Tag Archives: Taoism

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.

Qingyunshan and Qingming

If the myriad of things lacked life they would vanish.

–Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Understanding Taoism sometimes can be quite a challenge. Allow me to reference Winston Churchill: it’s like a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma. True, Churchill was originally talking about understanding Russian politics, but that doesn’t stop people from using that quote to talk about things that seem utterly opaque.  Yet, I tried to understand Lao Tzu’s (Laozi in Pinyin. The book I referenced used the Cantonese spellings for author and title) words over the Qingming holiday.

The cold weather had gone away, and I finally got back to wandering around Changzhou on my ebike. Since it was a holiday to honor the dead, I thought I would go out hunting for cemeteries. Only, I didn’t go into any of them. That might be culturally offensive, and I just wanted to look at them from afar. In the process, I saw people lots of people burning Joss Paper, hell money, and so much more. Burnt offerings is a way to honor the dead in China. So, setting “hell money” aflame is like an inter-dimensional wire transfer for somebody who has yet to be reincarnated. At one cemetery, I saw one family build a fake house and then torch it.  But, that wasn’t the thing it that made me think of the Tao Te Ching quote. It was this place.

 

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This is Qingyunshan Temple 青云山道观. It’s in Wujin, but not really in the Hutang area most foriegners know. Actually, its in Niutang, which is west of Hutang, and it’s at the end of a bumpy and cracked concrete road. I didn’t find this place by accident. Besides cemeteries, I spent my Qingming holiday looking for a Taoist place of worship. Changzhou doesn’t have many of them. I found this as a result of entering vague Chinese keywords into Baidu Maps and navigating towards a red dot on my mobile phone. Qingyunshan basically looks like this …

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Forlorn. Seemingly abandoned. There was almost a haunted vibe here. I pressed my phone up to one window to get a shot inside.

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According to Baidu, this Qingyunshan Temple is 500 years old. It made me think a little about Lao Tzu’s words. “If the myriad of things lacked life they would vanish.” This place looks like it lacks life. Yet, it hasn’t vanished. The Cultural Revolution and the contemporary boom in real estate and infrastructure construction has made plenty of places vanish. So, maybe it’s not truly dead?

Yet, even on Qingming, when some people actively seek out such places to religiously honor their ancestors, it was relatively silent, solemn. It would be a mistake to think that this place was totally abandoned, though. The few candles somebody lit appeared sort of fresh. So, somebody other than me had been here recently.

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A Taoist Middle Finger

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In New Jersey, this could be taken as “How Ya Doin?” And being rude is a just a way of saying “Hi, I love you!”

Hand gestures mean different things in different cultures. For example, sticking out a pinkie and a thumb means “six” in China. In the USA, it’s a thing surfers used to do instead of saying “cool.” Los Angeles gang signs are a topic I just want to skip completely. Yet, this was something I was forced to consider recently when visiting Taoist Temples in Changzhou.

Specifically, I was at Bailong Monastery 白龙观 in Wujin’s eastern arm. Once you walk through the front door, you see a golden figure with a sword raised. He has quite a scowl on his face, and he also holding up his middle finger. Back in Jersey and the USA, that would definitely be considered rude. The middle finger essentially means “Fuck you.” It’s a hell of a thing to be greeted with once you walk through the door. I later learned the statue is of a god named Wei Tuo 韦陀. So, was he telling me to fuck off? While threatening to hit me?

Um, no. Again, hand gestures can mean several things in several different cultures. Especially in Asian religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Hand signs are sometimes referred to as mudras, and they are meant to be meaningful sources of magical power. It’s why you see people use them in meditation. So, Wei Tuo’s middle finger is not meant to be rude. I think.

However, it’s a bit murky — especially once you do research into who Wei Tuo actually is. This is where it gets a little confusing for me. When I search his name, he often comes up as a Buddhist topic and not necessarily a Taoist one. Yet, there is a lot of bleed over between the religions. It’s sort of similar when you consider Christianity, Judaism, and Islam: three religions sharing the same set of angels. Taoism and Chinese Buddhism share a lot of the same gods.

As for Wei Tuo, he is often considered the guardian of teaching. In some legends, he’s the bodyguard to Guanyin, a goddess of mercy. In this regard, it makes sense that he is the first thing you see once you enter a temple or monastery. He is there to protect the place and keep out ghosts, demons, and unclean spirits. In this regard, you can read the western meaning of the middle finger into this. If you are a monster with ill intent, and you’re trying to enter Bailong Monastery, Wei Tuo will definitely tell you to fuck off.

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Cao Zhongzhi and Charitable Wheelchairs

The story of Cao Zhongzhi engraved in stone. You also can see my new conversation buddy’s reflection.

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.