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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How Come This Temple Is Not On Everyone's List?

I never cease to be surprised that even during my third year here in Beijing there is still no shortage of things to visit and explore in this most fascinating of cities. Never could I have predicted when I first came here that I would still be discovering hidden gems that begged the question of why it took so long for me to discover them in the first place!
The Lidai Diwang Miao temple is one such example. IMHO it certainly rivals that must-see tourist attraction known as the Yonghegong Lama Temple that is always filled to capacity with tourists. But this temple is virtually empty – and so much the better for that!
I make my way to Fuchengmen station on Line 2 in Xicheng District and leave from the northeast exit, heading in an easterly direction along Fuchengmennei. It’s not far to go, but before getting there I pass another temple complex which is heavily closed off to the public with the most amazing White Pagoda covered in scaffolding.
This is the Miaoying Temple (妙应寺), whose famous white stupa dates back to 1271 in the Yuan Dynasty. At 50.9 meters high, it is the largest and one of the oldest ‘dagobas’ of its kind extant in China. (It is one of two famous white ‘dagobas’ in Beijing, the other one standing in Beihai Park.)
"Miaoying Si", which means "Temple of Marvellous Response", was seriously damaged by the Tangshan earthquake in 1976. Fifteen years earlier, Premier Zhou En-lai had signed a proclamation stating that the temple was to be protected as a National Treasure, and it was this proclamation which kept the White Stupa safe during the Cultural Revolution.
In 1978, the Beijing Department of Cultural Relics undertook the task of repairing and renovating the temple complex; but again, since 2010, the Stupa complex has been undergoing yet another renovation; hence the closure. (Despite the fact it has been closed for four years, this doesn’t stop travelchinaguide.com from informing us that admission hours are from 9am to 4.30pm with an admission fee of 20 RMB. At least they managed to update their web page to show that their copyright runs from 1998-2014, even if they couldn’t manage something as basic as a total closure of the featured site, four years after the gates had been locked shut to visitors!)
But as I say, I haven’t come here for this. Instead I head on a further 200 metres to the Lidai Diwang Miao – a royal temple used to worship past emperors. Built in the 16th century in the place of a former Buddhist temple, it served as a place where reigning emperors could visit and pay homage to previous emperors.
Actually, it was more usually their representatives who diligently carried out sacrifices in spring and autumn, although Emperor Yongzheng, who killed his brother in order to grab the throne for himself, made five appearances here during his short tenure in power.
On both sides of the main entrance there are memorial steles, written in Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan, which read "Officials must dismount here."
Lidai Diwang Miao was built on the grounds of a former Buddhist temple (Bao'an Si), some 485 years ago. The emperor worship came to an end with the fall of the Qing dynasty, when the complex was used for school buildings before it opened to the public in 2004 after undergoing a $36 million restoration.
I pay my 20 kuai …
and step through the portal into an amazing courtyard.
Everywhere – with one major exception … see below – there are explanatory notices in both Chinese and English. An excellent job has been done in explaining what the curious visitor might want to know.
Apart from the main map, there is also a simple model showing the layout of the complex for those who can only think in 3D.
Within the first courtyard is the very impressive Jing De Gate, originally built in 1530 (not 1350, as rmhb.com.cn so helpfully informs its German readers!). It is 26.6m wide and 14.8m high and is surrounded by a white marble guardrail. Three flights of steps lead up to it with a railed-off path on which there is a design of clouds and hills.
Another gorgeous yard lies ahead, with pride of place going to the Jing De Chong Sheng Palace, which was also built in 1530, but rebuilt during the Yongzheng and Qianlong periods when the golden dragons were repainted and the yellow coloured glazed tile roof was replaced. The inside is nine rooms wide (51m) and five rooms deep (27m) and here are located 188 tablets of the emperors who were worshipped in the hall.
The original wooden tablets of the past emperors were smashed during the Cultural Revolution – something that has not been translated into English. Heaven forbid that foreigners might learn that the Chinese – so good at complaining about the damage that foreign troops inflicted on the likes of the YuanMingYuan – were just as good at inflicting mindless destruction on themselves! Their replacements look anything but authentic. Perhaps this is why photography is forbidden in this hall?
Oops – must have pressed the shutter key by mistake...
One of the most impressive features of this place is the stone steles that are positioned to the east and west of the main hall. The one to the east, for instance, was first erected in 1733 in the Yongzheng period of the Qing Dynasty. On one side it has inscriptions in both Manchu and Chinese (Yongzheng period), whilst on the other side is an inscription in just Chinese, which was added 52 years later in Emperor Qianlong’s rule. Hence this stele is referred to as the Father and Son.
At 7.53m high it’s quite some beast and you can imagine the poor peasants who had to move the bloody thing wishing the emperors didn’t have such incredible egos!
The stele itself stands on the usual turtle which represents longevity. I guess it worked in this particular case!
Outside, bits of restoration continue at a desultory pace. Well, it is a hot day, I suppose. I’m not sure I would be busting a gut if I was in this poor guy’s position either.
Close to where he is working is the East Liao Lu furnace, which again was originally built in 1530. It is made up of green glaze and was used to burn the paper or silk prayers which were offered for sacrifice to the old emperors whose tablets appear in the Imperial Temple. The furnace was rebuilt in 2004.
There’s also something called the Well Pavilion, which was used to make sacrificial soup and to clean up after the animals were slaughtered for sacrifice. According to the notice board there, the roof has a round hole in its centre facing the mouth of the well, symbolizing that heaven and earth are linked together.
I wander over to have a look… and wonder if there is confusion in translation of the word ‘round’? Or perhaps the hole has just squared off over the years. Hmmmm…
In keeping with all the other buildings, the bell tower – also built in 1530 – was where the sacrificial bell was hung. Well, I guess that makes sense. It’s all very picturesque.
Less picturesque, though, is a collection of notice boards stuck up against the eastern wall. These only have Chinese text – almost as if they are embarrassed to let foreigners know how badly the Chinese treated their own heritage.
One poster summed it all up for me. Outside the main entrance, there were originally three marble bridges and a spectacular pailou – or wooden memorial gate. You can see from the pictures that it was quite something! But the city planners (did they have planners in those days, I wonder) decided that the pailou got in the way of the traffic, so in 1953 and 1954 they were demolished. And so ended 450 years of history at a stroke.