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Home : China Guide : Beijing : Buddhism Temples arround Beijing

In 1513, construction of Dahui Temple, deep in the woods of Beijing's western outskirts, was completed, along with a number of other temples scattered throughout the city. The Ming Emperor Zhengde personally inscribed a tablet, and a stele was erected to commemorate the event. According to the Summary Accounts of the Imperial City published in 1788, the temple was, "... built by eunuch Zhang Xiong, and located in Weiwu Village, three miles north of Xizhimen...the Buddha statue was of copper, and measured five zhang (about 16 meters) in height, so the local people also called it the Giant Buddha Temple."

The guardian gods in various postures and costumes.
The guardian gods in various postures and costumes.

During the reign of Emperor Jiajing (1522-1567), who was a devotee of Taoism, eunuch Mai Fu built two Taoist abbeys around the Dahui Temple -- Yousheng to the left and Zhenwu on the mountain behind it. The Buddhist-Taoist compound occupied an area of 28 hectares and comprised 181 halls and buildings.

Scourge of the People and Supplicants of the Gods
According to historical records, construction of temples gained momentum during the latter half of the Ming Dynasty. During this period, Beijing was the site of over 1,000 temples of various kinds. The impetus for this phenomenon stemmed from eunuchs, and their excessive influence within the Ming court.

Eunuchs had maintained imperial favor since the early years of the Ming Dynasty, when Emperor Yongle (1360-1424) seized power with the help of a eunuch-orchestrated mutiny. Through the emperor's accreditation, Zheng He, his eunuch and henchman, was assigned seven commissions to the West with a huge fleet, which established China's naval supremacy, and promoted Sino-foreign exchanges. Eunuchs that misused their power during the Ming Dynasty were, however, in the majority. They ruined the country and reduced the people to abject poverty by manipulating the Ming emperors and wielding influence to their own ends. They are believed to be a main cause of the collapse of the dynasty.

The Great Mercy Hall's octagonal caisson inlaid with coiling dragons.
The Great Mercy Hall's octagonal caisson inlaid with coiling dragons.

In 1449 Mongolian forces invaded Ming territory along four routes. Eunuch Wang Zhen, who had no military experience or knowledge whatever, initially urged Emperor Yingzong to lead personally a military expedition, but on hearing of a minor defeat at the front, to make a hasty retreat. On the way back Wang Zhen insisted that the emperor take a needless and dangerous detour to his hometown in Hebei Province. Consequently, in Tumubao (east of today's Huailai County in Hebei Province) the weary and unprepared Ming troops were attacked by Mongolians, and suffered heavy losses. Amid fierce fighting the emperor was captured and Wang Zhen killed.

Emperor Yingzong's younger brother subsequently succeeded to the throne, and immediately gave orders for Wang Zhen's entire clan to be executed and his property confiscated. Emperor Yingzong resumed his reign on his unexpected release after eight years of imprisonment, but only after a fratricidal bloodbath that sapped further the strength of the Ming Dynasty.

Wang Zhen built the Zhihua Temple, in Dongcheng District, Beijing, with money he extorted from the people.

The God of Taishan Mountain.
The God of Taishan Mountain.

Liu Jin (1451-1510), a eunuch during the reign of Emperor Zhengde, was popularly known as the Nine Thousand Age (one of the emperor's honorifics also being the Ten Thousand Age), implying that his status was inferior only to that of the emperor. Liu not only dominated administrative power and law enforcement in the imperial court, but also commandeered its intelligence agents, Dongchang, Xichang, and Neixingchang, who summarily eliminated all dissidents. Liu Jin encouraged the emperor to indulge in hedonistic pursuits, and to ignore government affairs. Thousands of civilians and officials were persecuted to death under his despotic rule. Liu also plundered privately owned farmlands on the pretext of establishing imperial manors. This eunuch's tyranny provoked widespread loathing and indignation, and he was finally executed on charges of treason.

Wei Zhongxian (1568-1627) is the most infamous figure in Ming history. In collusion with Emperor Xizong's wet nurse, Wei dominated state affairs, and butchered all that opposed him. He formed his own clique and planted his agents in various departments of the central and local governments. In his quest for divine approbation, Wei Zhongxian launched a massive, nationwide building project of shrines to himself. In Kaifeng alone, over 2,000 civil houses were razed to make way for them, some of which housed golden statues of Wei. Any person refusing to pay what was deemed to be due respect was executed. Eventually, however, Wei was justly punished.

Soon after ascending the throne in 1627, the young and ambitious Emperor Chongzhen executed Wei Zhongxian and eradicated his partisans. This was, however, too late to save the moribund Ming Dynasty, and a decade later it was overthrown by a peasant uprising led by Li Zicheng.

Ming eunuchs had two aims in building such huge numbers of temples. They appeased the gods, and, as most Ming emperors were devotees of Buddhism or Taoism, were also a way of currying imperial favor. Combined, they demonstrated the extent of the power and wealth of eunuchs. The immense scale of temple construction became the scourge of the people. According to a survey conducted by Shen Bang, magistrate of Wanping County, farmland in the county decreased by over 4,200 hectares, or by one sixth, in two decades, although not all requisitioned land was used for temple construction. According to historical documents, "All fields near the Western Hills that had auspicious geomantic locations were allocated for the building of temples and officials' residences, tomb sites, and private estates. Within a 100 mile radius of the capital, every square inch was occupied by temples, mausoleums and the estates of princes, princesses, imperial relatives, meritorious officials and patricians."

A goddess modeled after an elegant noblewoman.
A goddess modeled after an elegant noblewoman.

The money raised to build temples and to support the accompanying large numbers of monks constituted the flesh and blood of the masses. According to Shen Bang, "the temples are gorgeous and sumptuous with towering pagodas, halls and pillars. The Buddha statue in Wanshou Temple alone is worth 1,000 taels of gold." Monks and nuns, wearing resplendent robes and costly prayer beads, enjoyed high status and lived in luxury.

The Giant Buddha Temple
Zhang Xiong, whose idea it was to build the Giant Buddha Temple, was a high-ranking eunuch in the Directorate of Ceremonial, a pivotal organ of the Ming imperial court. Eunuchs in this department wrote down the emperor's instructions in red ink before passing them on to relevant ministries, where they were extended into imperial edicts. During the reign of Emperor Wuzong, whom Zhang Xiong served, the Directorate of Ceremonial was in charge of state secrets, and handled reports submitted to the emperor by officials. Its actual power exceeded that of the premier.

It is therefore no surprise that Zhang Xiong had the authority to erect a 16-meter-tall copper Buddha statue in the Great Mercy Hall, now the only portion of the Giant Buddha Temple extant. The hall faces south, from a stone foundation. Laced with double-tier eaves, it has a hipped gable roof with caesious barrel tiles adorned with zoomorphic ornaments. Decorated with brilliant paintings, its octagonal caisson is inlaid with coiling dragons, and at the end of each rafter is a painted deity figurine.

After weathering several centuries, the copper Buddha was destroyed by Japanese aggressors in the 1940s. The local people later set up three painted statues of Sakyamuni, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, and the Bodhisattva of Universal Benevolence in its stead.

In an attempt to safeguard the precious copper Buddha, Zhang Xiong placed 28 sculptures of guardian gods along the gables of the hall. As they were made of clay rather than the copper sought by the Japanese invaders, these statues survived the war of the 1940s.

It is rare in Beijing for a single temple to house so many statues of guardian gods of such a superlative artistic and craftsmanship level. Measuring over three meters in height, the statues are of diverse appearance, facial expression and posture. With sunken jowls, prominent cheekbones and buckteeth, the God of Taishan Mountain is aged but awe inspiring. Fully armed, and with red hair and beard, the Southern Devarajas stands side-on in an attitude of supreme disdain. The Deity of the Pippala Tree, on the other hand, is smiling and amiable. Their costumes are of diverse styles, and their gilded patterns glitter as brilliantly today as ever.

There is a series of traditional Chinese paintings on the walls behind these statues, telling the story of a man who achieves immortality in recognition of his life-long benevolence. Its brilliant colors and lifelike portrayals indicate this mural as the work of Ming Dynasty master artists.

As an example of Ming Dynasty architecture, sculpture and painting, the Great Mercy Hall is a treasure trove of Buddhist arts in Beijing. It has been under municipal protection since 1957. (Source: China Today)

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