On a uniquely enriching and memorable trip to China, I explored some incredible off-the-beaten-path historical sites, including several sacred temples such as this Shuanglin complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Treasures of China’s Heritage: Touring with the Global Heritage Fund
(Fifth of a Seven-Part Series)
Fujian and Shanxi
In anticipation of a return to China, I’ve been revisiting my past travels to the country. Some of my best memories of the “Middle Kingdom” include my nine-day tour of historically significant sites with the Palo Alto-based Global Heritage Fund (GHF)—an organization devoted to supporting underdeveloped rural areas worldwide.
DAY 6: HISTORICAL TEMPLES IN THE ANCIENT WALLED CITY OF PINGYAO
After spending a third day in historic Pingyao, we wrapped up our exploration of this ancient walled city with tours of several historically significant Taoist and Buddhist temples in and near the Old City.
QING XU GUAN TAOIST TEMPLE AND COUNTY MUSEUM
Of the three sites we toured on our final day in Pingyao, the grandest was Qing Xu Guan Taoist Temple, built during the Tang Dynasty (around 757 C.E.) and rebuilt in 1065. It was the first rainy day of the trip, adding another dimension to a place that continued to enthrall our group.
Umbrellas in hand, we walked down East Street to the Qing Xu Guan Taoist Temple, the largest and oldest Taoist building in Pingyao.
At the gate to Qing Xu Guan, the Hall of Dragon and Tiger is watched over by guardian statues representing deities.
The angry temple statues seemed neglected and dusty—but this added to the authentic, ancient feel of the place.
Dragon and lion statues stand guard at the entrance to the main hall.
Qing Xu Guan Temple consists of three courtyards and ten halls, or main buildings, which have been continually renovated through the centuries.
Vividly painted life-size statues can be found inside the main hall, where worshipers often leave offerings (including, to my amusement, a bottle of rice wine).
A Taoist priest told our fortunes using Kau Cim sticks. Judy Koch was the first to reach for hers, and we all followed suit.
I hoped that my very promising fortune meant better weather was on the way!
At Chinese Taoist and Buddhist temples, incense is used to purify the sacred surroundings.
THE OPERA DOLL MUSEUM
The Qing Xu Guan Temple, which includes a museum, is listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage site. One special treat is the opera doll collection, crafted by artisans more than 100 years ago.
The dolls’ paper clothes have decayed and the particular form of paper craft used to create them has been all but lost. Of late, there has been an attempt to revive the skill.
The doll figurines are dressed in elaborate and intricately designed costumes of paper, straw, and clay.
Of the original set of thirty-eight dolls, only twenty-eight remain.
STROLLING EAST STREET
A light rain couldn’t deter us from wandering around the ancient brick-paved streets to view the lives of the locals while looking for architectural details and interesting views.
A locked gate is meant to keep the streets clear for pedestrians and bicycles, but several cars obviously managed to make it through the barrier.
An entrance to one of the many family-run guesthouses, former residences of prestigious Shanxi merchants.
The interior lobby of one of the guesthouses on East Street was filled with both Chinese and foreign tourists.
In addition to serving as guesthouses and inns, many ancient courtyard houses are occupied by modern stores.
TONGXINGGONG ARMED ESCORT MUSEUM
After the temple visit, we walked to 105 South Street, the Tongxinggong Armed Escort Museum, established in 1855 by a martial arts master and his son.
A sign said that Tongxinggong was considered the best “escort services” agency, which conjured up some questionable images in our minds. But we quickly learned that during the nineteenth century, merchants carrying gold and other precious metals often hired armed guards as protection. These “escorts” were similar to today’s armored trucks.
The dark, solid entryway to the Tongxinggong Armed Escort Museum was appropriately intimidating.
All of the historical destinations we visited featured large altars and incense burners.
The dark gray brick and classic architectural motifs continued into the courtyard.
Important clients met in this parlor to discuss business.
The financial transactions watched over by the armed escorts took place in this accounting room.
Replicas of ceremonial fighting tools used to practice martial arts.
BACKYARD EXERCISE SPACE
We moved on to the yard, where guards once practiced archery and martial arts such as Kung Fu. The security guards had to be in fighting shape, as the large amounts of cash changing hands made tempting targets for bandits.
When we came upon some ancient sticks, we began play-fighting with some young Chinese tourists. The hijinks made us all instant friends, as you can see.
Lucie Jay pointed out the Kung Fu illustrations used to teach various fighting stances.
We ran into a group of young Chinese people who seemed to be practicing the training moves illustrated on the walls.
The young people all tried out the various weapons.
Soon, we all joined the fight!
Once a kid, always a kid! We really enjoyed the play-fighting.
Lucie Jay posed with her newfound personal fighter guard, proving that play can conquer any language barrier.
DRINKING GINGER TEA TO CURE OUR COLDS
Chilled by the damp weather, we gladly returned to the warmth of our guesthouse.
We were welcomed enthusiastically when we arrived back at the Relais & Château Jing Residence.
Ginger tea was comforting—and helpful to those of us who had caught colds in the soggy weather.
Chinese ginger tea is the real thing, brewed with freshly diced ginger root and very potent.
WATCHING THE WORLD WALK BY
As we enjoyed our tea in the Jing dining room, we watched the world go by outside the window.
A local tourist office.
Since cars aren’t allowed on the streets, bicycles are the customary mode of transportation.
When we spotted an elderly fellow wearing an old army jacket, we wondered if it was an authentic Mao-era relic. Wouldn’t such a thing command a good price on eBay?
Before our eyes, a young child dashed out of his house and down the street.
A few minutes later, his grandmother raced after him and carried him back home
Everyone seemed to be watching us watching them!
SHUANGLIN BUDDHIST TEMPLE
After lunch, we drove out to Shuanglin Temple, a Buddhist complex dating back to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534 C.E.). As the province is one of the country’s poorest, there is no money to tear down what’s old and rebuild it. For that reason, numerous pre-1300 C.E. structures still exist, more here than in all the rest of China. Most date from the Ming and Qing Dynasty (1368–1911).
An important example of historical Chinese art, the Shuanglin Temple is home to an exceptional collection of more than 2,000 vividly painted, lifelike clay Buddhist statues dating from the twelfth through the nineteenth centuries.
Shuanglin, a holy Buddhist site and another UNESCO World Heritage site, is a twenty-minute drive from Pingyao through the rustic countryside.
Established about 1,500 years ago, then destroyed and rebuilt several times through the centuries, Shuanglin was refurbished in the 1980s.
Sometimes referred to as the “Treasure House of Oriental Painted Sculptures,” Shuanglin has in its collection some of the best-preserved painted sculptures in China.
One of four ferocious guardian warriors who stand guard at the temple’s Heavenly King Hall; their expressions would scare anyone away.
Inside the entryway is a very fine group of painted Buddha sculptures, most created during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties, with a few from the Song Dynasty.
Each statue has a unique face and character. All are made of wooden frameworks covered in painted clay.
Unrestored and soiled with age, the statues appear truly ancient.
The Bodhisattvas Hall houses the “Thousand-Armed Guanyin,” whose arms are said to be reaching out to save people from the reincarnation cycle.
At a nearby village, we visited the more-than-1,000-year-old Zhenguo Temple.
The temple is home to Wanfo Hall (“Hall of 10,000 Buddhas”), dating back to the Northern Han Dynasty (951–979 C.E.) and one of the oldest wooden buildings remaining in China.
Built in 963 C.E., Wanfo Hall is Zhenguo Temple’s oldest and most important building.
Zhenguo is famous for its use of interlocking pillars and columns, which are joined at the roof frame with no glue or nails.
Astonishingly, neither nature nor man (during the Cultural Revolution) has destroyed these structures.
Wanfo Hall’s eleven painted statues, dating from the Five Dynasties Period (907–960 C.E.), are among the few surviving Chinese sculptures from the Northern Han period. (The rest are in the Mogao Grottos in northwest Gansu Province.)
The main figure of Buddha is flanked by Bodhisattvas, pupils, attendants, and two Heavenly Kings.
“The Hall of 10,000 Buddhas” is so named for the numerous frescoes fitting that description, painted during the Ming Dynasty.
The color on the walls is still vibrant after more than 300 years.
MY FAVORITE, SO FAR
Pingyao remains one of my all-time favorite spots. It’s so ancient and relatively untouched that visiting it really does feel like traveling back in time.
I went there specifically to see Qiao Jia Dayuan (the Qiao Family Compound). Built by a wealthy family from the 1660s to 1800s, the courtyard house was featured in Zhang Yimou’s film Raise the Red Lantern. Sadly, we hadn’t time to get there. I’m somewhat consoled by having seen many other courtyard houses, but I’m keeping Qiao on my list of places to visit in the future.
THE DRIVE TO TAIYUAN
Next, we headed to Taiyuan. On the long drive along the national super highway, I was dazzled by the office parks and greenswards lining the way. It’s hard to imagine how much China has recently spent on landscaping and road construction.
We flew past millions of newly planted trees—including fruit orchards and vineyards—as well as fields of millet, oats, potatoes, and sunflowers.
In Taiyuan, we checked into the five-star Jinci International Hotel, the only state guesthouse in Shanxi Province. After receiving hundreds of heads of state, government officials, and numerous celebrities over the years, it is now open to the public.
The Jinci Hotel is an enormous property studded with pavilions and lakes, in a peaceful and serene park-like setting.
Our group was impressed with the size and modernity of the hotel, as well as its amenities. All of its 348 recently renovated rooms have every convenience.
Jinci’s architecture and landscaping embrace Chinese elements, and no expense seems to have been spared in the décor.
The large dining room features an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling Tang Dynasty murals.
ANOTHER BANQUET DINNER
After checking in and unpacking, we quickly gathered for another banquet, this one given by Jeff Morgan’s friends and some government officials whom he had entertained in California. An excellent host himself, Jeff was always warmly received by the officials we met.
The lovely effect of the widespread planting of trees around the city made me wish we did the same back home in the US.
The restaurant’s elaborate landscaping incorporates a lot of water and green elements.
Our hostess wore a Chinese-inspired uniform.
Another young hostess seemed intent on making every aspect of the dinner perfect.
Jin Chan (“Golden Toad”) is said to help attract and protect wealth as well as guarding against bad luck.
GHF China Heritage Program Manager Kuanghan Li (center), with Chinese officials.
As is typical at a casual Chinese banquet, we ate at a round table filled with shared local dishes.
A Chinese official, Judy Koch, and Edwina Sassoon.
Linda Chen, Marie-Françoise Bertrand, and Cathy McMurtry.
Jeff Morgan (center), with Chinese officials.
In my next post, I share my experiences on Days 7 and 8, when we travelled to an amazing set of historical sites in the Wutai Mountains.
Visit globalheritagefund.org to learn more about the Global Heritage Fund.
LINKS TO OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES
Part 1: Days 1 and 2 – Visiting Hakka tulous (earthen residences) in Fujian Province
Part 2: More of Day 2 and Day 3 – The historic port town of Zhangzhou, plus more tulous in Pinghe and Nanjing counties
Part 3: Day 4 – Our first day in the ancient walled city of Pingyao
Part 4: Day 5 – Our second day in history-packed Pingyao
Photography by Jeanne Lawrence.