The Qingyang Temple in the northwestern section of Chengdu is a peaceful setting, one of the most well-known Taoist temples in China. First built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), not much is left from that period, and the buildings one sees there now are from much later in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
In front of Sanqing Hall are two amazing bronze goats. It is said that touching them will bring good luck. They are lovely goats, and one can see how that might be true.
There seems to be a connection between goats and the founder of Taoism, Laotzu, who, according to one legend, is said to have remarked as he was leaving, never to reappear in public again, that his disciples might find him at the “Green Goat Market.” It is not known whether or not they ever did find him there—or where the Green Goat Market might be.
There are several halls in the temple with many paintings and statues of gods and goddesses. In the courtyards are large incense burners, with devotees lighting incense. Temple officials, unlike the Chinese people generally seen in the streets who dress in western clothes, are wearing long, graceful, traditional Chinese clothes. They seem to be all men, and they look, not so much like monks, as like officials, concerned with the running of the temple.
One young official, whose hair is piled on his head in a traditional style, kindly agrees to have his photo taken. He speaks not a word of English. He reads words from a paper, lights some incense, and seems all the while very bemused at our presence.
After the photo, and the blessing, we assume it was a blessing, we give him a tip, which he accepts. However, he seems not so much interested in the tip as he is amused by the encounter. We are amused as well, and no one is quite sure who is more amused by whom.
The really most intriguing aspect of the temple is the inscriptions beside the buildings. Apparently, there are two kinds of Taoism, philosophical Taoism, which westerners tend to be more familiar with, and then there is also what is called “religious Taoism”. It turns out that there are lots of deities in Taoism—who knew?
Their names and titles are extraordinarily fascinating and mysterious. Where did these gods come from and how did they arise? Were they local Chinese gods? Did they arrive via Buddhism, and then become absorbed into Taoism subsequently?
There is a bookstore at the temple, with hundreds of books—all look immensely intriguing. Unfortunately, not one book is in English. I guess I should have learned Chinese. The inscriptions outside the buildings are bilingual, in English and Chinese, so they will have to do. Really, they are trilingual, but I’m not sure what the third script is.
The Eight Trigram Pavilion is three stories high, with a square base and a round room above—like the Chinese concept of the universe, with the earth being square and heaven round. In the building and on the pillars that support it can be found 81 dragons. Inside is a statue of Laotsu who is riding on a green ox and is traveling toward the Hangu Pass.
The Main Hall is the Hall of the Three Purities, first constructed in the Tang Dynasty and later rebuilt. The Three Purities are enshrined as statues in the hall. The central statue is the Primeval Lord of Heaven, who rules over the Jade Clarity Realm. This, to the uninitiated, is kind of like a fairy tale—where is the Jade Clarity Realm? It sounds lovely. To the left is the Heavenly Lord of the Numinous Treasure—and he lives in the Highest Clarity Realm. There is also a Supreme Clarity Realm, and in that realm dwells the Heavenly Lord of Tao and Virtue.
There are cultural relics mentioned too on the inscription. One is called the “single-horned copper coat;” another is “the bell of the World of Darkness.” This really is a fairy tale. What could sound more spell-binding than “the bell of the World of Darkness”? There is also a “ghost money burner.” Does the money belong to the ghost—or is the money ghostly? — and why is it being burned?
My amusement is not meant at all in any unkind way—there is something truly intriguing about all this, and I do wish there were a way to understand it. I feel that if the spell is broken though, that I may turn into a pumpkin at any moment.
Further along, we come to the Hall of the Goddess Doumu, who is the Mother of the Big Dipper. I hadn’t known that the Big Dipper had a mother. There is another figure with four heads and eight arms, who is the Pure Vital Breath Primordial Sovereign of the Big Dipper in Middle Heaven.
This somehow evokes an extraordinary sense of being in two worlds at the same time—there is the mundane world of earth, which one is used to, and somewhere floating above there is another enchanted world, entirely mythical, inhabited with dragons, and mothers of the west, and stars of the big dipper–with angels, fairies and immortals. All seem to be flying from realm to realm.
The outer edges of the temple roofs turn upwards, and dragons sit on top of them, guarding the temple. An extraordinary stone tortoise holds a tall stele—or maybe that is the world—on his back. Is the tortoise’s expression a smile or a grimace—or both?
It is an entirely charming and very peaceful temple. Along with the incense drifting upwards, one catches a glimpse of unseen spirits smiling enigmatically.