Fǎyuán Sì 法源寺

Possibly the oldest surviving temple in Běijīng, and still active
Part of A Better Guide to Beijing’s coverage of South of Qián Mén

Fǎyuán Sì Qián Jiē runs between the temple’s gate and its substantial spirit screen. The name, meaning Temple of the Origin of the Dharma, dates from 1734, when it became the teaching institution it still is, with orange-robed monks strolling about and kneelers on the floors of the halls giving it the atmophere of a parish church. Possibly the oldest surviving temple in Běijīng, it was founded during the Táng dynasty (whose capital was at Xī’ān) to commemorate heroic soldiers. It was later used by the Tartar Jīn dynasty to imprison a captured Sòng dynasty emperor, and now stores the largest collection of Buddhist sutras in China.

The layout of the temple is conventional, and probably none of the current buildings is much more than about 100 years old, but there are six very ancient stelae and two very fine bronze lions in the first courtyard, and the four bronze Heavenly Kings guarding a podgy Maitreya in the first hall are Míng. The main hall has the expected Buddha and boddhisattvas and attendant 18 luóhàn, but the real treasures are in subsequent halls: they include a 5m statue of the Buddhas of the five points of the compass, a substantial reclining Buddha (renovated in 2013), and a collection of bronzes from the Míng and Qīng. General bustle and scattered kneelers tell you this is a fully functional place of worship and study.

The site was once slightly tatty and pleasantly quiet, but a thorough refurbishment brought a shiny new existence in 2007. In September that year monks successfully prevented officials from the Niú Jiē district from demolishing rooms that had been added to two of the temple buildings and had become home to families evicted from elsewhere. The officials planned to rebuild these all in brick rather than in the traditional timber-framed style, but since the site is under state-level cultural heritage protection, the original style of its buildings must be maintained. This was a rare if small victory against the destruction going on across Běijīng and, in the cheeringly blunt words of a Běijīng Cultural Heritage Protection Centre official, quoted in the Hong Kong South China Morning Post, an example of ‘the simple and ignorant working style of local land and cultural heritage officials, who are blind to the value of cultural heritage.’

▶ Fǎyuán Sì Qián Jiē 7, t 8355 0050, 8.30–11.30am & 1–3.30pm, Thu–Tue. ¥5. m Càishì Kǒu (Lines 4 & 7). b as for Ox Street Mosque, or to 南横街: 54, 381, 604, 613.

Taiwanese author and rather excitable political activist Lǐ Áo (李敖) set his Nobel-prize-nominated novel about the Hundred Days’ Reform of 1898 in the Fǎyuán Sì: Martyrs’ Shrine: The Story of the Reform Movement of 1898 in China (北京法源寺) — see Nán Hǎi Huìguǎn and Liúyáng Huìguǎn on the Out Clubbing walk, also connected with the reforms. An area of hútòng in front of the temple south of the spirit screen has now been cleared to make a park already domesticated by elderly gentleman hanging their caged birds in the trees and sitting down for a chat. The Ox Street Mosque is a short walk to the west, and a labyrinth of hútòng still just to the east at the time of writing, harbouring long-abandoned guildhalls (see Out Clubbing).

Next in South of Qián Mén: Grand View Garden
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For discussion of China travel, see The Oriental-List.