple, Tanhuasi, built in 1634, lies near the end of Renminlu, just four km from the city center.  Named for the ephyllium tree (a species of magnolia) in the courtyard, it was probably the ex-urban temple most frequented by Old Kunming residents.  As they do today, people came to offer prayers, observe religious holidays, or just for the pleasures of the outing, the smell of the flowers and the appreciation of the rockeries, the ponds and the entire temple setting.
interior of a Tanhua Temple shrine
       Even today, with buildings, roads and overpasses occupying what was once a wooded area, Tanhua Temple retains its charm.  Just far enough from the main roads to be beyond its noise and stench, the compound consists of three main sections that rise gently up a slope.  The first contains several courtyards grouped around the main temple, on the walls of which are mounted individual images of the 500 Buddhist arhats (saints), inscribed on stone slabs.  Courtyards feature rockeries, ponds, pavilions, sitting halls, potted flower plants, blossoming trees and Chinese couplets inscribed on marble slabs.
view of Kunming from a Tanhua Temple pond
       The next section up is laid out more like a classical park, with its pavilions, shade trees, tables, sitting halls and morning tai qi exercisers.  Ascending the knoll behind brings the visitor to a graceful seven-story pagoda, up which one can climb for a grand view of Kunming.  The city is also visible from the pond in front of the pagoda.  The entire compound is an oasis of serenity in modern Kunming.
       Further away, seven km northeast of the city center, lies the Daoist Golden Temple.  It comprises several buildings on the gentle slope of Mingfengshan—the Hill of Singing Phoenixes, near the grounds of the International Horticultural Exhibition.  It must have been an all-day excursion in Old Kunming days, but modern transportation has reduced the journey to a short bicycle. bus or automobile ride.  Like Tanhua Temple and forest temples in the hills beyond Kunming, its many trees and flowers give it the atmosphere of being ensconced by Nature.
pagoda at the top of the Tanhua Temple compound
pavilion in the Golden Temple compound
.     In between the buildings, walkways lead past the old pines and cypresses to gardens of camellias or azaleas and to the Bell Tower, from the top of which one can view the distant hills behind the skyscrapers of Kunming.  The three entry gates at successive points on the hill are notable for the decorative carved and painted brackets supporting their roofs.
roof sculptures, the Golden Temple
The Golden Temple is actually a building embellished with high-quality Yunnan bronze, polished to resemble gold, used on the pillars, window screens, brackets and sculptures.  Constructed by order of the Ming Dynasty Daoist Governor Chen Yongbing in 1602, the original was removed to Jizushan in western Yunnan in 1637 (and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution).  The present temple, like the original dedicated to the Daoist saint Zhen Wu, was built under the stewardship of Wu Sangui in 1671, when he ruled Yunnan for the Qing Dynasty.  He is supposed to have left his own, 12 kg sword here.  It is housed inside the temple along with a bigger, 20 kg double-edged sword, supposedly used by Zhen Wu to defend the temple.
worshipers at the Golden Temple
       For the dedicated pilgrims of the past, as well as curious contemporary travelers, other temples in the nearby hills featured compounds also notable for their seclusion, closeness to nature, ancient trees, architectural embellishments and sculptural achievements.  The most worthwhile site was the Western Hills, 2500 meters high at the summit, towering above the northwest shore of Dian Lake, 16 km from the city.  Most visitors nowadays are tourists, foreign and domestic, who arrive in vehicles and head straight to the top in them, or take the recently installed cable car.  Proper pilgrims were supposed to walk up the mountain, which only takes a couple of hours, stopping at the temples en route.
Huating Temple,Western Hills
       The first and lowest is Huating Monastery.  This Buddhist temple was first built in 1320, renovated in the Ming and Qing Dynasties and last rebuilt in 1920.  Besides the imposing guardian statues and images of the Buddha in various guises, the temple’s interior holds 500 sculptures of Buddhist arhats.  They are largely in high relief on the walls of the main worship hall and are remarkable for their realism and individuality.
       Predating Huating is the next temple up the hill--two km by road, slightly shorter by footpath through the forest.  This Chan (Zen) Buddhist temple was built in 1302 by the monk Xuan Jian and is called Taihuasi.  A 600 year-old gingko tree rises above the gate.  The complex includes pavilions beside the 1000 square-meter Blue Pond, itself embellished with rockeries, islets and walkways.  Another pavilion, the Sea Viewing Pavilion, offers a long view of Dian Lake.
Daoist shrine, Western Hills
       Even grander views are possible from the next temple up--the Songqingge Daoist Temple.  Though one can drive up the mountain road to the entrance, the true pilgrim prefers the winding stone staircase of over 1000 steps that begins at the base of the hill. The buildings belonging to this complex are stacked above each other on the steep side of the mountain.  Even higher, perching on a sheer, perpendicular cliff, is Dragon Gate, the goal of every visitor, the greatest viewpoint in the Kunming area.  The view is all the more appreciated because of the arduous task of getting there, which is by squeezing in and out of small grottoes chiseled out of the rock by Qing Dynasty monks.  The slow and dangerous work took 72 years and the final passageway was completed in 1853.  It replaced a hazardous, rickety plank road attached to the cliff face. 
arhat with especially long eyebrows
Dragon Gate, high up the Western Hills
       Northwest of Kunmimg, about 13 km from the center, the Bamboo Temple (Qiongzhusi) lies on a wooded slope of Jade Table Mountain (Yu'anshan).  This Buddhist monastery was originally founded by a monk from Kunming who studied the Chan sect in central China for 25 years around the end of the Song Dynasty.  Within the main hall one of the many inscribed tablets dates from the Yuan Dynasty and is bilingual--Mongolian and vernacular Chinese.  Standing in the courtyard are two 600 year-old cedar trees.
the Black Dragon on Wubaoshan
       The outstanding feature of this temple is its collection of 500 painted clay sculptures of Buddhist arhats.  The work of a mid-Qing Dynasty sculptor from Sichuan, Li Guangxiu, and his apprentices, the statues all differ from each other, modeled on real and unique contemporary originals.  Faces display the whole gamut of possible expressions.  Some are kindly and some are fierce.  Some are sedate or contemplative and others are active, even chatting or laughing.  No two are the same and the dress, hairstyle and props are also unique to each statue.  According to local legend, if a visitor begins counting the statues, starting from the beginning of any row, and comes to the number matching his or her age, that statue will symbolically represent the visitor's dominant inner character.
       On Wubaoshan, 11 km north of Kunming, lies the early Ming era Black Dragon Palace.  First erected in 1394 and redone in 1454, it stands beside Black Dragon Pool and was formerly the site of temples in the Han, Tang and Yuan Dynasties, all destroyed by war.  But a Tang era plum tree, a Song Dynasty cypress and a Ming camellia tree still stand in the compound, still blossoming every Lunar New Year.  A statue of the black dragon also stands in the courtyard.  A companion compound in the adjacent woods, the Dragon Fountain Palace, comprises several halls dedicated to the Jade Emperor and other Daoist deities.
Black Dragon Pool
       Daoist legend states that Black Dragon Pool is the home of a small black dragon, confined there by the Immortal Lu Dongbin after he subdued nine bigger dragons that were causing floods.  The last one he commanded to do good for humans and supposedly, once the ancient inhabitants started drawing its water to irrigate their fields, the little black dragon made sure the pool never ran dry, even in years of drought.  About 600 square meters in area and 11 meters deep, a bridge separates it from a half-meter deep pool that is five times its size.  Pavilions on the edge are for watching fish; the odd thing about them is that, though the water of the two ponds is connected, the fish that swim in one pool never pay a visit to the other.
       Kunming keeps sprawling closer to these forest temples and one day in the future urban neighborhoods will surround them.  But, like Tanhuasi and the Golden Temple, the city will not swallow them.  They will remain places of refuge from urban congestion, where people can relax, commune with nature and even, as their builders originally intended, worship their gods.

stone bridge in Yuantong Temple

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Sunday, August 18, 2019

Colors and Crowds in Yuanyang County

                                                                 by Jim Goodman

Yi coming to Niujiaozhai on market day
       Variety is the hallmark of every characteristic of Yunnan Province.  This applies to its landscapes, climate, food, lifestyles, languages and especially its people.  One third of the population, occupying two thirds of the territory, consists of 24 different ethnic minorities.  And among the larger ones are numerous sub-groups that dress in different outfits.  For anyone into ethnic fashions, Yunnan is a treasure trove.
       The greatest ethnic diversity in the province is in the four counties of the Lower Ailao Mountains, between the Red River and the Vietnam border:  Honghe, Luchun, Jinping and Yuanyang.  In these counties the Han are a minority, only 12% in Yuanyang, basically confined to cities and towns.  The ethnic minorities have been living here more than a thousand years, cultivating in the same irrigated rice terraces that form such a dramatic backdrop to the area.  And for its landscapes, vibrant market days and ethnic variety, Yuanyang County is the best.
Yuanyang County terraces on a winter morning
       The usual way into Yuanyang County is via Jianshui, from where Highway S214 runs south to the Red River and crosses into the county seat before ascending into the hilly heartland.  About 20 km before it reaches the river, a long village on a flat top ridge with steep sides lined with terraces is visible across a valley to the west.  It is a foretaste of what’s to come.
       Yuanyang city is only about thirty years old, the result of shifting the county’s capital from the old Yuanyang in the hills, now called Xinjie, to the riverside Dai La village of Nansha.  At this location the government had more room to expand.  The original village still exists, though obscured from view by the new buildings. 
Yi village next to Xinjie
       From here the road passes a lot of banana groves and begins climbing.  It’s about 30 km to Xinjie and before long the traveler can see the famous rice terraces cut into the slopes of the hills.  During the dry season they are filled with water and reflect the colors in the sky.  After the planting in April they turn green until September when the crop ripens to yellow.  By November the harvest has emptied the terraces and they once again fill with water.
Nisu Yi belt ends
       In the late 90s, having completed my research of the northwest, I chose Ailaoshan as my next project.  This involved journeys to all its counties, but I spent more time in Yuanyang than anywhere else.  Inexpensive hotels were available.  The terraces and villages were a short walk beyond the urban zones.  Xinjie had several Yi and Hani-run restaurants and a daily presence of many minorities, well augmented on market days, which were every four days.  And frequent minibuses plied the routes back and forth to other village market venues or places to view the terraces.
Nisu Yi gitls wearing the"chicken hat"
       Yuanyang didn’t get much traveler attention then and I was usually the only foreigner in town or, if with a friend, we were the only two foreigners in town.  In winter some Chinese photographers showed up, aiming to take the ultimate terraces photo, when fog covered the lower parts of the hills and left terraces above them to catch the first sunlight.  I often did the same and in constant search of better angles got used to walking along the terrace walls with my knees lightly bent so as not to slip and fall into the water.
       During dry season visits, in late afternoon I liked to take hikes south of the city, heading straight where the main city road turned left at the southern bus station, and out in the rural area towards the terraces and villages, hoping for a dramatic sunset that splashed the water-filled terraces with golden hues.  Once in a while the sun slid behind thick clouds and I didn’t take any photos at all except of people on the trail walking home.  But sometimes, besides friendly greetings, they invited me to their homes for a drink or a meal.  And that always made my day.
Laló Hani mother and daughter
Laló Hani woman
       Hani and Yi villages dominated the Xinjie vicinity, with houses of mud-brick, usually two stories.  Most had flat roofs, sometimes with a small shed on top, but some Hani villages had angled thatched roofs and were called ‘mushroom houses’.  Some villages lay on slopes above their terraces.  Others were on more level ground, surrounded by their fields.  
Laló Hani heading home from the Xinjie market day
      Nearly all the county’s Yi belong to the Nisu sub-group.  As with the county’s other ethnic minorities, nearly all the women dressed in traditional style.  They wore a long-sleeved jacket, fastened on the right side, bright colors for the young and dark for the older women, over plain slacks.  The jacket featured broad bands of embroidered patterns around the shoulders, lapel and sleeves.  Sometimes silver studs covered the entire front.  They fastened it with a belt with large quadrilateral embroidered ends that hung over the buttocks, the most distinctive feature of the outfit.
Hani village just south of Xinjie
       The usual women’s headgear was a long strip of black cloth with a panel of embroidery at each end.  They wrapped it around their hair and tucked one end into the top and left the other dangling over the side.  The favorite of the girls, and even young married women, was the “chicken hat” (wúbi túmaw in Yi).  So named because of its intended resemblance to a cockscomb, it was a colored piece of hard cloth, cut to shape and covered on both sides with inlaid silver or nickel bulbs, cultured pearls or white pile embroidery, with spaces left open to form arabesques and spirals.
Hani in tie-dyed imdigo
Hani woman in Huangcaoling
       Nisu myth attributes the origin of the wúbi túmaw to a story of two young lovers caught in the forest by the Prince of Devils.  First he killed the young man, then tried to capture the young woman.  She fled through the forest, with the Prince of Devils in hot pursuit, until she came to a village in a clearing.  A cock crowed, which stopped the demon in his tracks.  A witness to that, she guessed the demon was afraid of roosters.  So she grabbed it, chased off the demon and ran back into the forest to where her lover lay.  The cock crowed again and the young man came back to life.  Ever since then Yi girls wear the hat in honor of the rooster, to symbolize good luck and happiness in love.
Hani women in Majie district
       To make the floral, spiral, arabesque and other patterns on the jacket, belt ends and headgear, the Yi used paper stencils cut by specialists and sold at market days.  Xinjie’s market day always had tables selling the stencils, while at several other stalls women sold Nisu jackets, headgear and belts.  Hani women also ran stalls with Hani jackets, headgear, vests and bolts of cloth.  And a couple stalls sold silver ornaments, mostly those used to decorate jackets and hats—rings, buckles, coin buttons, chains and pendants.
Hani girls in Niujiaozhai
       Several subgroups of Hani live in the county.  Around Xinjie and south as far as Panzihua live the Laló Hani, whose women wear dark blue or black jackets, fastened on the right side, over blue or black trousers.  Bands of appliquéd designs in light, contrasting colors go around the cuffs, upper sleeves, neck, shoulders and calves.  Married women don a heavily fringed headscarf, held by a silver clasp in back, under which hangs a long, silver studded tail, 5 cm wide.  Unmarrried girls dress in brighter colors and wear no headgear.
       A slightly different style prevails among the Goho Hani of Huangcaoling district, southwest of Xinjie.  Goho jackets feature embroidered and silver-studded lower sleeves and are tied with a belt with big tabs hanging over the buttocks, similar to that of the Nisu, usually with spiral designs.  And the cap is a round one, with silver studs in the front and pendants on the side.
Niujiaozhai Hani in the Xinjie market
Dai woman and red sticky rice
       In the western part of Yuanyang County, around Shalatuo and Niujiaozhai, the Hani women’s jacket resembles that of their Nisu Yi neighbors, but hangs in the back over a separate cloth underneath.  The lower end and corners of this piece are heavily embroidered, as are the lower parts of the trousers.  It’s also tied with a belt with the ends draped over the buttocks, though these are either triangular or 10 cm-wide embroidered strips.
Xinjie on market day
       Just west of Yuanyang city, in Majie district the Hani wear similar bright jackets, but some attach a tie-dyed indigo section to the front.  A subgroup closer to Xinjie favors the tie-dyed cloth for the entire jacket.  Nisu Yi in Majie dress like those in Xinjie, but the ‘chicken hat’ is always studded with silver.  And in the eastern districts, besides Laló Hani, one can meet the Black Hani, who also dominate northern Jinping County and tie their artificially lengthened braids in a coil on top of the head.
       On market days, all these costume variations and embellishments made the moving crowds a constant swirl of color.  And with the fancy Yi and Hani belt ends, headgear tails and embroidered baby-carrriers, the women could be just as attractive from the back as from the front.  Around 80% of those attending were women and probably 95%, young and old, would dress in traditional style.
Landian Yao women in Xinjie
Nisu mother and child
       In the south, Huangcaoling held its market day on Friday and the Dai La town of Huangmaoling on Saturday.  Depending on the12-day animal cycle, Majie, Panzihua and Galiang hosted market day every six days, while Niuzhaozhai, Shalatuo, Xingcun and Xinjie staged it every four days.  They were always crowded, even in the rain.  Though the activity at each resembled that of every other venue, it was worth the journey just to see the ethnic variety and ever more views of a spectacular landscape, especially Panzihua, with a great view of the vast valley known as the Tiger’s Mouth.
Nisu Yi pattern stencils on sale in Xinjie
       My own favorite was Xinjie’s, every dragon, rat and monkey day and attracting the largest and most ethnically diverse crowds.  Starting from the center of town near the bus station and stadium, stalls and layouts spread down the steps and all along the long ridge forming the lower part of the city.  Besides the Nisu and Laló Hani, three or four other Hani subgroups would turn up, as well as Dai La and Zhuang from villages lower down on the road back to the Red River. 
       The Dai wore short-sleeved black jackets, fastened on the right side and trimmed along the lapel. sleeves and hem with bright color bands.  The plain black skirt reached to the calves, which were bound with embroidered wrappers.  The Zhuang dressed much like the Nisu, but with ruffled trimming to the jacket collar and different headgear.  Usually some Landian Yao turned up, too, standing out from the colorful crowd by their all black garments—tight trousers, loose jackets, headdress cover.  The only color component was a skein of magenta thread hanging from the collar down the front of the jacket.
Xinjie on market day
Zhuang mother and daughter
       Farm crops, fruits, vegetables and household goods comprised most of the merchandise on sale.  Yet there were always busy Yi and Hani stalls selling traditional clothes and cloth for making them.  Some odd traditional medicine plants and woods were also available and for snacks one could try steamed buns, the grilled bee larva or sticky red rice.  And wash it down with a cup of rice liquor.
Hani clothing stall in Xinjie
       Around three p.m. the crowds began to thin, as those living far away began to pack up and go.  Local Yi and Hani might hang around another couple hours.  And I would head for the rural road south of the town to get photos of them walking home towards the setting sun.  Sometimes I even got a photogenic sunset,
       After the turn of the century the scene began changing, particularly in Xinjie.  In 2002 the very scenic terraced fields around Panzihua, the Tiger’s Mouth, won the national government’s support for its bid for UNESCO recognition as a World Heritage Site (eventually awarded 2013).  That prompted the city government in Xinjie to make some drastic changes.  It ordered the leveling of the central bus station and the stadium, to be replaced by a three-story Cultural Center.  The place where all the minibuses parked now had a stone model of the terraces, with life-sized bronze sculptures of farmers and buffalos in them. 
       The main streets into the city were widened and the market venue altered.  Instead of the continuous line of stalls from the center down through the ridge in the lower section of the city, now the market day areas were scattered in separate, disconnected spots.  Attendance on the day I witnessed was only about a quarter of that in the so recent past.  But other market days were as full and lively as ever.  And the wonderful rice terraces flanking the city were untouched.  Yuanyang was still a county replete with color, in the landscapes and in the amazing diversity of its peoples, colors that would never fade.

sunset on the terraces south of Xinjie
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               For more on Ailaoshan and its people, see my e-book  The Terrace Builders