Courtyard Entrance of Dongyue Temple
By Lisa Yi
China is home to thousands of beautiful temples, but to be perfectly honest, most tourists will find that after the fifth or sixth temple they visit, the sites begin to blend together into a blur of statues, spirits and relics. However, Dongyue Temple, with its emphasis on the Taoist underworld, shakes up the normally reverent temple ambience with a dash of the morbid, yet fascinating, Taoist view of the afterlife.1 2
The temple was originally conceived by Zhang Liusun, a descendent of the founder of a prominent sect of Taoism called Tianshi Dao (Way of the Celestial Masters). Zhang Liusun died shortly after acquiring the land to build the temple, so its construction was overseen by his disciple, Wu Quanjie. The temple was completed in 1322, and has been rebuilt and refurbished several times over the centuries after bouts of negligence, war and looting. In 1996 it was declared a national treasure by the Chinese government, and it now also serves as the Beijing Folk Customs Museum.
Only one step separates the temple from the busy Chaoyangmenwai road, but it is almost as if you have entered the eye of the storm that is modern Beijing. The courtyard walls somehow block out the noise of the steel and concrete jungle outside, and the murmuring of tour guides and the sounds of a classical flute replace the car horns and construction outside the temple walls.
The first few statues you encounter as you enter the inner courtyard are your run-of-the-mill warrior gods, but if you start circling the courtyard to the left, you are slowly led deeper and deeper into Taoist Hades. There are a few dozen rooms in this courtyard and each depicts a different department of the underworld. The first few departments resemble ancient Chinese bureaucracy. Official scribes record every good deed and wrongdoing of the living, all of which will be presented to a judge at the time of death. Several rooms are dedicated to recording and judging, and it is not until you reach the other end of the courtyard that you witness Taoist justice carried out. Violent offenders are usually punished by suffering the same crime which they committed in life, i.e. decapitation, torture, drowning. A cohort of spirits and demons carry out the sentences with gusto and nary a glint of mercy in their eyes.