I have made an effort to track down many of Changzhou’s Taoist and Buddhist places of worship. This comes not only from a point of curiosity, but also a genuine interest to understand Chinese culture. I have been wowed by some of the intricate iconography. I have also on occasion found myself transfixed by truly gruesome and brutal depictions of the Chinese underworld. They are very similar in both Taoism and Buddhism.
I have seen the Buddhist version of hell at Wanfo Temple in northern Xinbei — up by the Yangtze and one of the huge industrial ports. The Taoist version was in western Wujin, out where the former Qishuyan district used to be. Of the two, the Taoist one at Bailong Temple felt more creepy. The above picture is of a dimly lit narrow corridor. Grotesque statues depicting demons torturing the damned were behind very dusty glass.
However, if anybody ever wants to see this, they are currently out of luck.
This desolate hallway used to be built into the Western-facing wall of Bailong Temple. However, I recently returned there with a friend. We were collaborating on a magazine article. I noticed a profound difference in my surroundings while I was there.
Sections of Bailong Temple have been demolished. The above picture is related to the picture of the statue in the pool. In that picture, you see a white wall. This is actually where that white wall used to be, now. That desolate hall showcasing a Taoist gallery of horrors is now gone, too.
In many respects, this is actually not surprising. Nearly all temples I have been to in Changzhou have had some sort of renovation and construction in progress. It’s just that a huge part of Bailong has been razed, and parts of the temple have been blocked off. The same could be said for the nearby Dalin temple and the area in general. There is likely a very long term development plan in place to build this area as tourist destination. I can’t cite any proof. I can just say that I have seen, with my own eyes, A LOT of construction and going on here over the past year or so.
Hell, and the doorway to it, can be found in Xinbei. Somebody could accuse me of being facetious, and they would be absolutely, 100% correct! I am not talking about a mythological nether region where the souls of the damned are tormented. Actually, I’m talking about a statuary recreation of an underworld that is part of Chinese Buddhism. The torture meted out in this version of hell can be particularly brutal, but the saving grace is that the damned can pay their karmic debt and eventually be reincarnated. In Buddhism, people are not meant to rot in such a place for eternity.
Going north, I boarded the 36 at a stop in front of Xinbei Wanda Plaza. However, there are stops at points south of here. The 36 originates at the downtown train station and terminates in a part of Xinbei that’s just a couple of kilometers from the city line with Yangzhong. For a large section of the journey, this bus travels north on Tongjiang Road before turning.
Eventually, I found myself in a small town called Weitang 圩塘镇. Instead of giving the street name, I would just say if you see the chimney from the industrial port along the Yangtze River, it’s time to get off the bus.
Walk in a straight line towards that smoke stack. Sometimes, it will be hidden behind a building, but you can still see evidence of it on a clear day.
The walkway might become a bit narrow, as you will end up walking through a working class neighborhood of desolate concrete. However, if you keep walking straight, you will not get lost. And trust me, I have been lost in this neighborhood before; it’s labyrinthine and it’s easy to make a wrong turn. So, I can’t stress how you only have to walk a straight line from the previously mentioned bus stop.
A ticket runs about 10 RMB. Also, there are old ladies nearby that will want to sell you ceremonial incense. I skipped it this time, but a prior time I came here, a packet ran me about 10 additional RMB.
As soon as you see something that looks like Guanyin dispensing mercy to troubled souls, you have almost found Hell.In the background of the above picture, you can see the entrance to the hall.
The above picture doesn’t really do justice the gruesome detail on display here. So, consider this as an advisory. Graphic depictions of violence shall follow.
The above three photos are just a minuscule sampling of what is here. A potential visitor should know that this a real religious site and not a wax museum like Madame Tussaud’s in London. The amount of carnage and brutality on display here may seem outlandish, but this is a place where I have always heard monks chanting in the background — every time I have been here. Christian cathedrals in Europe have been treated like tourist attractions, but visitors are still expected to treat the place with some sense of solemnity. The same could be said for Buddhist temples in Changzhou, China, and elsewhere in Asia.
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.