An Emperors' Playground - Part Three

Written by Oct 6, 2006 23:10
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Once Sacred Ground

It’s been said of Chengde that it has something of an unreal atmosphere, attributable to the fact that 90% of what visitors see are hasty reconstructions of what were once marvels. The real Chengde has long since sunk back into the anonymity of backwater Hebei towns, but the ruins of Imperial palaces and temples have brought it awkwardly back into the spotlight, and made it an imperative to dig out those fallen bricks of the old temple walls and try to resurrect at least the shell of what has fallen.

I had already walked down from the only living Imperial temple in Chengde – the Puning Temple – and was looking up towards the northwest of Chengde where palatial sacred buildings stand imposingly over the cityscape. More life-sized models of the originals than they are anything of the spirit, the walkways that were once trod by holy men from around the empire are now marked in English and Japanese for tourists; where devotees once meditated in their saffron robes, sitting cross-legged before smoking altars, their fingers curled in sacred shapes, now squat brightly-dressed visitors making V-signs for the cameras.

Ironically, the transformation of the centuries that has worked Chengde from its spiritual heyday to its current status as a quintuple-A tourist attraction has uncovered a vein of honesty about the temples – for in truth they were never purely religious in nature, but the pretty things of politics. Clever Emperors understood that to keep power over a vast terrain peopled with varying ethnic groups and faiths, a certain degree of respect had to be shown to each and every one: what better way than to surround oneself with objects revered by each of them? In such a way did the likes of Kangxi and Qianlong exercise their control over their subjects, and visitors to the court-in-the-resort were always certain to find a place for spiritual reconciliation as they enjoyed the reception of the Son of Heaven.

My odd map suggested that there was a small temple right on the riverside in the northeast of the city, not far from where I’d visited the Puning Temple, but I was having a lot of difficulty finding the place. The diagram I was looking at was a facsimile of one that was a couple of centuries old, and Chengde is a far different place than it was then, but I figured I could roughly work out the area and ask my way from there.

Lines of carts and trestle stalls were queued up along the roadside, filled with useless souvenirs and semi-religious statuettes, with unshaven men in baseball caps slouching against their sides. They perked up when I approached them, expecting a sale, and were particularly unhelpful when I asked directions, pointing along several streets and claiming they’d never heard of the temple I was looking for. I crossed the street and ducked into an alleyway, finding myself lost in a hutong maze within minutes, local girls here and there squatting outside squalid homes in pyjamas washing their hair in plastic basins. Children momentarily gave up chasing each other to giggle at me when I passed. Finally one elderly gentleman informed me that the temple I’d been hunting down had been lost a hundred years ago, and that its foundations were probably buried beneath an assortment of rough homes, its bricks trodden deep into the dust years before.

False Windows in Concrete Temples

I headed west, and soon arrived at the gate of the Xumifushou Temple, which my guide book informed me was still under reconstruction. Guide books tend to date fast, and the temple was already standing impressively tall and gleaming with fresh red paint – the golden dragons that my book told me were lying in a back lawn now playing and dancing on the temple roof. The temple is the site of the kind of Imperial intrigue that nowadays is only seen in Qing-period dramas on Chinese daytime television: it was built to honour the Panchen Lama, the second holiest Lama in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama, who had arrived in Chengde to celebrate the Emperor Qianlong’s 70th birthday in 1780 – however, having been lured there, he subsequently perished there under most mysterious circumstances, leading many to believe he had been poisoned.

The temple was to become my favourite of all the Outlying Temples of Chengde – a giant crimson chocolate-block structure dotted with hundreds of small windows – cool and shady within, narrow marble pathways were towered over on both sides by sheer vertical faces of prettily decorated temple walls. It was a pity that the temple was actually made of shaped concrete and hollow within – I preferred to imagine that the complex was full of nooks and treasures of a more civilised age.

Xumifushou Temple’s grounds are spacious and with plenty of room to wander between decorate spires of twisted natural rock. Right at the rear is an immense, towering pagoda, seven stories tall and octagonal in shape, called the Longevity Pagoda. You can’t get to the top, but from the bottom platform I had an excellent view over the valley with the temples at the bottom of the surrounding mountain slopes and the city and Mountain Resort lying within. I could also see clearly the horrid knobby protrusion on the opposite peak that gives the city its only non-manmade attraction – a cable car takes visitors up to inspect it more closely.

Moving on again to the west, I arrived at the next temple on the map – the Little Potala Palace, which is, as its name suggests, a temple in the style of the famous Potala Palace in Tibet. The famous dusty red and white temple face is a world-famous icon; here in Chengde it was modelled again to celebrate Qianlong’s birthday. But despite the marvellous look of the place, I found myself quite disappointed by the temple, because here more obviously than anywhere else in Chengde, the false walls and concrete relics made it look something more like a child’s kitset toy. From the higher slopes, I could see that lovely buildings were nothing more than their walls, having no rooms or roof, their doors merely painted on. But as I sat watching the smiles of tourists pass me by, I realised that even so, the temple would still have been something that Qianlong would have been proud of. He’d hoped that the palace would charm visitors from distant lands, and that it does even today.

Tantric Acts with Complacent Bovines

It was a long bus ride – with a couple of odd connections – to the bizarre Pule Temple, the largest temple on the eastern side of Chengde, but I’d run out of temples that were both extant and open to the public in the north, and needed to get right across the city to continue my exploration.

All the temples in Chengde are hybrids, blended forms of different architectural roots. Standing beneath the Pule Temple, this stirring up of odd cultural ingredients was the most obvious – there was Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, plopped down on the top of a building that looked a little Indian, a little Tibetan, and totally unusual.

The interior was extraordinary. Filled with Tantric emblems and designs, the temple was a sanctuary for all the more lustful gods in the Indo-Chinese pantheon, filled with numerous statues of many-armed gods poised in compromising sexual positions with gymnastic lovers whilst balanced on the backs of cows. Angry warrior demons pointed oversized sexual weaponry at falling enemies, and when I finally reached the interior of the hall styled on the Temple of Heaven, there again was a magnificent golden idol in a pose seemingly sacrilegious in all faiths except this one.

For all its unusual designs and athletic deities, the Pule Temple is an unexpected highlight of the Chengde temple circuit. Sparkling treasures are kept in glass cases under fluorescent light displays, and the overall look of the place is as difficult to forget as are the warm friendly eyes of its images of unfortuitous cows.

I moved on to the last temple I had time to see – the northernmost of the temples on the east side of the river. The bus takes passengers most of the way there, to a back paddock of a local farm, where a dusty trail leads through pasturelands up to the hilltop temple, its high arching roof peeking out over tall enclosing walls visible all around the area. But disappointingly, as is the case with most of the Chengde temples, it was closed for public view. I noticed it has a ticket office, leading me to speculate that it might be open in the summer months – but at the time, I could only walk a circle around the temple walls and catch what glimpses I could of the interior.

I wasn’t dismayed at all, for the location of the temple was prime, and from the sides of the weathered guardian lions at the temple gates, I could see the great spectacle of ancient Chengde perched uncomfortably on top of the modern city. In the fresh air, I caught on at last to what Kangxi and his descendants had created here – the kind of fairytale kingdom that only an Emperor could dream of ruling over – and I wondered for the first time if the secret of an Emperor’s heart is to yearn to escape the responsibilities of controlling an Empire and come to a fantasy land such as this, where to be King over all that the eye can see is something more of a pleasure.

 More Chengde Travel Reviews
1. An Emperors' Playground - Part Two MISHEN from NZ Oct 6, 2006 05:10
2. An Emperors' Playground - Part One MISHEN from NZ Oct 4, 2006 22:10
3. mountain resort and temples SOMMER May 23, 2005 16:05
Comments (1)


Oct 9, 2006 21:18 Reply


I was just thinking that you sure walk a lot. :-) You must go through many pairs of shoes.

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