The Han Chinese have not been especially noted for their religious piety and practice — unlike their neighbors the Tibetans, Thais and Burmese. China has always had temples and monasteries, but these were mainly for private devotional practice or retreats.
Individuals might spend many years or even a lifetime in a monastery, but not, like in Thailand or Myanmar, because the culture required at least a temporary monastic residence for males. Chinese monks did not go out in public in the mornings to collect alms with their begging bowls, either, and lay devotees did not include the gruelling Tibetan custom of successive full-body prostrations among their pious acts. There has been no Chinese city where most of the urban area was dominated by religious architecture, as it was at Angkor, Bagan or Chiang Mai.
The East and West Pagoda
Kunming was no exception. The city had places of worship since its founding, but they were not impressive enough to have left any physical or historical trace. The earliest surviving religious monuments went up during the Nanzhao Era, when Kunming was the second most important city in the empire. These are the East and West Pagodas, about 200 meters apart from each other, just south of what is now the city center. Originally they were part of the Chengle and Huiguang Temples, which disappeared a long time ago.
Respectively ten and thirteen stories high, they were built in the so-called close-eaves style in the mid-9th century. They resemble the Lone Pagoda in Dali or the central tower of the Three Pagodas. With only minor renovations, the taller West Pagoda has stood ever since. The East Pagoda fell in earthquakes in the Yuan and Qing Dynasties and its current incarnation dates back to the late 19th century.
The most recent renovation, around the beginning of the 21st century, consisted of paving the road to the West Pagoda, closing it to motorized traffic, and lining both sides with shops, teahouses and restaurants built in classical Chinese style. At the same time the city reconstructed the former South Gate — next to the West Pagoda — which had been demolished in the early 50s.
The Buddhist Yuantong Temple was also built in Nanzhao times, actually a century earlier. No part of the original building has survived, but after the Mongols conquered Yunnan in mid-13th century, it was rebuilt by the province's first Muslim governor, Ajali Shams al-Din Omar. He also sponsored the construction of two mosques and a Confucian temple in the city. The temple doubled as a school and center for the promotion of Confucian ideas and customs.
In the late 14th century the Ming Dynasty replaced the Yuan Dynasty, and by 1382 expelled the Mongols from Yunnan, their last stronghold. Ming officials erected a fortified wall around the city. The first Ming governor's palace was built on an island in Green Lake, not far from Yuantong Temple.
Yuantong temple was the largest monastery within the Kunming city walls. Expansion and renovation in later centuries have given the temple its current look, filling the compound with buildings in Ming and Qing style. The four temple gardens hold specimens of all the main flowering trees in the province, each blossoming at a different time.
Today it is still a quiet and beautiful sanctuary in the heart of an otherwise noisy and bustling modern city. The orange-red sloping roofs of its buildings reflect in the waters of the pond around which they are grouped, as do the white stone bridges connecting them. Carvings of mythical animals decorate the railings of the bridges and potted plants fill the steps to the edge of the pond.
The older buildings feature carved embellishments, paintings and calligraphy. The Buddhist imagery inside is derived from Mahayana as well as Tibetan traditions. The newest building in the compound, erected in the late 20th century, is a Theravada-style shrine housing a golden Buddha image, donated by devotees from Thailand.
During the Ming Dynasty the suburbs beyond the city walls did not extend far. Forests lay beyond and in quiet, secluded spots in the hills religiously inclined patrons sponsored the building of temples. Most of these were too far for an ordinary excursion, even if they are within easy reach by car or bus now.
One such temple lies near the end of Renmin Lu, just four kilometer from the city center. Tanhuasi, built in 1634, is named after the ephyllium tree — a species of magnolia — in the courtyard. It was probably the ex-urban temple most frequented by Old Kunming residents. People came — as they do today — to offer prayers, observe religious holidays, or just for the pleasures of the outing — the smell of the flowers, the appreciation of the rockeries, the ponds and the entire temple setting.
Even in the 21st century, with buildings, roads and overpasses occupying what was once a wooded area, Tanhua Temple retains its charm. Just far enough from the main roads to leave their noise and stench behind as you step inside, the compound consists of three main sections that gently slope upwards.
The first section contains several courtyards clustered around the dominant temple, with mounted individual images of the 500 Buddhist arhats (saints), inscribed on stone slabs, adorning the walls.
Courtyards feature rockeries, ponds, pavilions, sitting halls, potted flower plants, blossoming trees and Chinese couplets inscribed on marble slabs. The next section is laid out resembling a classical park, with pavilions, shade trees, tables, sitting halls and morning tai qi practitioners.
Ascending the knoll behind takes the visitor to a graceful seven-story pagoda, which can be climbed for a sweeping view of Kunming. The city is also visible from the pond in front of the pagoda. The entire compound is an oasis of serenity in modern Kunming.
Seven kilometer northeast of the city center, lies the Daoist Golden Temple. It consists of several buildings on the gentle slope of Mingfengshan — the Hill of Singing Phoenixes — near the grounds of the International Horticultural Exhibition. It must have been a day-long journey in the days of Old Kunming, but modern infrastructure and transportation has reduced the trip to a short bicycle. bus, metro or automobile ride.
Like Tanhuasi and the other forest temples in the hills beyond Kunming, the trees and flowers lend it an atmosphere of being enveloped by nature.
In between the buildings, walkways lead past the pines and cypresses to gardens filled with camellias or azaleas and to the Bell Tower, which offers views of the distant hills behind the high-rises of Kunming. The three entry gates at successive points on the hill are noteworthy for the carved and painted brackets supporting their roofs.
The Golden Temple is actually a building embellished with high-quality Yunnan bronze — polished to resemble gold — on the pillars, window screens, brackets and sculptures. Construction of the temple was ordered by the Ming Dynasty Daoist Governor Chen Yongbing in 1602. The original was moved to Jizushan in western Yunnan in 1637 and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The present temple, like the original dedicated to the Daoist saint Zhen Wu, was built under the stewardship of Wu Sangui in 1671, when he ruled Yunnan for the Qing Dynasty.
He is supposed to have left his own sword here that weighed 12 kilograms. It is kept inside the temple along with a bigger 20 kilogram double-edged sword, supposedly used by Zhen Wu to defend the temple.
Temples of the Western Hills
For the dedicated pilgrims of the past, as well as curious contemporary travelers, other temples in the nearby hills featured compounds also notable for their seclusion, closeness to nature, ancient trees, architectural embellishments and sculptural achievements. The most worthwhile site was the Western Hills, 2500 meters high at the summit, towering above the northwest shore of Dian Lake, 16 kilometer from the city. Most visitors nowadays are tourists, foreign and domestic, who arrive in vehicles and head straight to the top in them, or take the recently installed cable car. Proper pilgrims were supposed to walk up the mountain, which only takes a couple of hours, stopping at the temples en route.
The first and lowest is Huating Monastery. This Buddhist temple was first built in 1320, renovated in the Ming and Qing Dynasties and last rebuilt in 1920. Besides the imposing guardian statues and images of the Buddha in various guises, the temple's interior holds 500 sculptures of Buddhist arhats. They are largely in high relief on the walls of the main worship hall and are remarkable for their realism and individuality.
Predating Huating is the next temple up the hill—two km by road, slightly shorter by footpath through the forest. This Chan (Zen) Buddhist temple was built in 1302 by the monk Xuan Jian and is called Taihuasi. A 600 year-old gingko tree rises above the gate. The complex includes pavilions beside the 1000 square-meter Blue Pond, itself embellished with rockeries, islets and walkways. Another pavilion, the Sea Viewing Pavilion, offers a long view of Dian Lake.
Even grander views are possible from the next temple up—the Songqingge Daoist Temple. Though one can drive up the mountain road to the entrance, the true pilgrim prefers the winding stone staircase of over 1000 steps that begins at the base of the hill. The buildings belonging to this complex are stacked above each other on the steep side of the mountain. Even higher, perching on a sheer, perpendicular cliff, is Dragon Gate, the goal of every visitor, the greatest viewpoint in the Kunming area. The view is all the more appreciated because of the arduous task of getting there, which is by squeezing in and out of small grottoes chiseled out of the rock by Qing Dynasty monks. The slow and dangerous work took 72 years and the final passageway was completed in 1853. It replaced a hazardous, rickety plank road attached to the cliff face.
Northwest of Kunmimg, about 13 km from the center, the Bamboo Temple (Qiongzhusi) lies on a wooded slope of Jade Table Mountain (Yu'anshan). This Buddhist monastery was originally founded by a monk from Kunming who studied the Chan sect in central China for 25 years around the end of the Song Dynasty. Within the main hall one of the many inscribed tablets dates from the Yuan Dynasty and is bilingual—Mongolian and vernacular Chinese. Standing in the courtyard are two 600 year-old cedar trees.
The outstanding feature of this temple is its collection of 500 painted clay sculptures of Buddhist arhats. The work of a mid-Qing Dynasty sculptor from Sichuan, Li Guangxiu, and his apprentices, the statues all differ from each other, modelled on real and unique contemporary originals.
Faces display the whole gamut of possible expressions. Some are kindly and some are fierce. Some are sedate or contemplative and others are active, even chatting or laughing. No two are the same and the dress, hairstyle and props are also unique to each statue. According to local legend, if a visitor begins counting the statues, starting from the beginning of any row, and comes to the number matching his or her age, that statue will symbolically represent the visitor's dominant inner character.
Black Dragon Pool
On Wubaoshan, 11 km north of Kunming, lies the early Ming era Black Dragon Palace. First erected in 1394 and redone in 1454, it stands beside Black Dragon Pool and was formerly the site of temples in the Han, Tang and Yuan Dynasties, all destroyed by war. But a Tang era plum tree, a Song Dynasty cypress and a Ming camellia tree still stand in the compound, still blossoming every Lunar New Year. A statue of the black dragon also stands in the courtyard. A companion compound in the adjacent woods, the Dragon Fountain Palace, comprises several halls dedicated to the Jade Emperor and other Daoist deities.
Daoist legend states that Black Dragon Pool is the home of a small black dragon, confined there by the Immortal Lu Dongbin after he subdued nine bigger dragons that were causing floods. The last one he commanded to do good for humans and supposedly, once the ancient inhabitants started drawing its water to irrigate their fields, the little black dragon made sure the pool never ran dry, even in years of drought.
About 600 square meters in area and 11 meters deep, a bridge separates it from a half-meter deep pool that is five times its size. Pavilions on the edge are for watching fish; the odd thing about them is that, though the water of the two ponds is connected, the fish that swim in one pool never pay a visit to the other.
Kunming keeps sprawling closer to these forest temples and one day in the future urban neighborhoods will surround them. But, like Tanhuasi and the Golden Temple, the city will not swallow them. They will remain places of refuge from urban congestion, where people can relax, commune with nature and even, as their builders originally intended, worship their gods.
Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally published on his website Black Eagle Flights. There you can find accounts and photos of Goodman's 40 years in China and Southeast Asia. Collections of his works — many of them about Yunnan — can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. Goodman has also recently founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam and western Yunnan.
All uncredited images: Jim Goodman© Copyright 2005-2021 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.