Beijing Attractions: Dongyue Temple
Dongyue Temple 北京东岳庙
Set a few metres back from the bustle of modern day Beijing, nestled amongst the urban sprawl of concrete and glass lies an unexpected oasis of calm, with some surprising characteristics.
Although it was the middle of a bright autumn day and every other tourist destination in Beijing was likely packed with visitors, I had to gently wake the slumbering attendant in order to exchange my 10 Yuan for an entrance ticket. As I stepped through the solid red gates, the sounds of the city behind me gradually stilled and were replaced by the rustle of leaves on the courtyard within. Whilst my gaze was occasionally drawn to the contrast of the cranes and skyscrapers whose height breached that of the temple walls, these were delightfully easy to forget as I lost myself in the tranquil, mysterious and often archaic world of the Daoist Dongyue Temple.
First built by Taoist monks nearly 700 years ago, the temple was a place where offerings and sacrifices were made to gods and to ancestors. In stark contrast to the peaceful aura it exudes today, the temple has survived a turbulent history, which includes its destruction and reconstruction on two occasions. In the mid 1990s the temple was recognised as a national treasure, ensuring that it would not be swept away in the tide of modernity that has engulfed much of Beijing.
Up to this point and the subsequent renovation in 2002, the temple had been used for a diverse range of previously unanticipated purposes, including use as a makeshift school and as the offices for Beijing's first Public Security Bureau (PSB). While the original site comprised of around 15 acres of land, this has now diminished to roughly 11 acres. Interestingly, the imposing green memorial archway that stands directly across the concrete moat of Chaoyangmen Dajie was once part of the temple.
On entering the temple, "The Blessing Road", and elevated walkway decorated with painted lanterns and hung with thousands of scarlet fortune cards leads to the main building within the temple, Daiyuedian Hall. At the door of the hall lies a large table laid carefully with offerings, and outside small groups of people were lighting large bundles of potent incense. This is the shrine to God Dongyue, who according to Daoist belief was the divine ruler of China. It is he who was said to preside over the many weird and wonderful departments that are represented around the perimeter walls of the temple.
These departments are by far one of the most fascinating aspects of Dongyue. Their remit is wide and mind-bogglingly varied, with nature, life, death, and the other-worldly accounted for in one way or another. At the compassionate end of the scale are the "Department for Bestowing Happiness" and the "Department for Preservation of Wilderness", whilst an altogether more gruesome dimension to the Daoist disposition is illuminated in the "Department of Hell" and the "Department for Implementing 15 Kinds of Violent Death".
Each department is depicted in a series of slightly faded plaster statues, accompanied by a short description of its relevant role and purpose. Whilst the statues themselves are less than spectacular (some bear a distinct resemblance to less lifelike versions of characters otherwise seen in "Star Wars"), the titles and descriptions make for some interesting reading.
Furthermore, it is possible to leave a small offering in the collection box placed outside each department, or to hang a fortune card (available within the temple for a small fee), depending on which department you feel it most prudent to appease. It is as yet too early to tell whether my offering to the Department of Papers and Documents will assist in the confirmation of a visa extension!
In contrast to the un-arresting plaster and dust of the many departments, the beautiful ancient carved tablets of Tablet Forest rises atmospherically from among the trees. Stretching out on bother sides of the main hall, the Forest comprises over 100 carved tablets detailing the history of the temple and the surrounding area. Although these are not translated, it is pleasure enough to walk among them and to admire their weathered surfaces. Many of the tablets are well over three metres high, and are somewhat reminiscent of Celtic standing stones.
To the rear of the temple is a further spacious courtyard which is home to some lovely gnarled old trees. This rear courtyard is also host to events put on by the Beijing Folk Museum, including the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Spring Festival. These festivals provide an opportunity to observe exhibitions of Beijing Folk Culture, including paintings and calligraphy.
The temple is a vaguely surreal collection of contrasting parts. Whether you are after a little slice of peace and with a sprinkling of mysticism, or are intent on buying favour with the Daoist deities, this is a wonderful place to while away an hour or two.
Dongyue temple is situated on the main thoroughfare of Chaoyangmen Dajie, 700 metres to the East of Chaoyangmen Subway station (line 2). Opening hours are from Tuesday to Sunday from 0830 until 1630, with last tickets are sold at 1600. Entrance costs 10 Yuan.
Text + images by Alison Aitken
Book Hotel Accommodation in Beijing