Temples are not just places for tourists, or places or worship – they are the embodiment of Chinese history, culture, tradition, art…
My favourite temple in China is the Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai not because it’s the most famous temple but because I had a personal welcome there on my first visit to China twenty years ago. I had a welcome kiss from a Chinese grandpa who looked the epitome of harmony with his grey hair and goatee beard with a big smile and very happy eyes. We didn’t understand each other, we smiled and then inspired by the celebration around us he looked at me and just kissed me on the cheek. My local guide ran up to explain that I had been welcomed to China. The whole experience was the more significant as it happened in the Grand Hall just in front of the Buddha statues representing the past, present and future. Since then I believe that my past life was well spent in China!
The Jade Buddha Temple was founded in 1882 with two jade Buddha statues brought to Shanghai from Burma by sea, a sitting Buddha (1.95 meters tall, 3 tons), and a smaller reclining Buddha representing his own death. These statues are the centrepiece of the small temple, but there are several halls such as the Hall of Heavenly Kings, Great Treasure Hall and the Hall of the 10,000 Buddhas. Its Chinese name is Yu Fo Si, and it’s situated in the northwest of the city near the intersection of Anyuan Lu and Jiangning Lu – take Subway Line 6 at Wulian Road Station, get off at Shiji Dadao Station then take Subway Line 2 and get off at Nanjing Road West Station, take bus no.112 and get off at Haifang Road, and walk about 350 meters and you will find the Jade Buddha Temple.
Shanghai has always been a cosmopolitan city and as result you have several active Christian churches and an Islamic mosque where foreign visitors may worship or visit. But what really sets religious Shanghai apart, at least in China, is its Jewish legacy, most powerfully evoked by the reopening of the Ohel Moshe Synagogue as a museum and study centre. A word of advice – before you set off check with the locals if it still exists – a church I headed to one day had actually been transformed into a nice trendy bar with a cross on the top of one of the cupolas!
Less known is the Palace of Peace and Harmony or Lama Temple or Yonghegong Lamasery which is a monastery of the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism in Beijing. Building work on the Lama Temple started in 1694 and originally it served as an official residence for court eunuchs. It was then converted into the court of Prince Yong (Yin Zhen). After the Prince’s ascension to the throne in 1722, half of the building was converted into a lamasery, a monastery for monks of the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism. The other half remained an imperial palace. There are five main halls which are separated by courtyards, the Hall of the Heavenly Kings, the Hall of Harmony and Peace, the Hall of Everlasting Protection, the Hall of the Wheel of the Law and the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happiness’s.
The inside of the temple is decorated with yellow tiles which was a colour reserved exclusively for the emperors, but it survived the destruction of the Cultural Revolution thanks to the intervention of Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and was reopened to the public in 1981. The Lama Temple is located in Beijing’s Dongcheng District, near the northeastern corner of the Second Ring Road. Lines 2 and 5 of the Beijing Subway both stop at Yonghegong.
If you are visiting the Lama Temple it would be a waste not to cross the road and visit the Confucius Temple too – although the temple is run down and seemingly forgotten by the Chinese Tourist Board. It covers some 20,000 square metres but it’s not the largest Confucius temple, that is in his birth place, Qufu. This temple was built in 1302 when the Chinese people used it to pay their respects to Confucius. Today it’s almost empty except for the occasional lost tourist clutching a guide book and looking bemused that no one else is there. This temple consists of four courtyards, with the Gate of the First Teacher, the Gate of Great Accomplishment, the Hall of Great Accomplishment and Worship Hall. It’s a very tranquil place to spend an afternoon away from busy and noisy Beijing.
The Hanging Temple in Datong is situated more than 50 meters above the ground and is a unique piece of architecture. It was built in 491 by half-inserting the crossbeams of the foundations into the side of a mountain, and for Westerners it may have seemed a miracle but this system of inserting crossbeams into rocks was developed in other parts of China especially on the Yangzte River – when sailors couldn’t use the river for transferring goods they would build wooden rails along the gorge sides and use them to transfer the goods up and down the river when water levels were too high. Today you can only see square holes in some of the gorges and the only remaining building constructed like this is the so-called ‘Hanging Temple’ in Datong – and it is a masterpiece.
The temple was built by a monk who travelled all over China and needed somewhere to rest and pray, and the location he chose was sheltered from flood, snow, rain or sunshine. It’s full of inscriptions, poems and statues of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism made of copper, iron, clay and stone, which are valuable cultural craftworks. Shanxi Province where the Hanging Temple is situated has many others and if you have time you should visit Jinci Temple in Taiyuan, better known as an ‘ancestral temple’ where Chinese people pay tribute to their ancestors. Another worth mentioning in Shanxi Province is the Guandi Temple in Yuncheng.
One very popular temple is the Shaolin Monastery founded in the 5th century, long famous for its association with Chinese martial arts and particularly with Shaolin Kung Fu. It’s situated in Denfang in Henan Province. The temple takes students from all around the world for courses in marital arts, and as a result you find monks sitting under trees and having debates next to students having their training. The most impressive part is the Shanmen Hall above which hangs a tablet simply saying ‘Shaolin Temple’. What impressed me were the stones worn away by Kung Fu teachers sitting and meditating. Another impressive part of Shaolin Temple is the Pagoda Forest where old Kung Fu teachers are buried, and the higher the pagoda, the more important was their status within the temple. The school observes strict rules based on training, training and even more training. They have different levels of students who can easily be recognised by the different colours of their track suits. It’s a memorable scene in the training hall when hundreds of students make the same move at the exactly the same time! During the day you can watch performances of Kung Fu students which are punctuated by cries of “Oh my God, UH, Ouch, NOOOOOOOOOO” from the excited audience. At the end you can spend some money in the shop on swords or knives, even bows and spears. But be careful when you buy them – you might not be able to get them into your own country!

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