Dōng Yuè Miào 东岳庙

Part of A Better Guide to Běijīng’s coverage of North and East of the Imperial City

This daoist temple (see Daoism) is also the Běijīng Folk Arts Museum (北京民俗博物馆, Běijīng Mínsú Bówùguǎn). Cháoyáng Mén Wài Dàjiē passes right through the grounds, separating the main entrance páilou, a splendid green and yellow tiled affair, from the entrance gate. Two neighbouring wooden páilou have disappeared.

After a long period as a school for the Public Security Bureau, and the expenditure of around US$700,000 to US$3 million in repairs (depending on who you read), what was regarded as one of Běijīng’s most important sites in the 1930s reopened to the public in February 1999 (although parts were recently still in use as a police station).

The temple’s drum and bell towers are outside what is now the main gate, and the left-hand one is the ticket office.

Dates given for the original construction of the temple are as early as 1317, but the first hall is dated 1322 and has threatening images of General Dragon and General Tiger, otherwise known as ‘Hēng!’ and ‘Hā!’ (you can tell from their facial expressions who is who). They perform the protective role taken by the Four Heavenly Kings at Buddhist temples (although daoism has versions of these too). Then come the Ten Imperial Guards of the Eastern Peak Pantheon, all weapon-brandishing generals.

A raised causeway lined with shrubs and potted plants crosses a large courtyard with two stele pavilions and assorted stelae standing about, most recording renovations to the temple funded by trade societies. The biggest stele of all, in the northeast corner and in a glass case, has an account in very fine calligraphy of the construction of the temple and of the daoist masters involved in it. Inevitably, the Kāngxī emperor gets in on another stele dating from 1704, recording the rebuilding of the temple in 1689 following a fire, and a Qiánlóng stele records further renovations in 1761. There are two statues, one the White Jade Horse, and the other the Bronze Wonder Donkey — an assembled creature like a Père David’s deer (see Mílù Yuàn), with the head of a horse, body of a donkey, tail of a mule, and the split hooves of a bull (there are further examples in the animal line-up at the Míng Tombs). Touching the horse is supposed to give you ‘safe movements and business fulfilment’: touching the donkey is supposed to cure diseases. Tradition had it that any woman having difficulty conceiving could obtain a clay doll from the priests here, and if she left the temple without looking round, went home, and treated the doll like a real child, she would become fertile.

The main point of interest is the surrounding buildings, divided into 72 little cubicles containing statues of a significant number of daoism’s more than 10,000 gods, along with the humans, animals, and demons in receipt of their judgement. There are good English explanations of why they are here and what they are up to. All are presided over by the deity of Tài Shān, a holy mountain in Shāndōng Province after whom the temple is named, thought to be the home of dead souls. This is all about settling accounts, about being weighed and found wanting, and indeed the now-disappeared entrance gate once had a giant abacus mounted on the wall to warn those who entered that their merit would be calculated. It almost seems that those who commissioned and installed several hundred new statues (there were 3000 originally, it’s claimed) had both the moral and the environmental state of modern China in mind. A little garish when the temple first reopened, their colours have now been calmed by a layer of dust.

Gods are divided into departments with various jobs, such as the Department for Controlling Bullying and Cheating and the Department of Pity and Sympathy, suggesting that rulers should exercise benevolence over their subjects and that inhabitants of the same neighbourhood should take care of each other. One could hope for a more international consciousness, especially in these days of global warming and intercontinental pollution, but it’s a start. There are departments for judging you in hell, departments for escorting you to heaven, and various departments busy with deciding whether you should be reborn as bird, fish, or mammal.

Daoists can be rewarded or punished for their intentions, whether or not they carried them out (rather as it’s said that in the days of the emperors you could be beaten just for thinking about entering the Forbidden City). The message is that you’ve got free will, but your future depends upon your conduct. So if you are rich but unkind you can become poor. If you’re poor but perform good deeds you can become rich. All together now: ‘Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz…’

Certain departments gain a lot more attention from Chinese visitors than others, and this was once indicated by the numbers of tasselled and belled wooden plaques hung at particular shrines, and indicative of the national state of mind. The Department of Accumulating Justifiable Wealth and the Department for Increasing Wealth and Longevity were very popular, although some attention was also paid to the Department for Upholding Loyalty and Filial Piety, the numerous plaques coming perhaps from those with unreliable business partners or whose children hadn’t been to see them for a long time. The Door God department was among the most popular, the Door God’s job being to keep out devils and bad influences and to refute hearsay and other attacks on family security. But perhaps it was the overt criticism of a mass of plaques hung at the Department of Official Morality — which sets standards of behaviour for rulers, demanding impartiality and fairness in the enforcement of laws and rules, and resistance to corruption — that led to them all being removed and confined to neutral territory in the centre of the courtyard.

On the east side there’s a Department for Implementing 15 Different Kinds of Violent Death. These include death by starvation, clubbing, vengeful murder, killing in battle, caused by fierce animals or snakes, burning, poison, outbreak of madness, falling into an abyss, tricks of an evil person or a ghost, terrible diseases, and suicide. Daoism says those who commit evil deeds will fall victim to their own evil deeds (although there seems to be plentiful evidence in modern China that this simply isn’t true), and unsurprisingly no one in this department looks very happy, although it is entertaining in a fairground haunted house way.

Some of the cubicles are the ancestral halls of figures who played a part in the temple’s founding, and there’s a nasty hint of nationalism in some of the Chinese captions that isn’t always translated into English. But overall, departments encouraging the care of birds and animals and those promoting a do-as-you-would-be-done-by morality suggest that a return to daoism would probably do China a lot of good, in lieu of democracy.

The 1930s resident John Blofeld knew a priest here, and once asked him about the crudeness of the outer courtyards when the rest of daoism advocated harmony.

‘You must make a peasant believe he is at death’s door before he’ll call a doctor,’ said the priest. ‘People like it that way. Tell them that they are holy and beautiful, that every one of them is a living embodiment of the sacred Tao, and they will think you are a stupid fellow, or smell your breath to see if you are drunk. But tell them they are worse than devils or hungry ghosts and only fit for hell, then they will respect your powers of perception and ask you privately to reveal the special tastes of hell’s judges so they will know how to bribe them.’

John Blofeld, City of Lingering Splendour, London, 1961

The main hall at the rear, also from 1322, burned down in 1698, was reconstructed in 1700, and was repaired for reopening in 1999. It is a shrine to the god Dōng Yuè (东岳), who lives on Tài Shān and is in charge of all human beings, the 76 departments, and the 18 layers of hell. The figure, accompanied by the gods of air and water and numerous silk-robed attendants, sits in magnificent recessed greatness behind a long wooden altar table stacked with incense packets and fruit, beneath great coils of magenta incense.

Behind the main hall is a covered causeway where the prayer plaques are on sale, and which leads to Dōng Yuè’s bedchamber, where his two wives are separately housed and guarded by giant, genuinely ancient Heavenly Kings.

The Folk Arts Museum is in the galleries around the rearmost courtyard, designed to be tackled in clockwise order. It includes musical instruments, games, and toys; cricket-keeping materials, pigeon whistles, and kites (see Ancient Pastimes); theatre masks and puppets; and a model of the temple’s once much larger three-axis layout.

▶ Cháoyáng Mén Wài Dàjiē, t 6551 0151, www.dym.com.cn, 8.30am–4pm, Tues–Sun, ¥10, m Cháoyáng Mén (Lines 2 & 6) exit A and walk E; m Dōng Dà Qiáo (Line 6) and walk W. b to 神路街: 75, 101电车, 109电车, 110, 112电车, 420, 615, 650.

The main daoist temple in Běijīng is the Báiyún Guàn, but the Dōng Yuè Miào is perhaps more entertaining. Through the páilou on the opposite side of the road is Shén Lù Jiē (神路街) which leads south to Rì Tán Park to shopping and restaurants catering to Russians. There are several major markets for clothes, souvenirs, and electronics in the immediate vicinity. See Shopping.

Next in North and East of the Imperial City: Rì Tán Park
Previously: The Dormition Church
Main Index of A Better Guide to Beijing.

For discussion of China travel, see The Oriental-List.