A while back, I was reading a copy of the lonely planet guide to China, and noticed a temple in Beijing that caught my attention. It was saying something about soothsayers, and it seemed like an interesting thing to go and experience. The problem with this, however, was that I simply could not remember the name of the park, or even the general region in which it stands, making it very difficult to relocate. In my quest to find this lost entity, I came across another temple in Beijing, called Dongyue. The lonely planet gives this description for the attraction:
“Stepping through the entrance pops you into a Taosit hades, where tormented spirits reflect on their wrongdoing and elusive atonement. You can muse on life’s finalities in the Life and Death Department or the Final Indictment Department. Otherwise get spooked at the Department for Wandering Ghosts or the Department for Inflicting 15 Kinds of Violent Death.”
With a description like that, how could you not want to go? I was, more than anything, curious as to what a “Department” referred to. The guide was nothing if not limited in it’s information on the temple, and did little more than list a number of these so called departments. I really enjoy heading to places that I know little to nothing about, and this seemed to be the perfect spot. Taoist corporate offices, here I come. I did some research on the temple, and found that it was constructed during the 14th century, making portions of it pretty darn old. Like many temples in China, it has been burned down, rebuilt, damaged and fixed on multiple occasions. According to the ever reliable Wikipedia, there were homeless people sleeping in it on a regular basis up until the 90s, when it was restored.
The temple itself is located in the middle of the Chaoyang Business district of Beijing. For those of you who have not been, I want you to picture yourself standing in the most developed and commercial area that you know. Hundreds of corporate high-rises all around, logo’s to major companies and brands, and in the middle of it all stands this little piece of the ancient world, a pilgrimage spot for so many Taoist believers. When I left the subway station, there was a moment when I was sure that the guide must be wrong; An ancient temple couldn’t possibly exist within this level of development, this world of glass and excess. And yet, here before me stood the entrance to a small temple, older and less refined than any of that others that I have yet visited.
I have said, on several occasions, that once you have seen a certain number of classic tourist attractions in China you have seen them all. It is now time for me to retract that statement, as this place is like nothing that I have seen before, and a site that I will forever recommend to all who visit the city of Beijing. Arriving at the ticket window, I saw that the price was four times higher than what I had expected. I asked why it was so much, and quickly discovered that this price was for the private tour guide. I couldn’t possibly take such an option, as I think I would feel uncomfortable having someone tag along for the whole tour. I like to take things slow, sitting here and there to simply watch and listen to the world around me. Sure, a tour guide could have given me a great history, but in the end, I think it would have limited the connection to the space. And hey, the plain ticket was really cheap.
I went to the ticket window opposite where I had entered, but the windows where closed and blocked by a cloth of some sort. As I approached, a window slid open, and a hand came out, motioning for the money that I had yet to produce. It was a creepy and appropriate effect for my entrance into the temple. As soon as I was inside, the noise of the traffic and the hustle of the world quickly fell back behind me, a mere hum within the walls of an ancient world.
I was a bit put off by the lack of visitors within the temple, as I usually set out with the hopes of observing people, but this feeling was quickly replaced by a feeling of contentment. It can be difficult to find places in Beijing where you are on your own, and private moments are a thing to be greatly valued. This, more than anything else, enhanced the otherworldly feeling that I had while walking the grounds. For the first time in three weeks, I had found a place where I saw no one else.
The main entrance to the temple consisted of an elevated walkway, probably some 200 feet in length. I saw that the rails along the sides where completely laden with red tablets, each with a different set of characters written on top. I suspect that these talismans where some sort of request or tribute left by those who had visited the temple, as I saw a few different people hanging new ones along the fence. Thousand upon thousands of these blocks hung along the way, moments in time remaining from the hundreds of faithful that had visited this spot. I continued to cross the bridge and went down a set of steps to one side, finding myself in a courtyard filled with rows of tall marble tablets.
These stones where enormous, some standing more than 10 feet in height and over a foot thick. Looking around, this area reminded me of something that I have yet to place. It was not a memory, but more a feeling. There was a lot of feeling attached to these stones and the characters that still lay on top of them. The field stones that paved the ground around me were incredibly slippery, covered in a moss that revealed what little traffic the place received. For a moment, I was worried that I had entered an area that was not open to the public, but then saw another individual wandering just as I was. The contrast between the mossy floor and the white marble gave me a morbid feeling, as though this was a cemetery. I used to go hiking by myself in the Catskills of New York, and would periodically come across the remains of old buildings, long forgotten in the backwoods. I found myself in China with the same feeling that I used to get from those old foundations, as though I was so close to the world in which they once existed, but couldn’t quite grasp it. I can touch these stones, and they feel the same way that they did 500 years ago. The place has stayed the same; it is the people around it that have changed. I found myself with a great desire to read the tablets, but they were written in the traditional form of the characters, and even if I didn’t have such a difficult time with that, I think my minimal knowledge of Taoism would have given me great trouble in understanding their meaning.
I continued to wander, and began to wonder what the guide book had meant when it spoke of the ‘departments’. I stepped up along another platform that ran the perimeter of the temple, and quickly found my answer. Directly in front of me was an open room that contained a number of strange looking figures, each appearing to be one of a kind. It was obvious that they were significant, but I could not place any of them. I looked for a description along the side of the room, and quickly found something like this;
Department of Life and Death
And finally, it made sense. All around the perimeter of the temple were small cubicles of the same style, each containing a strange collection of figures that represented their respective department. All told, there are 76 of them that comprise a sort of Taoist underworld. Some of figures looked mostly human, while others where a mythical variety, sometimes even amphibian or bull-like in nature. Many of the departments had to do with judgment and often depicted violent and unpleasant scenes (15 Kinds of Violent Death was excellent). Many of the figures were missing their heads, or holding their organs. Some just looked plain sick.
I walked slowly around the temple, taking a moment to look at each one of the spaces and the strange scene that it held. Standing in front of some, I was washed over with the smell of very old decaying wood, and it reminded me of being inside parts of my grandparents house, perhaps their barn on very humid days. Though it has been restored, this temple is rustic compared to so many of the other places that I have been. It really allows you the feeling that you are in a place quite a bit older than the world around you. I don’t know all that much about Taoism, but I was surprised to find that there was so much detail within the religion given to the idea of punishment, and organized punishment at that. While Taoism does not have an underworld in the same sense as hell, this temple made it very clear that Taoists have a definite realm of punishment for failure to lead a life according to their beliefs.
I left Dongyue Temple with a great desire to learn more about the history of the region, as well as Taoism itself. The religion was far more widespread within China prior to the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s, but has slowly begun to see a revival following the death of Mao. Despite the decade of repression, Taoism remains heavily embedded in many aspect of Chinese life and culture, and it would be wise for anyone looking to learn more about China to take some time to look at Taoism. This place had quite an effect on me, and I would be happy to go back again, even if just to sit an enjoy the solitude.