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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Discovering Wu Ta Si’s Stone Carvings Museum

You’d think that with the myriad of temples to be found in virtually every corner and alleyway of Beijing, one would soon succumb to templ-itis – a surfeit of architectural eye candy; too much of a good thing, perhaps.

This week I came across yet another temple that I simply wasn’t expecting, and one which the majority of my expatriate friends have never even heard of; but it is definitely going to be added to the list of must-see sights that your favourite blogger has been putting together ever since setting foot in this amazing city…

I had actually been looking for yet another museum to add to my ever lengthening list of collections that the Chinese seem intent on setting up. By a quirk of fate, coupled with the wonders of the internet taking you to places you would never have dreamed of clicking to, I came across mention of the first museum in China specializing in the collection and exhibition of stone carvings.

Now, I can’t say I’m a fanatic of stone artwork; but I like to think I keep an open mind when it comes to discovering new things; so on an overcast and sticky day I set off for the western Haidian district of Beijing to the site of the Wu Ta Si – 五塔寺 – or Five Pagoda Temple complex, which is home to this open air museum.

Here, apparently, I would find some 600 stone carvings on display from a permanent collection of over 1,200, all dating from the Han to the late Qing dynasties. The Shike Yishu Bowuguan – 石刻艺术博物馆 – or Stone Carving Museum surrounds the temple and covers an area of 15,000 square metres.

With the ever improving Beijing Subway system, it only takes me 35 minutes and one train change to get from my pad in the north-east to the National Library Station. From there it is a quick and easy walk 500 metres south to Wutasi Lu and another 500 metres eastward along the north bank of the Changhe River, the other side of which backs onto the grounds of Beijing Zoo.

The Five Pagoda Temple is more correctly known as Zhenjue Si, or the Temple of the Great Righteous Awakening. It’s an ancient Indian Buddhist temple dating from the era of the Ming Dynasty. It boasts of being “an ideal place to appreciate the splendid history of Buddhism and architecture in China as well as to enjoy the pleasant scene and special tranquillity of the temple. It is a respite from crowded tourist attractions in Beijing.” Or to put it another way, it is hidden away so well from the normal hustle and bustle of the city that there is practically no one else there when I arrive mid morning!

The outdoor exhibition of the stone inscription museum can apparently be divided into six or eight exhibition areas, depending on which website you visit, and which, I read up afterwards, are the earliest stone inscriptions in the Beijing area. Although there are one or two English signs dotted around the place, the vast majority are in Chinese only, so it is only later that I learn what I am able to see on my visit. According to the blurb, I will have admired “the stone inscription pillar of Blessing Qin Jun, previous sculptures in Beichao Dynasty, epitaphs in different dynasty since Tang Dynasty, lots of stone carvings in Jin and Yuan Dynasty that have high artistic level, elaborate curved Shixiang Hall in Qing Dynasty, the epitaph of Nalanxinde's Wife, Lushi's unique sculpt and the calligraphies of Yijin Room, Jinghe Hall and etc...” But I must admit that I would be hard pressed to identify which is which, let alone which stone carvings belong to the “and etc”.

I had assumed that I would be gawking at carved animals and inscribed steles along with a smattering of tomb inscriptions. But it is only when I arrive that I discover that I have landed up at what is regarded as the oldest and most beautiful Vajrasana Pagoda (diamond throne pagoda) among the half dozen of them in China.

Construction of Zhenjue Temple began during Emperor Yongle’s reign (1403 - 1424) and completed in 1473. At that time, an Indian monk came to China to present Emperor Chengzu, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, five golden statues of Buddha and a draft of an Indian diamond throne pagoda. Using this draft, the temple with the special architecture of five pagodas was built.

Within the 'diamond throne pagoda' style, five pagodas stand on a square foundation known as the throne. The whole construction, made of bricks and bluestones, has two parts: a 25-foot-high square foundation carved peacocks, elephants and dharma wheels and six storeys – the upper five having carvings of small Buddhist shrines and Buddhas, as well as bas-reliefs of Buddhist objects and Sanskrit letters on their four sides. The other part is the five pagodas themselves, rising from their square bases on top of the throne foundation.

One pagoda is in the centre and the others in the four corners of the foundation respectively. The central one of 26 feet in height is a little higher than the others and has 13 storeys, two more than the others in the corners. All five are engraved with delicate images of Buddha, bodhi trees, Sanskrit letters and Buddhist symbols as well as lions, elephants, horses and other animals. The images of Buddha on these five pagodas represent Buddha in five directions according to the sutra.

Actually it is said that the Five Pagoda Temple is based on the Gaya Temple in Bihar, India. But it has suffered a tumultuous history - undergoing major renovations in 1761, but then looted and burned to the ground, first by the Anglo-French Allied Armies in 1860 and then by the Allied Forces in 1900. And then to add insult to injury after being partially rebuilt, it was forced to close yet again during the Cultural Revolution.

Anyway, before I have time to admire the temple itself, I find myself in a petrified Noah’s Ark – a forest of stone animals, including this cute camel…

Overlooking the animals are some stone warriors – this one looks like something straight out of a J.R.Tolkien story, I think!

Some of the artefacts have had to be numbered piece by piece to make sure they could be put back together again (or maybe to ensure that one piece didn’t go missing on the journey to the sculpture park). Wouldn’t you just love to be buried in something like this!

A bit further on are “12 tablets of merits and virtues applauding famous officials and nobility of the Ming and Qing dynasties for their good deeds and upright behaviour”. I’m not sure what constitutes upright behaviour in this context. In the epitaph section, for instance, there are 300 inscriptions on tombstones from the Tang to Qing dynasties that had been carved for imperial family members and high officials. No doubt the high up officials will have been officially regarded as upright, irrespective of what they were really like. Who’s to worry anyway!

Behind the pagoda complex are low lying red buildings which are now used to house yet more museum artefacts; but I’m afraid I prefer to enjoy the buildings themselves rather than yet more bits of carved stone. You can have too much of a culturally good thing I am beginning to discover.

But joy of joys, throughout the entire complex are loads of stone lions, mostly sitting in pairs, but with one or two lone ones who have lost their mates. Fans of your favourite blogger will know that I “collect” stone lions at one of my other sites. Here’s an unusual stone lion in that he is posing with a person – something I have not seen before.

Anyway, back to the pagoda itself… and it appears that the workers who built it did not follow the plans accurately. Rather than slavishly follow the Indian design, they decided to add some Chinese touches and the result is very much a special architectural style, having a unique fusion of Indian patterns with traditional Chinese architectural art and carving. Right outside the temple itself are two tall maidenhair trees more than 500 years old.

The entire structure is made of white marble, that after more than 500 years of oxidation, gives the building a pale orange cast. The 4 walls of the foundation are carved with a thousand Sagacious Buddhas as well as bas-reliefs of Buddhist symbols, floral designs and Sankskrit letters.

Naturally, one is not allowed to take photographs inside the temple itself; but no one says you cannot take photographs outside the temple looking in, so this is the kind of thing you get to see inside, with a Buddhist statue facing out in the middle of each of the four sides.

All in all, it makes for a very pleasant half day tour; and stopping once again to say goodbye to my new stone camel friend I head off outside once again. On the Changhe River it appears to be rush hour with the tourist boats jockeying for position along this narrow stretch. It takes me 45 minutes to cross town and once again get back to my apartment, where I am glad of a nice refreshing shower after the sweaty sultry conditions of this overcast summer’s day.