I think everyone in the West must know that one-liner: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”. It’s been used and misused so many times that it long ago became a part of every schoolboy’s arsenal of graffiti slogans to daub over the school changing room doors.
Not everyone, of course, knows it comes from the first part of Dante Alighieri's 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy – viz ‘Inferno’ – a medieval journey through the nine circles of Hell.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” was written above the gate of Hell, and ‘Dante’s Inferno’ is a lurid vision of the afterlife complete with severed heads, cruel and unusual punishments and devils in frozen lakes.
Until recently, I – in my ignorance – was totally unaware that Dante’s version of events has a mirrored equivalent in Chinese culture – the 76 departments of the Taoist Pantheon, of which more in a while…
Taosim emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao (or "way", "path" or "principle") which denotes something that is both the source and the driving force behind everything that exists.
Beijing’s Dongyue Temple (北京东岳庙) in the Chaowai area, is dedicated to the God of Mount Tai, the easternmost and holiest of the five sacred mountains of Taoism. Founded during the Yuan Dynasty, it’s the largest temple of the Zhengyi school of Taoism in northern China.
Roll over, Dante – your Inferno has nothing on this…
Dongyue is just a stone’s throw from Chaoyangmen on Subway Line 2, conveniently across the road from Walmart. It was founded in 1319 by Zhang Liusun (the Temple, that is… not Walmart), a descendant of the founder of the sect, Zhang Daoling. During the Qing Dynasty, the temple was rebuilt twice - in 1698 during the reign of Emperor Kangxi and again in 1761 during the reign of Emperor Gaozong. The temple also underwent expansion during the Qing Dynasty.
It was the first full-scale temple of the Orthodox Oneness, one of the two main sects of Taoism, in north China. The Dongyue Temple consists of three parts – the main, east and west courtyards. It has 376 rooms and halls and the Great Dongyue King, the God of Mount Tai, is enshrined here.
Taoism has had a profound influence on Chinese culture over the centuries, and Taoism also had a profound influence on other Asian societies. Throughout Chinese history, Taoism was several times nominated as the state religion, though after the 17th century its popularity declined. Like all other religious activity, Taoism was suppressed during the Cultural Revolution, but today it is one of five religions recognized in the PRC.
In Taoism, I learn from Wikipedia, the universe is seen as being in a constant process of re-creating itself, as everything that exists is a mere aspect of qi, which is in a perpetual transformation between its condensed and diluted state. These two different states are embodiments of the abstract entities of yin and yang, two complimentary extremes that constantly play against and with each other and can not exist without the other.
Matter ebbs and flows, expands and contracts; and this cycle of existence spontaneously moves through each of the Five Phases: Water, Fire, Wood, Metal, and Earth. All things are thus classified according to yin/yang and the Five Phases. Within everything there is also qi, the animating breath that is the source of life. It is believed that a deeper understanding of the universe can be achieved by understanding oneself.
Tao is not an entity or a divine being, but the number of Taoist deities is staggering. The pantheon differs according to sect and region, and its ranks are fluid. No divine being exists forever, and all who interact with humans are subject to human time. Some change over time, and all of them change status with time. Some are elevated, others forgotten.
(I hope you are keeping up with all this!)
So, back to Dongyue Temple, where there are three main halls: Yude Hall, Daizongbao Hall, and Yuhaung Hall. Everywhere you go, there are statues of imperial guards of the Pantheon. Here are three of them from the Eastern Peak…
The main courtyard of the temple has an elevated walkway, about 80 metres long. I am here a couple of weeks before the Mid Autumn Festival and already decorations are being hung up in readiness for the holiday celebrations which will include a number of folk dance groups as well as Peking Opera and other entertainments.
To the right of this walkway, and down a set of steps on one side, there is a courtyard filled with rows of stone tablets. About 140 of these tablets dating from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties, as well as from the Republican Era of China, are thought to have once stood in this temple, although only 90 tablets remain today.
Official accounts say that the temple was damaged during the 20th century, but as to how or why, that is never mentioned. Could it have been over-zealous Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution? I don’t know, but it apparently served as a school, government offices, and housing for hundreds of people until 1996, after which it was then restored in 2002 at a total cost of 5.8 million yuan. Here’s a photo that I found in one of the halls, but even the Chinese text beside it gave no indication of how the temple had fallen into this sorry state of disrepair.
Oh, I forgot to mention that the temple also holds its very own museum – the grandly sounding Beijing Folk Customs Museum. This is where the Spring and Autumn Festival Temple Fairs are held, showcasing folk custom performances.
What could the Folk Customs Museum be featuring? I can’t wait to find out…
Oh, OK, I could have waited to find out. “Harmonious and Auspicious”, reads the posters at the entrance to the permanent exhibition. “The Exhibition of Boxes”.
Yes, you heard it right first time. To add to Beijing’s collection of many and wonderful museums, here is one devoted to boxes. Perhaps if they had called it the box museum, it would‘t have had such an inviting ring to its name.
Room after room after room are filled with boxes in glass cabinets…
Some are filled with internal dividers…
…while some have nicely decorated lids…
I try to contain my excitement as yet another room full of boxes opens up before me. How could it be that none of the online reports of this temple go overboard on this museum? I am beginning to feel almost sorry for the box museum curator; because the fact is I’m the only visitor here.
But the sad truth is that this isn’t what visitors to the temple come for. No sirree! They have come to discover the Taoist Pantheon. Presided over by the God of Mount Tai, the Taoist Pantheon, all 76 departments of it, preserves peace and order and doles out justice, upholding a system in which good behaviour gets rewarded and bad behaviour leads to some rather unpleasant consequences…
Now, don’t be surprised if these 76 Departments, lined up in small cubicles around the sides of the middle courtyard, remind you of something straight out of Harry Potter. (Could J K Rowling have actually visited Beijing, I ask myself?) As you wander from room to room, reading the signs of what each department does, you begin to realise what a complicated afterlife there is in store for you. Dante could only manage nine circles of hell? Puh! How pathetic!
For instance, here’s the Department for Examining False Accusation, whose function is to "put on trial – and duly heavily punish – those who have wilfully made false accusations, fabricating case histories in an attempt to frame innocent people".
Practically the whole of this underworld realm seems to revel in dishing out punishment for failure to lead a life according to the Taoist doctrine.
For instance there’s a Department for Implementing 15 Kinds of Violent Death (yes, that’s its official title). “Those who commit evil deeds will fall a victim of their own evil deeds as a death punishment ranging from death caused by starvation, clubbing, revengeful murder, killing in battle, or death caused by fierce animals or snakes, burning fire or food poisoning, or an outbreak of madness, falling into an abyss, tricks of an evil person or ghosts, incurable diseases and suicide.” Hang on – I only counted 13 there. Still, you get the idea…
There’s an Abortion Department which emphasises that "women need to exercise self respect, self control and self care and ward off the occurrence of indecent acts".
And as if to complement it, there’s also a Department of Opposing Obscene Acts, which features a lose woman (this one reminds me of one of the hookers in Liangmaqiao district) and a D.O.M. sneaking a peek when he thinks no one is looking! “An old saying goes that of all the crimes, lewdness is the worst crime. This department means to advise people to give up filthy lust and desire,” I read. So I guess lust and desire is OK, just so long as it isn’t filthy.
Naturally, you wouldn’t be surprised to find a Department for Demons and Monsters with all kinds of weirdos making up its ranks. Its job is to “control and supervise them and forbids them to wander and bewilder people”. Hey scary! (Hmmm – doesn’t that remind you of… oh no, maybe not, I think he has already given up smoking.)
And can anyone really be so scared of a four ft high midget with only one leg?
There’s also a Headquarters for Controlling Punishment" – presumably in case some of the other departments get carried away with meting out their own punishments. I wonder what crime justifies having your tongue stretched out – or has this fellow just been munching away on too many balls of bubblegum?
Mind you, having your hands chopped off, or your entrails splurging out can’t be much fun either, I would think.
I wonder, actually, how anyone would have come up with some of the departments there are though. I mean… a Department for Suppressing Schemes? A Department of Instant Rewards and Retribution? A Flying Birds Department? Oh come on!
How’s about a Door God Department? Or an Escorting Department (hey, I thought filthy lust and desire were banned. Or maybe it’s not that kind of escort they are talking about.)
How about a Department for Three-Month Long Meditation. Well, I would have thought if you are on your way to spend eternity in some god-awful place, a three month meditation might not be such a bad thing. You know – delay the inevitable and all that!
There’s even a Department of Signing Documents, which has the “function of making a final life or death indictment for any subject in accordance with his merits or misconduct. This is the supreme trial court to reflect man’s pursuit of legal justice.” Or to put it another way, its function is to sign and approve documents or verdicts passed by different departments prior to their execution.
I guess if nothing else, they don’t have much of an unemployment problem in the Taoist underworld.
But it’s time to move on. Back in the courtyard with all the stone tablets, I come across a special mythical animal called a Te – something I have never come across before. It has the head of a horse, the body of a donkey, the tail of a mule and the split hoofs of a bull.
The Te used to be the mount of a god called Wen Chang and they say that if you touch the animal you will be cured of all kinds of diseases. Looks like an awful lot of diseased people have been touching it over the years. Ewwww!
It’s time to take my leave of this amazing place, lest I overdose on fun. I step out through the main gate of the Dongyue Miao and see – right on the other side of the busy thoroughfare – the old paifang (or memorial archway) with its three gates and covered in green and yellow glazed tiles, that has become divorced from its other half by the intervention of Chaoyangmenwai Dajie.
I head off towards the subway, determined to be a force for good, never to letch in a lewd fashion, and to shun red bubblegum for ever more.