Diary of a Rambling Antiquarian

Three Beijing Pagodas

Sunday, 8 December 2013

[Mirrored from http://babeldiary.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/three-beijing-pagodas.html]

I'm in Beijing for a week, attending a conference on Tangut encoding, and although I have little free time, I have pre-planned some cultural excursions. When I was a student in Beijing in the 1980s I particularly enjoyed visiting pagodas, and took a number of black and white photos of Beijing temples and pagodas, but unfortunately I can no longer find them. My love for pagodas has only grown with time, and so this week I have set myself the goal of revisiting three of my favourite Beijing pagodas.

I arrived on Saturday, and the Tangut part of the conference does not start until Monday, so I had originally intended to spend today visiting the three pagodas, but when I looked out of my hotel window this morning, to my dismay I could see little but thick smog, which would make any pagoda photography a waste of time, so I decided to visit the Capital Museum (首都博物館藏) instead. As it turned out, it was very useful to visit the museum before looking for pagodas as at the very top level of the enormous leaning circular bronze vessel shaped exhibition hall of the museum was an exhibition of artefacts found in various Beijing pagodas, some of which are no longer standing, and one of which I was hoping to visit. The pictures below are not actually from that exhibition, but are from an exhibition of Buddhist sculpture elsewhere in the museum. The statue is the famous Chan master, Hai Yun 海雲 (1203–1257), who became a spiritual advisor to Kublai Khan. The statue was found in the underground hall of the Pagoda of Haiyun at Qingshou Temple 慶壽寺 in Beijing when the pagoda and its twin, the Pagoda of Haiyun's disciple Ke'an 可庵, were demolished in 1954. Kublai Khan had ordered that the city wall of Khanbaliq (modern Beijing) be built 30 steps away from the twin pagodas of Qingshou Temple, but in 1954 the Beijing City People's Committee decided that they should be taken down in order to make way for an enlarged Chang'an Avenue.

It is an utter mistake to pull down the Twin-Pagoda Qingshou Temple merely for the purpose of expanding the West Chang'an Avenue. The two towers present no obstacle to traffic at all. On the contrary, they add to the elegance of the street. If flowers and grass are planted around them, they will become beautiful islets. However, the city's people's committee had them dismantled. Why? The city people's committee may say that they acted upon demand by the people. But there are also people who oppose the dismantling of the temples. The two towers had survived more than 600 years. Why not allow them to continue to exist for three or five more years or even a year or so, letting it stay there for sometime and see what the people say about it. If the people really demand it pulled down, I would have nothing to say. But the people's committee did not do that. I do not know why it had them pulled down so hastily. The result is the road had been expanded but improperly. I'm afraid that people might complain to see so many houses (including the Twin-Pagoda Qingshou Temple) pulled down to make way for people going to the Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant to park their cars.

Liang Sicheng 梁思成 (1901‑1972)

Stone statue of Haiyun 海雲 (1203-1257), circa 1257
{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The conference concludes early and successfully at lunchtime on Tuesday, and as today is a clear sunny day, the smog swept away by a bitter north wind, I take off after lunch in search of pagodas. There is only a couple of hours until closing time, but I would like to cross off at least one the targets.

The first, and most recent, pagoda on my list is within walking distance. It takes about twenty minutes from the hotel to reach the National Library, and from there just five minutes along a road hugging the river until the Five Pagodas Temple (五塔寺) is within sight. Properly known as the Temple of True Enlightenment (Zhenjue Temple 真覺寺), the temple was founded in the Ming dynasty, during the reign of the Chenghua Emperor (r. 1464–1487). The pagoda, built in 1473, is in the style of a "Diamond Throne Pagoda" (金剛寶座塔), loosely based on the model of the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya in India, where Siddhartha Gautama is said to have attained enlightenment. A towering square foundation of rusty brown marble supports five marble and brick pagodas, four at the corners and one at the centre, each representing one of the Five Dhyani Buddhas. It is said that the temple's architect, an Indian monk called Pandida, brought with him five golden Buddha statues, and that one is buried beneath each pagoda, but if that were true I would probably have seen them at the Capital Museum on Sunday.

Save for the stone pagoda, all the temple buildings were destroyed during the turbulence of the late Qing, and the temple now houses the Beijing Art Museum of Stone Carvings (北京石刻藝術博物館). We approach the entrance, but the ticket office is closed, and a security guard tells us that the temple is closed for repairs. "Will it be open tomorrow?" I ask naively. "Tomorrow? Next year!" he replies. I can see the pagoda in the distance through the main gate fifty yards away, with workmen pushing wheelbarrows in and out, so I ask the security guard if we can at least go as far as the main gate to take a peek at the pagoda. He says "Yes" although his hands seem to indicate "No", which is good enough for me, and so despite his protesting hands we boldly march up to the gate, from where there is a reasonable view of the pagoda, even if we cannot see any of the detail of the carved decoration.

View of the Diamond Throne Pagoda from the main gate

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Thanks to the closure of the Five Pagodas Temple there is still time to try for the second pagoda on my list. We head back to the main road, and down onto the subway. Four stops and one change of line, and we emerge at Fuchengmen station. A short walk east along the main street and the target comes into sight, a huge snow-white stupa-shaped pagoda rising up above the alleys and hutongs on the north side of the street. This is the Temple of Marvellous Response (Miaoying Temple 妙應寺), more commonly known as the Temple of the White Pagoda (白塔寺). The temple was founded during the Liao dynasty, in the 2nd year of the Shouchang era (1096), and was originally called the Temple of Eternal Peace (Yong'an Temple 永安寺). The temple was rebuilt during the Yuan dynasty, and renamed the Great Sage Longevity Ten Thousand Peace Temple (Dashengshou Wan'an Temple 大聖壽萬安寺). Its name was changed to the Temple of Marvellous Response during the Ming dynasty. The famous white pagoda was constructed during the Yuan dynasty, in the year 1271, under the direction of the Nepalese architect Araniko. This is the second oldest (or second most recent, depending on your point of view) of the three pagodas that I want to visit.

We head into a likely-looking alley, and are soon at what looks like the main entrance. But the entrance seems dead and abandoned, and the pagoda is wrapped in scaffolding and green netting. It does not look promising. With no-one at the entrance to ask, we continue along the alley around the pagoda, and immediately see a friendly-looking chap. "Where is the entrance to the temple?" I ask, and the answer is no suprise. "The entrance is just there", he says, indicating where we have just come from, "but the temple is closed for repairs". We circumambulate the pagoda in the wrong direction, and I try to get a decent picture.

View of the White Stupa-Pagoda from an alley east of the temple

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

The battery on my camera dies, and there would not have been time to reach the third pagoda on my list anyway, so somewhat disheartened we head back to the hotel.

Luckily the Capital Museum exhibition of artefacts found in Beijing pagodas includes a number of very fine objects deposited in the pinnacle of the white stupa-pagoda of White Pagoda Temple during the 18th year of the Qianlong era (1753), when the pagoda had been repaired. These artefacts were found during repairs to the pagoda in the autumn of 1978, following damage incurred during the Tangshan earthquake two years earlier.

Statue of Avalokiteśvara Lid for the statue of Avalokiteśvara Brass cover for the statue of Avalokiteśvara
Carved from a single piece of rosewood With an inscription in the hand of the Qianlong Emperor With an inscription dated Qianlong 18 (1753)
{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Buddhist scripture box made from nanmu wood inlaid with gold and silver


{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

The box originally contained a gilt bronze statue box and a gold Buddha of Longevity statuette, the Chinese text of the Heart Sutra handwritten by the Qianlong Emperor, the Tibetan text of the Dharani-Sutra of the Victorious Buddha-Crown (Uṣṇīṣa-vijaya-dhāraṇī-sūtra) handwritten by the Qianlong Emperor, 4 gilt silver vases, 5 hada scarves, 5 bolts of brocade cloth, a set of 108 rosary beads, and a large quantity of incense

Part of the Dharani-Sutra of the Victorious Buddha-Crown in Tibetan script

Handwritten in 1753 by the Qianlong Emperor

From an information board at the Capital Mueum, Beijing

Lacquered wooden round box


{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

The box originally contained a Five Buddhas crown and a monk's robes (kāṣāya)

Statuettes of the Buddhas of the Three Ages

Statue box in the shape of Mount Sumeru


{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Yesterday, after the conclusion of the Tangut conference, there was a group outing for the conference participants to the Cloud Platform at Juyongguan, which I had already visited in 2011 when I was last in Beijing, but I was glad to go again with my new camera. Today everyone but me is going home, and I have to change hotels. I get up early to go to my third, and oldest, pagoda, which is some twenty minutes walk from the nearest subway station at Changchunjie. The 57.8 metre pagoda of Tianning Temple 天寧寺 still dominates the skyline in this corner of Beijing, even though it is dwarfed by a towering factory chimney inappropriately sited right next to the temple.

View of Tianning Temple from the south

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

This octagonal brick and stone pagoda was built in the early 12th century, during the last years of the Liao dynasty (916–1125), supposedly on the site of a wooden pagoda built in 602 by Emperor Wen of Sui. Like many Liao dynasty pagodas, this one is solid with fake doors and windows sculptured onto its eight sides. However, even solid pagodas are not entirely solid, and the pagoda should have a sealed underground chamber (地宮) where Buddhist relics, statues and sutras were placed when the pagoda was built. Sometimes the contents of these underground chambers are discovered during renovation or demolition, and sometimes thieves dig tunnels under the pagoda to reach hoped-for treasures, as was the case in 2011 when thieves dug a tunnel into the Liao dynasty pagoda at Nan'an Temple in Hebei. As far as I know, the underground chamber of the pagoda at Tianning Temple remains untouched, and may still contain Buddhist relics or even examples of lost Khitan translations of Buddhist sutras.

Inside the temple there is a constant trickle of devotees circumambulating the pagoda, one man prostrating himself at every step, in the Tibetan fashion, but when I took the picture below all the circumambulators must have been on the other side of the pagoda. Looking at the picture of the pagoda piercing the perfect blue sky, it is hard to believe that just days ago the entire city was smothered by smog.

View of Tianning Temple Pagoda from the south

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Sculptured panel on the south side of the pagoda

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}


Sculptured panel on the south-west side of the pagoda

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Detail showing the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī riding a lion

Sculptured panel on the west side of the pagoda

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Sculptured panel on the north-west side of the pagoda

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Sculptured panel on the north side of the pagoda

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Detail showing the fourteen-armed form of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara

Sculptured panel on the north-east side of the pagoda

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Sculptured panel on the east side of the pagoda

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Sculptured panel on the south-east side of the pagoda

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Detail showing the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra riding an elephant

Detail of the bottom frieze around the pagoda

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Another detail of the frieze

Satisfied, I return to check out of my hotel, and make my way to a new hotel (the one we stayed at two years ago). In the afternoon I will pay a visit to the National Musuem, and tomorrow is another day of cultural excursions.

Postscript: I returned to Beijing for two days in September 2017, and managed to visit the renovated and reopened White Stupa-Pagoda, as documented in this post.

Index of Blog Posts