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On the Brink of the Dead and the Living

The inside story from the Dongyue Temple


When Zhang Liusun opened the Taoist Dongyue Temple (东岳庙 dōngyuè miào) in 1319,  it is hard to imagine that he envisioned the temples future: surrounded by office blocks, a Wal-Mart across the street. Yet that has been the fate of the ancient temple, a gem of Chinese culture and history, lodged amongst the “new” Beijing.

The temple’s modern surroundings, management insists, are undoubtedly detrimental to the temple itself and the Beijing Folk Customs Museum that it houses.

“People feel differently to the temple because of this environment and react differently to what is inside,” says Guan Xin,Deputy Curator at the museum.  True, it’s not easy to learn about leading a selfless life, and finding balance and simplicity when there are hundreds of commercial money-makers just outside your door. Yet, in an ever-growing city like Beijing, change is inevitable.

The constant banging, drilling and sawing that is a result of construction works inside the temple hardly adds to the feeling of tranquility either. This restoration is a government-funded plan to make the temple more appealing to tourists and locals who are searching for some authenticity amongst the sky-scraping tower blocks, Guan explains.

“The government has realized that they need to do something to protect these ancient structures,” he says.

A section of the Dongyue Temple, with incence burning outside

A section of the Dongyue Temple, with incence burning outside

Dongyue literally translates as Eastern Peak, referring to Mount Tai, the holiest of the five scared mountains of Taoism. The temple is most commonly known for its many rooms, filled with statues and figures representing the 76 Departments of Hell. 76? Yeah, I was shocked too.

Dongyue Dadi (Emperor Dongyue, 东岳大帝), is a deity respected at the temple, and is considered the judge of a person’s fate. He decides whether they will enter Samsara as a different Earth creature, or receive the worst punishment and be plunged into Hell. He controls the Realm of the Dead and the Realm of the Living (阴阳两界 Yīnyáng liǎng jiè).

As with many faiths, the origins of  Taoisms age-old religion have become blurred over the years. Many believe that the name ‘Dongyue’ comes from a God dedicated to the mountain, but Guan insists otherwise.

“The god that people worship is actually the mountain, but eventually  the mountain took a human form in people’s beliefs. It is actually the mountain itself that is worshiped in Taoism.”

The varying departments of Hell and reincarnation are tame compared to the tale Guan tells next; the tale of a second temple, which used to sit next to Dongyue.  “This temple was used as a torture chamber, depicting the punishments thought to be dished out in Hell,” he says. Ouch. After this, the temple displayed the weapons as a warning of what lies in Hell for those who sin. The land the temple once sat on is now an electrical store, Bǎi nǎo huì  百脑汇 (Buy Now), according to tieba.baidu.com. Not even a shell of the original building remains as it was destroyed during an explosion in the 1980’s. When discussing the temples fate, Guan sounds unnervingly matter-of-fact for someone who’s just been discussing torture chambers and destructive explosions.

These, let’s say, less blood-thirsty days, the Dongyue Temple and Folk Customs Museum holds many more family-friendly events.  During the upcoming Mid-Autumn Festival  (中秋节 zhōngqiū jié), the museum plans to host an exhibition of Tu’er Ye ( 兔儿爷, Cacalia Lord), also known as Rabbit God. According to Guan, this cartoon-like figure was once worshiped in Chinese folklore, and has now evolved into a popular children’s toy. Some images of the figure are made to look like an animated bunny, whilst others illustrate a human dressed as a rabbit. Festivals and exhibitions like this are important to the Taoist temple, says Guan.

“They help both Chinese and tourists. For Chinese people, it gives them a chance to find their childhood again and remember old customs, whilst tourists get the chance to experience ‘real China’ and Chinese culture.”

Wenchang Emperor would come to this tree to make decisions during Imperial Examination

Wenchang Emperor would come to this tree to make decisions during Imperial Examination

When the Folk Custom Museum isn’t busy holding bunny-themed events, they have thousands of folk artifacts on display, with around 7,000 items in the museums collection. Many of these items are bought from antique markets after telling stall-holders what they are looking for, and waiting for word to spread until the items are found. It sounds like easy work to me, but Guan insists all museums find some of their items this way. If you are a fan of antique markets and auctions, you may even be the unknowing owner of a Chinese folk artifact, sought after by museum staff.

A fundamental aspect of Taoism is the the importance of honoring parents and carrying out familial duties. Even inside the temple, adolescents are trailing behind their parents, looking as though there are a million places they would rather be. They should paint a smile on pretty quickly though, as the officials of the Death and Life Department will be quick to shorten your life span if they think you are not taking family bonding seriously

Whether your curiosity lies in mythical bunnies, Chinese folk artifacts or varying dimensions of Hell, Dongyue Temple is worth a visit. It is located at 141 Chaowai Dajie, Chaoyang District, Beijing ( 北京朝阳区朝外大街141 Běijīng zhāoyáng qū cháo wài dàjiē 141) around 500 meters east of the Chaoyangmen subway station. If in doubt, you can’t miss the Wal-Mart.


Picture courtesy of Dale Gilbert Jarvis

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