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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