Serial lives

We had half a day free in Hefei after my work was over, and it had started to rain. The Family and I gave up the idea of a stroll in a park to see Hefei’s Lord Bao’s temple. Plan B was to go down to the Huaihe shopping street and look into a couple of interesting spots. One was the Mingjiao temple. There’s been a temple in this spot for more than fourteen centuries. The earliest one was destroyed in war at the beginning of the 7th century CE, at about the time chess was invented in India, and smallpox was first recorded in Europe. A century later, an iron statue of the Buddha was found in the ruins of the temple, and the Tang emperor Daizong ordered a temple to be rebuilt on this site. This was called the Temple of the Iron Buddha. Seven or eight centuries later, during the Ming era, it was renamed the Mingjiao. In the 19th century the temple was destroyed again in war, and rebuilt in 1886. During the 20th century it was destroyed and rebuilt several times. The version that we saw was rebuilt in 2015. We’d gathered this much from a tourist booklet in our hotel before we set out in the rain to see it.

The temple looked pretty impressive even in the dull light of a very overcast and rainy day. I spent some time in the open area in front of it trying to get a photo. The temple is too long, and the area too short, to get the full complex into one shot. I gave up on it and climbed the stairs to the Shanmen, literally the mountain gate. The few people inside the gate were curious to know where we came from, and the word Yindu produced welcoming smiles. We entered our names in a book that was pointed out to us, left our wet umbrellas near the entrance, and walked in.

Just inside the gate was the usual outer hall of Buddhist temples, called the Hall of the Four Heavenly Kings. The main statue is of Maitreya (featured photo), the Buddha who will come in the future. The other kings were also impressive: you can see one above and another below. They are clearly very powerful beings. One of them sits on an elephant, and dwarfs it quite thoroughly. The other holds a lotus bud as he sits on a beast which looked like a lion at first sight. But when I looked closer it turned out to be the Suanni, one of the hybrid dragons of Chinese lore. The blue of the Suanni was quite striking.

The temple had a rectangular layout. Along the sides of the rectangle were rooms. We had entered through the main gate which was in the center of the longer, south-facing, side. Covered corridors ran along the inside of the rectangle, facing an open courtyard which we had to cross to get the main hall. This is called the Mahavira hall (photo below). It was raining too hard to pause in the courtyard to take photos, but I got a reasonably complete photo of this central hall from the corridor.

I can’t pass up an opportunity to take photos of elephants, even if they are made of stone, have three pairs of tusks and wear a red bonnet. This is a representation of the Elephant King incarnation of the Buddha. I don’t recall having seen this image in India (although there is at least one in Ajanta), but it seems to be pretty common in China. In fact, the introduction of Buddhism to China has been dated to at least the first century CE by tracing the appearance of six tusked elephants in Chinese art.

The rain was not going to taper off soon. The Family and I ran across the courtyard and up the steps of the Mahavira Hall. The golden statues and the yellow light inside looked warm and inviting. I was very impressed by the statues behind the main altar. This triplet of statues of the Buddha was too dimly lit for a good photo. It is possible that on a less gloomy day the light is sufficient for photography.

On one side wall were more statues of Bodhisattvas, previous incarnations of the Buddha. As I walked around and got to the back of the main altar, I saw a really impressive statue of Guanyin. This incarnation would be called the Avalokiteshwara in India, and Kannon in Japan. Somehow, in traveling from India to Japan, the gender of this Bodhisattva changes. I found it interesting that this statue is backed by an enormous wall-sized print of a forest glade with a woman in the center. In China, forests are deeply associated with Buddhism and its message of the renunciation of worldly desires.

At the back the Mahavira hall joins the northern part of the corridor. “How silly,” I said to The Family, “We need not have run. We could have just walked round the back, and we would have come here without getting wet.” She disagreed, “It was nice to come up the steps and see the Buddha statues first,” she replied. It was. The little hall behind is dedicated to the Buddhist monk Ksitigarbha (called Dizang in Mandarin). I like the offerings of fruit piled up in front of him.

There were many more statues of the Buddha in the side halls, but the only one I was allowed to take a photo of was this one in his last sleep, the Mahaparinirvana. I leave you with this photo of the Buddha, as, according to belief, he finally departs from the burden of serial lives.

Opening doors

I had a rainy afternoon free in Hefei after my work was over. The Family and I decided to go downtown to the pedestrian Huaihe Street. There were two things to see here, and one of them was called the Former Residence of Li Hongzhang. I learnt that Li Hongzhang (1823-1901 CE) was a farmer’s son who rose to become one of the most important ministers in the Qing court. In charge of home and foreign affairs, he was involved in the humiliating treaties imposed on China in those years, and came to see modernization as a necessity. His “Westernization movement” is viewed in China today as one of the key points in modern Chinese history. I was unaware of any of this when we passed two stone lions and walked into the one traditional house in a row of modern shops.

The complex is now protected as a historical monument of interest by the provincial government. We bought tickets at the gate and passed a courtyard into the front hall (photo above). This was a typical formal seating area, with heavy dark chairs pulled into a rectangular arrangments, with lights placed just above them. I liked the ornate mirror in one corner of the hall. In the gloomy light of a heavily overcast day, this was a bright spot in the black stained wood of the room.

Another courtyard separated this from the central hall. This hall is now the main exhibition hall on Li Hongzhang. The exhibits were labelled in both Chinese and English. I found the exhibits very instructive, and The Family and I spent some time looking at reminders of 19th century life, and the changes that Li Hongzhang tried to bring about. A beautiful screen in the back wall of this hall looked out into a blank brick wall. I was a little puzzled by it.

Crossing this wall we came to the Zoumalou building. This two storied structure seems to be the place where the family lived. We climbed the stairs and peeked into the large bedrooms laid out with period furniture. The halls below had more exhibits. We liked some beautifully embroidered coats, and spent a while looking at the ink-stones in the gift shop.

Behind this a little garden has been recreated. The museum has been careful about restoring the central hall and the Zoumalou building. I don’t know whether equal care has gone into making sure that the garden represents Li Hongzhang’s time accurately. I liked the door in the back wall, with its typically Chinese aesthetic of being overgrown. Much care is needed to make sure that nature does not actually take over.

Exiting from the museum to the busy Huaihe Street was a bit of a shock. But then I realized that this is what the museum is really about: the late Qing period that is on show here is the doorway between the isolated China of the 17th and 18th centuries and the dynamic country it is today.