Last week, a great deal of my friends and classmates took advantage of the vacation to go off to far and distant places via bus, train, and plane. I stayed in Chengdu ‘cuz I’m lame like that, but I felt inspired by their adventures: I went to the local Daoist temple.
Yeah, it’s not exactly “Around the World in Eighty Days”, but I figure getting several miles off campus is victory when you’re as slothful as I am. Seriously, they weren’t kidding about it being a deadly sin: laziness is insidious. Anyways, I ventured forth into the wild blue yonder, aided by a map from Go Chengdoo, one of my new favorite websites. Half an hour on a public bus got me to the temple, which is on the west side of Chengdu. It’s not exactly an inspiring view from the sidewalk. After mistaking the entrance and spending a while wandering the neighboring public park and teahouses, I finally ponied up my ten kuai (2 USD) and walked in.
I immediately regretted not buying incense. I’m not religious, but it seemed like the respectful thing to do, yanno? Eh, next time.
For those of you who weren’t paying attention in the Chinese Culture class, here’s a quick guide to Taoism*: Taoism (or Daoism) is an indigenous religion/philosophy that arose in China with the sage Laozi who probably lived during the Zhou Dynasty (600 BCE or thereabouts). Taoism is all about harmony with yourself and the cosmos. You know the yin-yang symbol? That’s Taoism. So is tai-chi, ba-gua, the I Ching, and a great deal of Chinese alchemy. Main tenets include trying to attain harmony with the tao道, which is everything that exists; man is a microcosm for the universe, so if you achieve understanding of one, the rest follows. (Lots of navel-gazing, I’m sure.) There is the concept of wuwei, which is “action without effort”. Laozi was big on simplicity, humility, and possibly attaining immortality. And they have a whole pantheon of deities and Immortals who are venerated and show up with regular frequency in classical Chinese literature.
Taoism is a fairly old religion here in China, but it competed and occasionally lost to Confucianism and Buddhism for official Imperial support, depending on the dynasty. When you add in the fact that most temples were wooden structures in a time of candles, it’s not surprising to find little notes at the temples teling you that while a temple has stood here for two thousand years, the first one was destroyed by a fire, the next by an earthquake, etc. and the most recent one was only built during the Ming Dynasty (1600 CE). Only. It’s still older than most of modern America. [Remember, America had plenty of interesting things, pre-Christopher Columbus.] I eyed the candles and lit incense with distrust and noted that the fire-fighting equipment was clearly labeled… in stone boxes. Yeah, that’ll be easy to get at in case of emergency.
Qingyang Gong means the Green Ram Temple, named for some totally awesome ram statues that sit in front of one of the halls. They’re not really green, but whatever. It’s an important site in Taoism. Not only do you have the green rams, but two Immortals once visited, it was Laozi’s final known location before he wandered off into Heaven on his totally bitching water buffalo, and a couple different emperors stayed here a few times. (No, I cannot remember which one. I’m a bad Chinese studies major, I know.)
This temple is awesome for the fact that it is a working temple? Living temple? Uh, I mean that Taoists actually come here and pray on pilgrimage and Daoshi (Taoist masters/priests) live here and keep the temple in well repair. They wear old school semi-formal Chinese outfits and totally awesome hats to go over their bun and hair-pin hairdo. Since this is a working temple, it’s rude to take lots of pictures inside the building proper. I have a couple sketchy photos taken from outside.
Most temples work along the same pattern: big old statue in the center, a few places to kneel and pray/ meditate in front of it, and smaller idols along the sides of other less-important icons. You see one temple, you’ve seen ’em all, unfortunately. (It’s kind of like visiting churches and museums in Italy: after a while, you can spot an Annunciation or Virgin With Child at a hundred paces.)
All in all, it was a pretty cool place to visit. I highly recommend it, even if you just go for the teahouse and games of mah-johng with the elderly Chinese grannies. And remember, next time you think about feng shui, the Chinese zodiac, the yin-yang symbol, or even wuwei, you should thank Laozi.
*Apologies to actual Daoshi out there for brutally and poorly simplifying your religious tradition. I never really understood what the hell wuwei meant, anyways.