A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Why is this temple so little known?

It has to be one of Beijing’s best kept secrets. Mention Tianning Temple (天宁寺) to many people, and they haven’t a clue what you are talking about, let alone know where it is. It’s actually a Buddhist temple complex located near Guang'anmen in Xicheng District.

Its importance lies in the fact that it’s one of the most (if not the most) ancient above-ground buildings preserved in Beijing. Another reason for visiting it is its 12th-century octagonal pagoda, which was built over two decades from around 1100 to 1120, during the reign of Emperor Tianzuo of the Liao Dynasty (916 – 1125), shortly before it was conquered by the Jin dynasty.
The predecessor of Tianning Temple was Guanglin Temple, which had been built during the reign of Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 – 534 AD). Originally constructed in wood, the pagoda was destroyed by a wartime conflagration at the end of the Yuan dynasty (1271 – 1368) and was subsequently repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries. It had a number of names such as Hongye Tianning Temple, Tianwang Temple and Dawan’anchan Temple, until it got its present name in 1435.
Those in the know – such as historian and celebrated Chinese architect Liang Sicheng (1901 – 1972)— have lauded the pagoda of Tianning Temple as a ‘pristine architectural design of antiquity’. Gosh!
It’s a pretty attractive temple as temples go; and it’s still very much a working temple with monks and nuns all over the place, with visitors coming to pray at many of the shrines.
Whether these drying vegetables were for selling to hungry visitors, or were destined for the monks’ cooking pot later that day, I’m not sure. But it certainly makes good use of superfluous old clothes hangars.
In the courtyard in front of the Great Hero Hall is a nicely embossed bell (nothing particularly outstanding when you compare it with some of the bells in Dazhong Temple, but don’t let that detract from it).
The Great Hero Hall is where believers come to make their offerings to Amitabha Buddha.
The statue is 5.8m high and is made from Golden Silk nanmu (楠木) which, according to Wiki is a type of wood that was frequently used for boat building, architectural woodworking and wood art in China. The trees that produce nanmu wood are evergreens that have a long straight trunk which grows to 35 metres in height and one metre in diameter. The wood is very knotty and doesn’t react to humidity and temperature much so it tends not to get warped or cracked because of changes in climate.
A plaque outside the hall tells us that “the lotus throne is 1.1m high and the stone throne is also 1.1m. So the total height is 13 metres.” Errr… hang on… 5.8 + 1.1 + 1.1 makes 8 according to my maths. Maybe I’m missing something!
We are also told that Amitabha Buddha represents boundless light and infinite life. Therefore it is also known as Amitayus Buddha, he being the sovereign teacher of the Western Pure Land Sukhavati.
OK. I’m sure I feel better for knowing that.
“If you seek wisdom, prolonged life and blessedness, then please pay homage to Amitayus Buddha,” the instructions continue.
Now, if there is one thing I have learned over the years it is that no one likes a ‘smart ass’; and who wants to be ancient, anyway? So I see a problem ahead of me. Blessedness might be all very nice, but how do you pay only a third of the necessary homage to Amitayus?
I head on towards the pagoda. At 57.8 metres high, and with 13 stories, it is made of brick and stone, yet imitates the design of wooden-constructed pagodas from the era by featuring ornamental dougongs, or bracket supports.
It rests on a large square platform, with the bottom portion of the pagoda taking on the shape of a sumeru pedestal, decorated with carved arch patterns. (A sumeru was the central world-mountain in Buddhist cosmology.)
The pagoda also features a veranda with banisters, yet is entirely solid without stairs inside or out as is often found in other pagodas. It is said that its design inspired that of later pagodas, such as the similar Ming Dynasty era pagoda of Cishou Temple near the western end of Line 6, that was built in 1576 (the temple, that is… not the subway station!).
Three layers of huge lotus petals, carved on the pedestal, support the first storey of the pagoda. On four sides of the first storey, facing the four principal compass directions, there are relief sculptures of heavenly guardians and arched gates. The pedestal is divided into six shrines by short columns, and features carved lion heads, lotus, warriors (vajrapanibalin) flexing their bulging muscles, bodhisattvas, and so on. The eaves diminish in size as they progress upward.
The pagoda itself rests on a large square platform, with the bottom portion of it taking on the shape of a sumeru (the central world-mountain in Buddhist cosmology) pedestal. The pagoda features a veranda with banisters, yet is entirely solid with no hollow inside or staircase as some pagodas feature.
Tianning Temple acted as the depository for treasured Buddhist artefacts on the instructions of Emperor Wendi of the short-lived (581 – 618) Sui dynasty. (The Sui unified the North and South and reinstalled the rule of ethnic Han Chinese in the entirety of China proper. It also spread and encouraged Buddhism throughout the empire.)
Wendi built a pagoda in each of his 30 states to store the relics, which were deposited inside the pagodas in 602 AD.
And that explains why modern day believers walk around the pagoda, according to the instructions carved in stone: “Circumambulating the pagoda clockwise, we wish all living creatures would never go against the heavenly principle and therefore be equipped with great wisdom. We wish that karmic obstacles be annihilated, bliss and wisdom be ameliorated, health be maintained and dreams be realised.
I feel somewhat out of place standing taking photos as believers circumambulate, but as most of them then take out their iPhones after getting back to their starting point and then snap away in front of the pagoda, I don’t feel so bad!
As mentioned above, the structure and ornamentation have remained basically the same since it was built; but in 1976, the Tangshan earthquake caused the original pearl-shaped steeple of the pagoda to collapse. It has since been restored, and the temple grounds surrounding it have also been renovated and rebuilt. The entire temple grounds were closed for many months during the restoration, and work continues even now that the temple complex is once again open to the public.
Getting up real close to the base, you get a detailed worm’s eye view of the saints on display. I hesitate when I call them saints, but as two brass plaques nearby explain, they are certainly described as such.
In fact there are two little halls dedicated to six of them – the Three Saints of both the East and the West. In the hall dedicated to the Saints of the East, you get to meet Bhaishajyaguru Buddha, Bodhisattva Sunlight and Bodhisattva Moonlight. “If you seek favoured fortune or hope to reduce evil karma, then please pay homage to Bhaishajyaguru Buddha”, we are told.
The three Saints of the West refer to Amitabha Buddha (he was the guy we met earlier in the Great Hero Hall), Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara and Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta. Amitabha, you’ll remember, represents infinite life; Avalokiteshvara represents mercy and Mahasthamaprapta represents wisdom.
So now I know.
I head on out of the complex the way I had come. It’s been a very pleasant half hour.
And a word to the wise, if you turn left immediately on leaving the main gate, there is a lovely little flower market that will take you all of three minutes to walk around.
To reach Tianning Temple, take subway Line 2 to Changchunjie exit D1, then walk westbound about a kilometre to Tianningsiqiao. Cross over onto the west side of the second ring road; then walk south and take the second turn to the right. You will see the pagoda sticking out above the residential blocks from some way off.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A Shrine to the CPC still Pulls in the Crowds

It’s that time of the year again… or rather that time every five years when China’s political elite meet to set their goals for the next five year plan. Every TV and radio station, not to mention every newspaper, magazine and social media site becomes obsessed with covering the National Party Congress and the majority plump to visit – yet again – the site where the very first national congress took place in Shanghai.

The 1st National Congress of the Communist Party of China was held between July 23 and August 2, 1921. This is where the Communist Party of China was officially formed – in a shikumen building (an architectural style with carvings on the stone gate, popular in Shanghai during the 1920s) in the French Concession area near present-day Xintiandi, at 76 Xingye Road (formerly 108 Rue Wantze). The site was converted into a museum in 1961.
It’s obviously regarded as a national shrine – somewhere the Party faithful come to tick it off their list of places to see before they die. The queues stretch down the road…
Lest anyone get the wrong idea, there is a stricture in the admission rules posted outside the building that “those who are improperly dressed, drunken or insane are not allowed”; but I see no one, on this occasion at any rate, who is refused entry for being insane.
Unless you have a Chinese national ID card you have to get your admission ticket by placing your thumb on a fingerprint scanner, after which a ticket pops out of the machine that you immediately hand to a gatekeeper standing beside you in order to be let inside. Naturally everything in such an important building as this is scanned for security, though you are reminded not to leave anything behind once you leave the security area.
The two-storey Shikumen building was only completed in 1920 as the residence of two of the original Communist Party members. In the entrance hall is a large bronze relief of the good and the great who attended that first meeting in 1921. There were 13 of them in all: Mao Zedong, He Shuheng, Dong Biwu, Chen Tanglu, Wang Jinmei, Deng Enming, Li Da, Li Hanjun, Zhang Guotao, Liu Renjing, Chen Gongbo, Zhou Fohai and Bao Huiseng. In addition, two representatives sent by the Comintern (the Communist International) attended the meeting as non-voting delegates.
Naturally everyone wants their picture taken in front of the relief, such as this group who even pull out their communist flag with which to pose. But horror of horrors… they have let it touch the floor and minders quickly bark out an order to them to lift it off the floor so as not to disrespect the Party. An embarrassed group repose for a second selfie.
The minders, it has to be said, obviously have a difficult task on their hands. Not only do they have to keep out the insane and ensure that communist party flags are not allowed to be draped on the floor, but if this notice is to be believed, then the way people behave here needs also to be monitored. Heaven forbid that anyone should display bad manners in this cradle of Chinese communism.
In the permanent exhibition upstairs, in which we all start our tour, there is a fully fledged history lesson awaiting us, spelling out in detail how the naughty Western colonialists had carved up Asia between them.
The Boxer Rebellion, or Yihetuan Movement, for instance, was a violent anti-foreign uprising that took place in China between 1899 and 1901, toward the end of the Qing dynasty. It was initiated by the Militia United in Righteousness (Yihetuan), known in English as the "Boxers", for many of their members had been practitioners of the martial arts, such as boxing. They were motivated by proto-nationalist sentiments and opposition to Western colonialism and associated Christian missionary activity.
The Boxer Protocol was signed on September 7, 1901, between the Qing Empire and the Eight-Nation Alliance that had provided military forces after China's defeat in the intervention to put down the Boxer Rebellion at the hands of the Eight-Power Expeditionary Force.
450 million taels of fine silver were to be paid as indemnity over a course of 39 years to the eight nations involved. The Chinese handed this over until the debt was paid off on December 31, 1940. After 39 years, the amount came to around 37,000 tonnes of gold.
On November 7th 1917 the October Revolution broke out in China’s northern neighbour Russia and the first socialist country in the world was founded. Here’s a copy of an oil painting on display, called Lenin Proclaims Soviet Power.
Following the October Revolution, a number of intellectuals, including Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, latched on to Marxism and under the attention and push of the Communist International (Comintern), the CPC's early organisations were established in Shanghai, Beijing and various other places.
Here's a picture of Li Dazhao (1889-1927) in a gallery depicting the principle founders of the CPC…
…and there’s even Li Dazhao’s typewriter on display. Gosh!
In early June 1921, a Dutchman called Henk Sneevliet, who was also known as Ma Lin, and was a representative of the Comintern, arrived in Shanghai, and urged various communist cells in the country to get together for a national-level meeting.
I wonder how many people know that it was a Dutchman who was in part responsible for the eventual establishment of modern day China.
Russian Comintern representative Nikolski also attended the meeting. At the time, there were only 57 members of the Communist Party of China in the entire country.
Among the 13 delegates to that first congress was a man from Hunan whose mug shot was to end up on the country’s bank notes. Wow, I’ll bet his mum would have been proud as punch if she had been told that!
In one of the upstairs rooms is a waxwork tableau of the delegates huddled round a table for the convening of the first conference. According to travelchinaguide.com , “the other twelve members listen and smile as Mao Zedong, founder of the PRC, makes his speech. Lifelike, the wax figures seem to make time stand still, bringing people back to that exciting moment.”
I try to contain my excitement.
When you finally get downstairs to see the actual 18-square-metre room and table used, it’s hard to imagine how they all managed to crowd into that small area. And the stools they used upstairs look nothing like the chairs on display downstairs. But then, why let the facts get in the way of a good bit of artwork…
Above the actual table, I rather like this pull-down lampshade.
Of those 13 representatives in attendance at the Congress, it’s salutary to note that only Mao Zedong and Dong Biwu survived 'in good standing' by the end of the Cultural Revolution. Others were persecuted to death, left the Communist Party, were expelled, or defected to the Wang Jingwei government. 
That meeting of the first congress came to a hurried conclusion owing to harassment from the French Concession police on July 30. The meeting had to be curtailed early and then resumed on board a boat in Jiaxing’s South Lake, where of course, yet another museum was finally opened in 2011.
To get to the 1st Congress museum, take Subway Line 1 to South Huangpi Road station. Leave from Exit 2 and walk along South Huangpi Road till you get to 76 Xingye Road on your right hand side.

Shanghai's Amazing Little Museum

Blink and you might miss it. In Shanghai, there’s a tiny museum tucked away in the basement of a block of flats in the former French Concession area. Hardly any of Shanghai’s residents have even heard of the place, but if you are an avid reader of Trip Advisor, the chances are that sooner or later you will make your way to 868 Huashan Road to see what T.A.’s readers have ranked as the sixth best museum in the whole of China – even higher than the National Museum in Beijing.

It typically attracts around 50 visitors a day, the vast majority being foreigners. From the street you’ll get very few clues that you’ve come to the right place.
But once you’ve nodded to the security guard, snoozing away or drinking tea, in his entry hut, and peered into the distance, you might be able to see a black-white-and-red sign letting you know you’ve come to the right place.
Yes. The ‘Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center’ is down a flight of stairs, in the basement, right next to the toilets. (If you don’t see the signs, simply follow your nose!)
Featuring some 400 posters dating back to the early part of the last century, it was set up by Yang Peiming and provides a unique insight into China’s recent past. It’s the only museum of its kind in the world – certainly as far the range of posters it has on display is concerned.
The collection of posters goes back as far as the early 1900s, and all the way up to the 1990s. As a reflection of modern Chinese history there is simply nothing to beat it.
What is, in effect, a somewhat damp and dirty basement apartment is used to display the posters, albeit that some are simply propped up against the walls. Most are covered with plastic, presumably to protect them, but which unfortunately means that you have to view them through the reflections of the fluorescent strip lighting overhead.
Yang began his personal collection (which now runs to well over 6,000) in 1995, buying the posters from printers, bookstores and publishing houses nationwide, as well as at auction. As there is not nearly enough room to show off his entire collection, he apparently changes what is on display on a regular basis.
As few peasants had televisions, let alone access to multimedia that is so common these days, these posters provided the principal means by which the Communist Party informed the masses and exhorted them to action.
From 1910 to the 1940s, Shanghai posters were used to promote western goods such as cigarettes and beauty products.
They often showed fashionable ladies and married ‘art deco’ with traditional Chinese brush painting.
The Shanghai posters were to have a strong influence on what was to follow, as did some of the cartoon magazines, although they were to contrast sharply with the ‘Red Art’ style of the Cultural Revolution that make up the majority of the display. Many of these 1930s artists were to become propaganda artists after 1949.
From 1949 to 1953, these artists were encouraged to celebrate the birth of a new China and many produced artworks which appeared to promise happy times ahead. Many of them had already produced poster art supporting the anti-Japanese war and the crusade for liberation. Most of the propaganda posters produced during this period were printed by privately owned plants in Shanghai.
The next three years were, politically, relatively stable and the propaganda posters of the time were mainly concerned with improving industrial and agricultural production and the promotion of family life.
However, from 1957 until 1962 political movements started to mobilise public opinion, and many caricature images of cartoon style posters were created by workers and farmers, reflecting the zealous enthusiasm of the common man.
This one from 1957, for instance, reads ‘Smash the attack by the rightists and defend socialist construction’.
The Cold War was probably at its worst from 1963 to 1965 and many of the propaganda posters promoted opposition to ‘US imperialism’, epitomised by both the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
There’s even a poster depicting one of Mao’s favourite analogies that imperialists and reactionaries are paper tigers. All reactionaries are paper tigers. In appearance, the reactionaries are terrifying, but in reality, they are not so powerful. From a long-term point of view, it is not the reactionaries but the people who are powerful.
In the summer of 1966, the Cultural Revolution broke out in Peking University. In poster art, Chairman Mao Zedong was depicted as a red sun shining down on his people, who were often depicted as sunflowers.
1966 also saw the first appearance of giant paper cuts featuring Mao surrounded by adoring peasants.
Common themes of the posters in this decade included world revolution against US imperialism, the rejection of Russian revisionism and the relocation of students to the countryside.
Yet another aspect of this era was the emergence of the so-called Big Character Poster (大字报 – DaZiBao). During this period literally tens of millions of big character posters appeared in China due to Mao’s encouragement. They were projected as sacred objects and vandalising a big character poster was viewed as undermining the movement. As a result, they were left in the street to natural erosion which is why they are so rarely found today. Yang Peiming has about 300 pieces of DaZiBao in his collection.
Although entrance to the museum is 25 yuan, it earns a little extra through the sale of reproductions of some of the posters, along with copies of Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’, Mao statuettes and other objets d’art of interest to foreign visitors.
Many of the visitors end up buying a calendar, or a poster catalogue or poster reproductions as a souvenir of this amazing collection.
Although this collection will only take you about 15 minutes to walk around, it amply demonstrates the artwork behind the Communist Party political posters and in so doing gives an extraordinary insight into the momentous events of China’s modern history over the last century.
** To find the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center, take Metro Line 2 to Jiangsu Road and leave by Exit 3. Walk 300 metres east and turn right onto Zhenning Road. One km later, at the cross roads, turn right and walk for 150 metres. The museum is at 868 Huashan Road. Look for the PPAC sign on building 4.