Tag Archives: religion

Wujin’s Hell Razed

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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.

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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.

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However, if anybody ever wants to see this, they are currently out of luck.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

Guanyin at Baolin Temple in Wujin

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According to local legend, Guanyin was key in the formation of Gehu Lake — which is also known as “West Taihu Lake.” The body of fresh water is located near the flower expo grounds in Wujin. This act of Guanyin’s was a way to show mercy to locals besieged by floods. And that is what she does. In Buddhism, she is a goddess of mercy. Some pray to her in times trouble and turmoil. This is just one of morsels of information that can be learned at Baolin Temple.

This is a Buddhist religious attraction near the Wujin’s Martyr’s Memorial. Baolin is perhaps one of the biggest cultural treasures in a district that is currently seeing a lot of construction. This is true for the temple itself. In the few thousand years it has existed, Baolin has been destroyed and rebuilt a couple of times. So, it’s largely renovated now and not in its original state. One of the more recent additions in the past two years is a pagoda a friend of mine compared to a pineapple.

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This pagoda is dedicated to Guanyin. She is all over the exterior with golden statues and exterior paintings depicting her showing mercy to people.

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Baolin has a lot of the stuff you could expect to see at Buddhist temples. But the real attraction here is the four-floor-high Guanyin statue inside the pagoda itself. It is simply a wonder to behold.

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The pagoda has an elevator. I usually like to take it to the fourth floor, walk circles around the statue, and then take the stairs down one floor at a time.

Religious Neighbors

If something happens twice, it could be a coincidence.  If it happens three times, it could be suggesting a pattern. A few weeks ago, when I was wandering around Danyang, I happened on an interesting pairing. This was as soon as I got off the train and walked north and west from the high speed rail station.  The area was mostly either empty or industrial. However, I found a Christian church.

While was interesting was the next door neighbor. They share a fence.

Yes, an Islamic mosque can be peaceful neighbors with a Christian church.


When I first saw this, I enjoyed the peaceful juxtaposition.  While it may seem rare, it made me think of America. By that, I mean the part of America where I come from: New Jersey. It’s a place filled with Jews, Muslims, Christians, white, black, Hispanic, Eastern European, Indians, Pakistanis, recent immigrants, wealthy business people, and so on. They are all neighbors, and while relations are not perfect, people find a way to get along with each other in day to day life — for the most part. Jersey, Philadelphia, and New York City are multicultural in ways many parts of America are not.  We all have to live together and share the same geography in ways that people in West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky do not.  This was one of my highlights of a recent visit to Danyang.  I saw lots of other stuff, but it wasn’t as personally meaningful as when I took these pictures.  It reminded me of the America I personally know and don’t read about in the news everyday.

Then, I went to Jintan. This is a place that used to be a small city, but it got absorbed into Changzhou. It’s now Changzhou’s more undeveloped western district that is near both Zhenjiang and Danyang.  During my wandering, I found a similar pairing.

This church and mosque share property lines. The mosque is more obscured by trees, and so there was no way to get a clear shot of these two standing next to each other. But, this is an instance, like in Danyang, where Christians and Muslims are essentially praying in the exact same geographical location.

This can’t be said for downtown Changzhou. The mosque is near Nandajie, and the church is at Wenhuagong. In downtown Wuxi, it’s the same. Mosques and churches are not neighbors. As I said earlier, if it happens twice, it’s a coincidence. Three times and more suggests a pattern. As I wander around Jiangsu, I will keep an eye out for the third instance, now.

This post originally appeared on www.realjiangsu.com. 

Holy Men with Absurd Eyebrows

Image courtesy of Yahoo.

More than a decade before I ever thought of moving to China, I had fallen in love with martial arts films. I especially loved the ones set in ancient Chinese history. While shopping for DVDs back in 2002, if i saw a Taoist or Buddhist monk on the cover, I was easily sold. One image has stuck with me ever since then, almost like a animated gif or Wechat sticker eternally lodged into my mind: a Shaolin monk in a simple white robe stands in his fighting stance, and his absurdly long, white eyebrows flutter in the wind. I didn’t see this in just one Hong Kong kung fu flick, but many — too many to count.

At the time, I thought the image was a bit silly. Part of me always wondered why monks chose to grow their eyebrows out so long. Then again, part of me never cared enough to spend some time actually googling the subject. However, I recently realized that there really was a cultural meaning behind it all, and it came from my usual random-association pattern of thinking.

Over at Dalin Temple, in the eastern part of Changzhou near Wuxi, there is a hall of colorful luohan. The statues look cartoonish with flashy and brightly colored paint jobs. One particular luohan wears a blue robe and standing on a giant crab. His eyebrows are so long, he has two others standing next to him, holding his excess ropes of hair for him. Last time I was at Dalin, I laughed at this the same way I laughed at all those ass kicking Shoalin monks in old Chinese action films.

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Much later, I actually made a real cultural connection between luohan statues and all those cinematic eyebrows blowing in the wind. In Buddhism, luohan — or arhat as they are called in Sanskrit — are religious people who have reached perfection. Often, I like to call them the Buddhist equivalent of Christian saints. There are 18 original luohan in Chinese Buddhism. These were the original followers of Buddha. If you want another Christian parallel, you could liken them to the 12 apostles that originally followed Jesus.

One of those 18 luohan was a man named Changmei 长眉羅漢. His name in Sanskrit was Asita. He was also the person who initially predicted the rise of Gautama Buddha, and that was no small feat. If I am forced to draw another Christian parallel, than maybe Changmei / Asita is a figure like John the Baptist — the final Christian prophet that actually blessed Jesus.

I could be wrong, but what about all those extremely long eyebrows those movie martial arts monks have? Maybe it’s a way of honoring this important figure within Buddhism?

What is a Luohan?

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Chongfa Temple in Renmin Park, downtown

“Each of these statues has a story behind it,” I said. I glanced over to my friend, and then back to a wall covered with hundreds of colorful sculptures.

“I know,” she said. “It’s a bit overwhelming. Like I am missing out on something I should know about.”

This is a common thing when you are not a Buddhist and you visit Buddhist temples. Imagine not being a Catholic Christian and trying to make sense of Stations of the Cross iconography. All you see is a bit of torture and a guy being nailed to planks of wood. Or, complex imagery in Christian church stained glass windows? You know a story is obviously there, but you do not know enough scripture to piece the story together. It would be easy to misinterpret what you see.

I have done this with statues of Buddhist luohans. For example, I was once standing in Dalin Temple over in northeastern part of Wujin. I saw a statue of a guy ripping his face off to show another face beneath. My mind instantly leaped to Clive Barker horror novels and movies — Hellraiser in particular. That is culturally wrong to do. Most of Clive Barker’s fiction is all about demons and tormented people. In Buddhism, a luohan is definitely not somebody with Hell on their minds. They are people who have found peace and enlightenment.

This is important to know, especially if you are trying to be a tourist who visits temples. It’s not just this way in Changzhou, but China as a whole and Asia in general. Luohans 罗汉 populate Buddhist sites of worship. And so, that leads to the inevitable question. What is a luohan? Who are these people you see statues of in Buddhist temples?

The easiest response is to say they are the Buddhist equivalent of Christian saints. They are not gods or deities; rather, they were people who reached the highest point of spiritual enlightenment. Because of that, they became elevated figures within a religion. Some people pray to them because they don’t want annoy a higher power with petty concerns. For example, in Catholicism, you do not pray to God to find your missing car keys or bank card. You pray to Saint Anthony. The prayer goes like this: “Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please come around. Something is lost and it must be found!” 

Of course, luohans and Christian saints may not be an exact comparison. Still, they are close. However, finding a suitable comparison is part of the challenge living in somebody else’s culture. You can treat visiting a temple as a tourist spectacle, or you can try to understand what you are looking at as a matter of respect. Understanding the concept of luohans is essential to unlocking a lot of the meaning in temple artwork.