Finding what's ancient in a modern nation
(more about my travels in China)

Tiger and Dragon, Tian Hou Temple, Sungang Village, Shenzhen

You probably remember one of the most famous Chinese films of recent years, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

What you may not realize is that the tiger and the dragon represent the Chinese concepts of yin and yang.

"Yin" is the female, the dark, the passive. The tiger is a stalker, a quiet hunter who knows how to be patient, lying in wait. The tiger is also West, the withdrawal place of the sun.

"Yang" is male, light, active. The dragon comes in with drums banging and bells ringing, with a "ho ho HOOOO." He is also East, from which the sun expands its power.

In many Daoist (folk) temples, we can see this symbolism embodied in picture panels. In a May, 2009, visit to the Tian Hou Temple in Sungang Village, Shenzhen, we saw this quite clearly.

The temple is a typical "two hall, one courtyard" style, although the central courtyard is covered.

On the left wall of the courtyard, we see this panel of the tiger:

Given that the front doors of temples are supposed to face south, this would be the west. (This temple is actually askew, but we can call the front door "liturgical south," as the altar in some Christian traditions is said to be located at the "liturgical east.")

Opposite this, of course, is the dragon. This is "liturgical east," in keeping with the proper symbolism.

Each panel is three to four feet wide. An interesting touch on both panels is that the larger figure is accompanied by a "child."

This temple, by the way, has one of the finest collections of folk statues I've seen anywhere in China. I'll be publishing more of them later.

One Day in Luohu

A wise old friend of mine (a German with the unlikely surname of "Kurotobi") once shared a proverb with me: "The man who has one bike in Shenzhen has two."

HUH?

Well, he explained, there's the one that you ride, and that one is a replacement for the one that has been stolen and is being ridden by someone else.

Ah. Now THAT'S wisdom!

So one day Lila and I went out with Stefano and Farah and the kids. We ended up walking through a swanky mall and coming out to get into taxis. As we were boarding, I looked down at the sidewalk, and saw the image above.

No matter how good the lock...

Chinese "Ethnicity"

One of my first experiences of China was a visit to Shenzhen's "Splendid China" and the "Folk Cultural Villages," kitschy theme parks with a Chinese spin ("See All of China in a Day!")

The Splendid China side is made up of miniatures of all of China's famous sites: Potala Palace in Tibet, Lijiang, the Three Gorges, and of course the Great Wall (actually said to be one full kilometer long).

But I find the Folk Cultural Villages more interesting. There are life-sized houses representing over 20 of China's 55 minorities, with people doing both domestic chores (cooking etc) and special performances (dances, knife-ladder-climbing, and so on). There's also a spectacular stage show, and a corny horseback exhibition centering around Genghis Khan and his boys (and girls).

The pictures below show some of the "villagers" in ethnic costumes. I'm sorry to say that, when I took these a few years ago, I didn't know enough Chinese to ask which of the minorities they represented. (The truth is, most of the "villagers" are actually Han Chinese, members of China's majority. Those who are outraged by this subterfuge may want to remember all the Italians posing as Native Americans in movies from the 1950s and 60s--or David Carradine's primary claim to fame.)

Anyway, I thought that the pictures might speak for themselves. And the last one is a park visitor whose mother has bought her a souvenir.

Under the Wishing Tree, Chiwan, Shenzhen

At the Tian Hou Temple in Shenzhen's Chiwan area (near the Tomb of the Boy Emperor) stands a wishing tree.

The first temple was completed on this site in 1410. Legend says that the famous admiral-eunuch Zheng He was commissioned by emperor Zhu Di to "sail west" (subject of the fictional book parading as history, 1421: The Year China Discovered America). Reaching the Pearl River Delta near Chiwan, the fleet encountered a storm and was enabled to carry on. Tian Hou appeared to the emperor, saying it was she that saved the fleet, and that the emperor was to built a temple near the site to show his thanks. Thus the temple was built, and the Wish-Giving Tree in the courtyard (or perhaps its ancestor?) was planted by Zhang He and his staff.

Today, under that tree, sit two happy figures: Tu Di, the ubiquitous Earth God (a sort of genius locii) and Mrs. Tu Di, his wife. They are surrounded by other familiar figures (like the Laughing Buddha) and actually block the view of a memorial tablet with Tu Di's name on it. As you can see, devotion is still strong, both to the gods and to the tree, often festooned with red papers bearing wishes.

The Boy Emperor's Tomb, Shenzhen

Shenzhen (where I live) is a newly-developed city, but if you look closely, you can still find some history.

Case in point: Song Shao Di Mu, the tomb of Song Shao (also called Song Di Bing or Zhao Bing), last emperor of the Southern Song Dynasty, who died in the Pearl River Delta in 1279 and whose body, it is said, washed up on the shores of Shenzhen.

In brief, the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty were "sweeping up" after defeating the last "real" emperor, Zhao Qi, known as Duzong. That last emperor was the father of three young boys who technically (but not effectively) succeeded him before the Yuan solidified their power. After the father came Zhao Xian, who abdicated in 1276; Zhao Shi, who died in Hong Kong in 1278; and our boy, Zhao Bing, who as we shall see was no luckier.

The Yuan chased the latter two boys all the way to Hong Kong. Nine-year-old Zhao Shi died of illness in Kowloon. His protector Hau Wong, is still revered as a god in Hong Kong.

A legend about this boy (also called Song Di Zheng) gave Kowloon its name. There was a belief that the young Emperor would be safe if he were sheltered in a place with "nine dragons." Kowloon is surrounded by eight mountains; on the theory that the Emperor himself was the Ninth Dragon, they decided to rest there. (Turns out they were wrong.) "Kowloon" is an English transcription of the name they gave the place, which means "Nine Dragons."

And so the younger boy, Zhao Bing, became emperor at age 7, in 1278.

In 1279 the Song army lost its last battle to the Mongols, in the Pearl River Delta. A high official named Lu Xiufu then took the young emperor in his arms and jumped off a cliff into the sea.


Lu Xiufu holds Zhao Bing in his arms

Local legend takes over from here: a little body washed up on the shore, wearing the yellow dragon-embroidered robes of an emperor. At the same moment, a board fell from the interior of the nearby Tian Hou Temple. Devotees who recovered the body prayed at the temple to find out what to do with it. The goddess Tian Hou answered through a medium that the fallen board had been "given" to make a casket, and that the boy was to be entombed nearby. The tomb is now a fifteen-minute walk from the temple.


Offerings are still made in front of the tomb

Note the peculiar shape of the tomb? The semi-circular wall is meant to be shaped like a woman's legs; the placing of ashes in the door simulates a return to the womb.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi'an, Shaanxi

Back in January, 2007, I took a flyer at a high-paying job with one of the most mismanaged companies conceivable. (I didn't know that when I signed up, though!)

The job lasted a month. Aside from a magnificent salary, I managed to get one trip out of it. On four consecutive nights, I slept in Wuhan, Xi'an, Chongqing, and Chengdu. Despite the whirlwind nature of the trip, I did manage to get in a little sightseeing, especially in Xi'an.

Here is one of the most famous sights in Xi'an, the Da Yan Ta or "Big Wild Goose Pagoda." It was first built in 652, when Xi'an (then called Chang'an) was the capital of Tang-Dynasty China. (What we see today is a Ming restoration of the tower that was built in 704.)

One of China's most famous monks was Xuanzang. In 629 he set out on a seventeen-year journey to India, where he learned Sanskrit and collected sutras and other artifacts. (The novel Journey to the West is a fictionalized version of that adventure.)

After returning to China in 645, many of the relics and other objects he brought were placed in the newly-built Big Wild Goose Pagoda.

The first time I saw the pagoda was at night, when my generous friend and colleague Brandon Plazier took me to a nearby Indian restaurant. It was a full moon, and I had my tripod. I still say "wow" when I see this.

The next day I returned; this is Xuanzang standing in front of the pagoda.

The pagoda now stands on the grounds of a temple; I didn't have time to enter, but had a nice walk around the outside.

Here's a shot of the pagoda's side, over the temple wall. It's even more imposing in person.

Yuansheng Temple, Yangzhou

Yuansheng Temple was built in 1930 (according to a plaque on the site) "to release the soul of the late salt merchant Xiao Yunpu from purgatory."

There had previously been a guildhall on the site (if I understand the Chinglish of the plaque correctly). A hall on the north side (pictured below) still has three rooms made of "Nanmu wood" that date back to the Ming dynasty.

It was, the plaque says, "the biggest temple built in Yangzhou during the period of the Republic of China."

My, how the mighty have fallen.

The first sight to greet the visitor is the laundry hanging in front of the "main gate." Scooters are parked everywhere willy-nilly, and some indolent fellows are playing cards under the umbrella on the right.

Entering the gate, one encounters the "courtyard." More laundry (the red bra is an especially nice touch) and squatters' shanties fill the space. The "main hall" (straight ahead) is occupied and not accessible to visitors.

This is the front of the "Ming Dynasty" building. It was in fact the only hint that this place might have been something at one time.

This corridor is hanging feebly onto the other (south) side of the "main hall." I was afraid to mount the steps on the chance that they might not hold me.

Visited on a ramble through the hutong (alleyways) in July of 2007.

Under a Spreading Chestnut Tree...

Know what this is?

In an alley just around the corner from my building in Gangxia, Shenzhen, I saw this setup. It's a shop (of sorts). Can you guess what it is?

  • Clue #1: The blackened wall on the left indicates fire.
  • Clue #2: That's an old bathtub on the right.
  • Clue #3 (this should do it): The hat is covering a chunk of wood with a piece of iron on top.

Forge - bath - anvil.

It's a blacksmith's shop.

Crude but effective. I never saw the smithy at work, but every time I passed there weresigns that he had been there.

By the way, the title of this piece comes from an old poem, called "The VillageBlacksmith," by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The title is apropos, no?

The Stone Pagoda Temple, Yangzhou

This beautiful little carved stone pagoda stands in a traffic island near the central intersection of Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province.

According to the plaque nearby, it was part of Mulan Temple. ("Mulan" is a kind of magnolia; it's the same characters as the legendary girl hero that the Disney film Mulan was based on.)

The pagoda was built in the year 838, in the Tang Dynasty, to hold Buddhist relics.(That's the purpose of most pagodas.)

It has five stories and six sides, with (once upon a time) a total of 24 finely carved Buddhas. It was repaired in 1964.

The pagoda is all that remains of Mulan Temple. For this reason, it is generally refered to as "Shi Ta Si": Stone Pagoda Temple.

China, Where I Am Now

Because I've lived over five years in Shenzhen, most of what you'll see here is from Guangdong (Shenzhen mostly, and Guangzhou, and Shaoguan…) I spent a year in Yangzhou, Jiangsu (with not much to show for it considering); a week in a mountain-top temple in Futian; and a day each in Wuhan, Xi'an, and Chongqing. I'll let you know if and when I ever get to Beijing, Shanghai, Tibet, the rest of Xi'an…

Everything on these pages is © 2009 by James Baquet.