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Random Notes on the Temples in Beijing

How many temples are there in the capital, Beijng? No exact figure can be given, but one poetic line seems appropriate, "four hundred and eighty temples existed in the Southern Dynasties, and many more towers were shrouded in smoke and rain." Only the time has changed and no perennial rain prevails in Beijing.
Temples are religious products where the Buddhist patriarch, Bodhisattvas, deities and demons, God and Holy Mother emerge. The rise and fall of every temple has left historical imprints of its existence as rich and colorful as a man's life. Like the elderly people, every temple is relating past grandeur and changes and revealing the antiquity and mystery till today.

I first went to visit a church. I wanted to seek evidence of the Catholic priests' crimes of aggression. However, standing in front of the crucifix high above the church, I felt that the happenings in the past were not God's fault and I could only find this cathedral possessing exotic features. Its main building is a rectangular hall with a remarkable pulpit. More gorgeous in appearance is the Catholic North Cathedral with tall and erect pillars and pinnacles. Before I entered the gate, an exotic flavor of God and Holy Mother greeted me. In the capital, I also visited the Catholic South Church and a Protestant Church Chong Wen Men Hall, both in a good state of preservation, now places for friendly contacts between the Chinese and other peoples of the world.

Also conveying a sense of exoticism are the mosques. However, most of them are quadrangular buildings with only the minaret reminding their association with Mecca and the Arabian countries in the Middle East. I have read the novel "Muslemic Funeral Ceremony" and tasted the Muslemic cakes. I would like to know Allah beter but I was refused admitting to the mosque several times and only allowed to take some photos from outside, because I am not a Muslim. Fortunately, I unintentionally intruded into a Muslim food store, where I had a gourmet's luck and tasted some of the essence of Koran. The beef was particularly impressive.

There are some other mosques in the municipal districts, that at Dong Si being the largest and that at Niu Street also rather famous. Smaller mosques, such as those at Xin Kai Hutong and Ma Dian, are mostly quadrangular architecture, all gathering places for neighboring Muslims to hold religious ceremonies. Quite extraordinary is that all their praying halls face east so that the Muslims, after entering the gate, can pray in the direction of their sacred land Mecca. All these mosques are well preserved.

The Taoist temples are less fortunate, most of them can no longer be found. Bei Yun Guan is the pride of Taoists in the capital and the seat of China Taoist Association at present. Since the Ming and Qing Dynasties, it has witnessed enough of immortal life. The devotees come here to burn incense and worship, for, as some say, piety is rewarding. Being the No.1 temple of Taoist culture, from the design of architecture to the multitude of deities. The most interesting place, however, is Yuan Chen Hall where one can, from one's birthday, easily identify one's own guardian god, and all Gods are noted historical figures.
Taoism, as an indigenous religion, contains many traditional Chinese ideas and emphasizes cultivation of moral character through meditation. Only the time advances so rapidly that certain things seem very funny, such as the Taoist monks with mustache and fragrant tea being served in a coffee room. Coming out from the temple, I raise my head and, looking around, sow many high buildings prominently against a background of blue sky after rain. I could not help wondering how could these monks, living in the metropolis, get rid of dust of secular world.

Buddhist temples are the greatest in number and most often seen in the capital, though many of them have disappeared and left their names only in historical records. For example, at the site of the former Long Fu House. A number of desolate temples still exist between modern office buildings and residential houses. The Hu Guo Temple, for example, was the site for fairs in the early post-liberation years; only its door-god hall now remains. The Tian Ning Temple, first built in Northern Wei Dynasty, was a large ancient monastery in the capital. Its ancient brick pagoda, some 50-metre tall, still remains, but thousands of wind-bells hanging on the eaves have gradually disappeared due to the elements. Now, instead of hearing the tinkling of bells, one can only see the pagoda standing side by side with a big chimney of the neighboring gramophone records factory.

Many other temples have also changed in appearance. Bo Lin Temple houses the office of a cultural relics institution. The Huang Temple has been turned into a Buddhist Institute while the former site of Mo Ke Nunnery is occupied by the Ba Li Zhuang Primary School, where children's book recital takes the place of Buddhist prayer chanting. Temples which have been restored to the original either remain temples or become museums. Da Zong Temple, for example, is used to exhibit ancient bells just as Wan Shou Temple exhibits calligraphy, paintings and character carvings. Guang Ji Temple, the seat of the Chinese Buddhist Association, is the "headquarters" of Buddhism. Very few people go to Da Zhong Temple, Wan Shou Temple and the like.

The magnificent Yong He Gong is frequented by tourists. According to historical record, it was reconstructed on the site of the palace of a Qing prince (late Emperor Yong Zheng), and several generations of the Dalai Lama and Panchan used it as their residence in Beijing. Most spectacular is the 26-metre-tall statue of Tathagate (18 metres above landsurface and 8 metres underground), for it was made of one whole trunk of white sandal, three metres in diameter, which earned its place on the Guinness world records.

Temples bear the imprints of history and carry with them the spirit of the times. At man of the temples, Taoist temples and churches could be seen on high long streamers marking the 50th anniversary of the victory of world anti-Fascist war-ample manifestations of the kindness of God, the mercy of Buddha and the benevolence of divine spirits. I was deeply impressed by such scenes, which awoke a certain dormant feelings in my heart.

In fact, all these temples and churches have always been of the human world. Where's the fairyland? Where's Heaven? At the sight of red walls with green tiles, clay sculptures or stone statues, whether dusty or renovated ones, I was lost in musing. Subconsciously, I recalled these lines written by Qi Qin, "The sun set yesterday... I gaze at you with memories of yesterday... and what difference is there between yesterday and today...". The sun has set but I am still seeking the legendary tales.

Materials are provided by "China Tourism"

Text by Qi Huangxiong

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