When you are a foriegner in Changzhou, you sometimes get stopped by curious Chinese people who want to practice their English. Usually, I will oblige for a short and polite conversation. Depending on what I am doing, I might try to turn this into a “win-win” situation. If I am out looking for things to blog about, I will rather craftily ask them to translate something for me. This was the case a few weeks ago.
I was at Tianning Temple in Hongmei Park. At the time, I was looking at Guanyin “goddess of mercy” statues. A middle schooler stopped me, and after the standard “Do you like Chinese food” questions, I pointed at a nearby gazebo. Inside, a figure of a man pushing a wheelchair “Can you tell me who that is?” He struggled a bit.
“Famous man with big heart,” was all my new friend could manage. “I don’t how else to say in English.”
“Can you write his name for me?” I handed him my phone. He typed out 曹仲植 Cao Zhongzhi into my dictionary. I saved it for later research.
Turns out, Cao was a famous philanthropist. While originally hailing from Changzhou, he moved to Taiwan. Once, while returning to visit family in 1969, he saw a disabled man and became moved by his situation. So, he set up a charity that donated wheelchairs to the needy.
Once I read the story — badly machine translated from Chinese by Google, of course — the location of the his marker made a lot of sense. In both Buddhism and Taoism, Guanyin is considered a figure of mercy and compassion. To a lot of disabled people in China, Cao Zhongzhi was a humanitarian who embodied those qualities. It is fitting to to draw this juxtaposition by placing him in a garden dedicated in Guanyin’s honor.
When you are a Catholic, “The Stations of the Cross” are immensely important. It’s not the same for other Christians — especially American Protestant Evangelicals. For Roman Catholics, it’s part of the decor of every church. It’s either the art of in all of the stained glass windows, or it’s a series of paintings and bass relief sculptures. So, you may ask, what are these “Stations?” It’s a series pictures of Jesus Christ being put to death and being nailed to planks of wood. The more exact term is “crucifixion.”
Every Easter, Catholics recreate this scene as a religious drama and watchable spectacle, but the artistic depictions are there in Church throughout the year. The idea is to visit every moment of Christ’s
death for a moment of prayer. For the sake of clarity, let me emphatically say I am not a Christian. My reasoning is intensely personal, and I will not offend people by getting into it here. The subject is also actually a little touchy between me and my father. You see, I was raised in Catholicism. I then walked away from that faith very early in my adulthood.
Yet, prior religions follow you the rest of your life, even when you don’t want them to. I am not being cynical, either. For as much as I am not a Catholic, Roman Catholicism has still shaped the some of the ways I think. It’s just who I am. I thought about this a lot, recently, when confronted with some Buddhist imagery in Changzhou‘s Tianning Temple.
It’s part of Hongmei Park in a district the bares its name. The chief attraction there is the pagoda. One day, however, I visited the temple to just as a way to kill time. It was Easter Sunday, and I was meeting a close friend for dinner in Wujin. Only, she had a lot of grading to do before becoming available. Tianning Temple has two ticket prices, and since I wasn’t interested in going into the Pagoda, I opted for the cheaper 20 RMB fare.
In one corner of the temple grounds, there is a garden filled with Guanyin Sculptures. Guanyin is a often considered a goddess of
mercy. She’s a Bodhisattva in Buddhism, and as is the case with the Chinese variety of that faith, she’s shared with other religions. In
Taoism and folk religion, she is considered a mercy goddess. Some have even drawn parallels with the Virgin Mary.
And so that brings me to the Stations of the Cross analogy. As I walked around, I stopped at each of the dozens of Guanyin sculptures. Most of them feature her reclining or sitting. Some have her with dragons, and other with birds with ornate plumage. Incense sticks burn at each statue. At many of the sculptures, people have left coins or other mementos. It wasn’t the statues themselves that reminded me of the Stations of the Cross. It were the people who came here to pray. Many stopped at each and every statue to be mindful in thought. So, the stories are drastically different, but the method of worship is very similar.
“I was going to ask you if you felt anything. You know, like a haunted presence?”
A friend said this once while visiting Wanfo Temple in northern Xinbei. We had just spent a lot of time looking at brutal and bloody depictions of torture. The temple has a room depicting diyu 地狱 aka Chinese Buddhist Hell. But that was more kitsch than off-putting. My friend was referring more to the small mausoleum we had accidentally walked into. She tends to be a lot more spiritually sensitive than me. To be honest, I had no feelings of foreboding, but once I realized where we were, I decided to stop taking pictures.
I’m only posting photos here, because well, it seems appropriate. Today is Qingming 清明节 in China — Tomb Sweeping Day. It’s a festival to honor the dead and prior ancestors. Comparing this to American Halloween would be a mistake. That’s just a day people dress up like monsters and have a party. It’s much more solemn than that. In fact, it’s much more similar to All Souls Day in Europe. In some countries, like Belgium, it’s a day to go to a graveyard and clean and respect your dearly departed’s burial plot.
Traditionally speaking, Qingming is sort of the same in spirit. How the dead are respected, however, might be a little more different. The mausoleum my friend and I walked into was filled with pictures of the dead. Sometimes, flowers were near these pictures, and other instances sacrificial offerings. Quite often, this takes the form of food or fruit. You see this often in temples — especially altars devoted to Buddha. Only, here, you could also find bundles of “hell money.” Its a special type of Joss Paper printed to look like cash. More often, these bills look like the red 100 RMB note. The idea is that you are giving a form of spiritual currency that they can spend and use in the afterlife.
I found this all quite fascinating to look at — until I recognized one subtle detail near some of these pictures. Behind glass, wooden boxes sat. I quickly realized that these were likely urns filled with ashes. Human remains were all around my friend and I. While I had not had any sense of foreboding before, I was a little unsettled now. I was looking at this place from the perspective of a curious foreign tourist, and I realized it would be best to leave and leave the dead in peace.
You are standing in the Museo de Prado in Madrid, staring at Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” It’s a triptych, which means it is three panels depicting three different scenes. You find Bosch’s attention to detail appealing. You find the third panel – a depiction of Christian hell – the most interesting. After all, there you can see a pig in a nun’s habit trying to kiss a naked man. Not far away, a nude woman balances dice on her head. Another man has musical notes tattooed on his buttocks. Those three are only tiny details in a densely populated and gruesome landscape, and the darkly funny brutality goes on and one.
For the longest time, I didn’t know Buddhism had similar concept. Most Americans know Buddha through Zen, if at all — which is more about intellectual enlightenment than supernatural ghosts and gods. Chinese Buddhism is a blend of things also borrowed from Taoism and traditional folk religion. It even has hell; it’s called Diyu 地狱. Only, Buddhists are not condemned for eternity the way Christians might be. Once they have paid their karmic debt, they can be reincarnated into a friendlier existence. In a way, this makes their “hell” more like Christian purgatory.
I learned about all of this, recently, because I found a depiction of Diyu just as violent as something you would see in a Bosch or a Hans Memling painting. Perhaps even a Slayer song? It consisted of a series of painted statues depicting torture at Wanfo Temple 万佛禅寺 in northern Xinbei, near an industrial port along the Yangtze River. Wanfo is mostly like other temples in Changzhou. You can see most of the same iconography here that you can in other places. Only, here, you can also see people getting ground into a bloody pulp. Here, you can see people eviscerated and disemboweled. Here you can see tongues getting ripped out. Here, you can see a flogged sinner being forced to look at himself into a mirror. As the legend goes, sinners must endure these repeated torments again and again and again. Once a fatal amount of damage
is inflicted, bodies become whole again and the violence starts anew.
At Wanfo, this hellscape takes up the ground floor of a two-story building. Most of the torture takes place in front of desks, where a judge sits. This man is a Yama – a minor deity who decides who must stay for further torment and who can be spared additional abuse. Diyu has many levels, and so there are many Yama sitting behind desks with their record books. Around them, you usually see four other figures. Two of them are Heibai Wuchang — one wears white and has extremely pale skin. The other wears black and possesses a darker complexion. Absurdly long tongues hang from both their mouths. Essentially, these are Chinese Grim Reapers, and they ferry the damned into the underworld. In English, they are also known as the White and Black Impermanence. You will also see Horse Face and Ox Head. In some legends, they are also reapers. However, they are most commonly the guards at the entrance. Most of the sinner’s punishments, though, are doled out by lesser demons.
I had a hard time processing all of this at first. I found both Wanfo Temple and the recreation of Diyu completely by accident. I snapped a few cell phone pics, texted a friend, and eventually I left. Part of me wanted to stay and stare, create stories for what I was seeing. But, the rational part of me knew I needed to go home, get on the internet, and do some research and learn to appreciate whatever it was this temple wanted to teach me. I gained a little more confidence
with the subject matter, and a few weeks later, I returned with an equally curious friend.
Getting to Wanfo Temple from Xinbei Wanda Plaza is nearly absurdly simple –but only if you are driving or going by eBike. Go north on Tongjiang Road for like 20 kilometers until you are near Changzhou’s industrial port along the Yangtze River. Then, take a left turn onto a concrete road splitting a small farming plot. From there, you travel through an economically depressed neighborhood before taking a right and parking in front of the temple entrance. You can easily see the stone pagoda from the road. Taking a bus is more complicated. The 48 is the only one servicing this area.