Tiantong Temple: The Home of Zen

Our trip to Tiantong Temple began at Ningbo Bus Terminal. As usual we had the name of the temple written on a scrap of paper in Chinese characters, because the chances of a Chinese taxi driver having any English were next to zero. I showed the driver at the taxi rank the name, he nodded his agreement and we climbed into the taxi. Hence began our ill-planned excursion out to Tiantong Temple, known as one of three historical temples situated in the hills around Ningbo. I didn’t realize just how far it was out to Tiantong until we had driven for about ten minutes through Ningbo and saw a sign saying that Tiantong Temple was a further 25 kilometres away. At this point we worried about how much the taxi fare would come to but decided we were too far into the journey to change plans by that point. I assured Cameron that it wouldn’t come to much more than 100 yuan and that we would catch the bus back into town to avoid further wastefulness.

As it turned out, the trip out to Tiantong was quite pleasant. The road took us through undulating terrain with a number of villages scattered along the roadsides. Compared to most parts of the Yangtze Delta region, it was sparsely populated and there was still quite a lot of forest cover on the hillsides. As in many parts of Northern Zhejiang, it was more a land of tall hills than true mountains but even the forested hills made for a welcome change of scenery coming from Shanghai. At one point the driver took a sudden detour from the main road, which took us onto a winding, back road which seemed to add several kilometres to the journey. But with only a few words of Chinese between us, we didn’t know how to protest, and our suspicions against the driver remained unproven. By the time we finally reached Tiantong Temple, the taxi had reached 96 yuan; I pulled out one of the pink 100 yuan notes and told him, or rather gestured to him, to keep the change.

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A 450-year old cypress tree on the temple grounds

The temple is set at the base of Mount Taibai, one of the five holy mountains of the Chan sect of Buddhism (a sect known in Japan as Zen). The mountain is thickly cloaked in forest, with tall groves of bamboo on some of the hillsides. There had been a huge downpour the night before as a typhoon had been landfall somewhere in Southern China, so the whole area looked wet and lush. With population pressures relentless in Eastern China, not many temples there had retained their “forest retreat” atmosphere, but it was immediately obvious that Tiantong Temple would be an exception. But before we reached the mountain itself, we had to walk through a bizarre tourist complex that had been built in front of the gate.

As any veteran China traveller will tell you, the country is very big on “development” of tourist sites. No tourist site has really made it unless there is a whole complex of shops and restaurants built to service tour groups. Tiantong Temple was fronted by a large complex of multi-storey buildings, but not one of them had been rented out. The whole complex was an abandoned “ghost mall”, already looking tired and dilapidated a few years after opening. As elsewhere in Asia, projects in China often seem to be financed with little forethought about their viability. Having not attracted a single customer, this project must have been a costly failure, and yet there were similar dubious developments mushrooming in every corner of the country.

The main courtyard of the temple

The main courtyard of the temple

When we got to the main gate, we received a pleasant surprise; entrance to the temple was not free. We later learned that the ticket price had been 50 yuan as late as 2012, but they had decided to drop it in response to a high volume of complaints from pilgrims. With our free tickets in hand, we entered the site and were soon walking along the so-called Buddhist Pilgrims’ Road, which led uphill through three ancient gates to the temple proper. A golf-buggy service was available for this part, but we felt that a few hundred metres of walking in the fresh, cool air would add to the experience. At one part, there was an impressive stand of bamboo to our left, and the forested slopes of Mount Taibai had a dark, rich look. Cameron commented that the location of the place might prove to be its main asset, and that proved to be an accurate impression.

Apart from the old gateways, the first of the antiquities is a massive human-made pond called the Wungang Pond, which dated back to the Tang Dynasty. Building this enormous resevoir must have been a colossal undertaking in the 8th century, emphasising the importance of this seemingly isolated place thirteen centuries before. According to legend, the temple had been founded around the year 300 by a monk called Yixing; it was then little more than a simple thatched building on the mountainside. By the Tang Dynasty it had grown into a renowned centre of Budhdist learning, with a prominet temple and a sizable number of monastic buildings. It had later evolved into a centre for the Chan sect of Buddhism, and in the thirteenth century Dogen Zenji, a Japanese monk studied here before returning to Japan and founded a number of early Zen Buddhist temples. For an isolated temple, it had had quite a large influence in the Buddhist world.

Wungang Pond with a pagoda in the forest behind

Wungang Pond with a pagoda in the forest behind

From the pond, we set off to look at the temple proper, which consisted of two large halls built in Ming Dynasty style. The first of them was fronted by a stone platform with a couple of stately pine trees planted on other side of the main staircase. Known as the Heavenly King Hall, it had tumeric-yellow walls and a sloping roof of black tiles. The roofline was crowned by some interesting ornamentation, including a sea-green monster and a flaming, golden disc, and a couple of obligatory red lanterns hung down over the main doorway. According to a sign at the front of the temple, the building was a copy of a Ming Dynasty orginal which had been burnt to the ground by bandits in 1933 and rebuilt in 1936. The inside of the temple was marked by huge timber columns and colossal statues, with the dim lighting creating a suitably mystical atmosphere.

Heading out the back door, we came to the lovely, stone-paved courtyard between the who main halls. This was charaterised by two Chinese cypresses, their gnarled trunks giving away their great age; these two trees (one of them now on quite a lean) were four-hundred and fifty years old, meaning they had outlived untold numbers of halls and monastic buildings at Tiantong Temple. In addition, there were a couple of towering incense burners in the courtyard as well as trays for burning candles. The whole area was filled with the heady scent of burning sandalwood, making this perhaps the most appealing parts of the temple.

Upon one more terrace is the second major hall at Tiantong Temple, the Buddha Hall. This building dates back to 1853 but is said to be a faithful copy of an older Ming Dynasty too. It has a more rustic look than the main hall, which may be why it is the more often photographed of the pair. Its chief charm is its long, wooden porch along the front of the temple. Adorned with delicate fretwork and a series of scalloped arches, this porch gives the hall a charmingly “time old” look. Apart from this, it features a heavy, black roof which curls up at the corners. The interior of the temple is characterised by a row of large gilded Buddhas, which had attracted a small group of devotees when we poked our heads inside.

While Tiantong Temple will never be regarded one of China’s leading attractions, it is certainly one of the more interesting historic temples in Zhejiang. Most of its historic architecture has fallen victim to the ravages of time, but the remaining two halls and its mountain location make it an evocative site. Having viewed the main structures, we wandered back down the pilgrims’ road to the main road. We were in luck. We had barely been waiting there for five minutes when a 162 bus came around the bend and stopped for us. The 30 kilometre trip back into town cost a mere 3 yuan. Public transport is definitely a viable option for those traveling out here on a limited budget.

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TianYi Library: The Ningbo Literary Trail

At least for Western visitors, the province of Zhejiang isn’t one of more popular tourist destinations in China. Hangzhou, the provincial capital, is immensely popular with domestic tourists, who head there to see the city’s scenic West Lake. But it does not evoke the same level of enthusiasm from Western tourists, who overwhelmingly prefer Shanghai and Beijing. And if Hangzhou doesn’t appeal to many Western travellers, then Zhejiang’s lesser cities are even more out of the loop. In the most recent edition of the Lonely Planet China, the editors removed their entire section on Ningbo, a port city of some 4 million people. As an indication of the lack of interest in Zhejiang, they did not include a single destination in the southern half of the province!

With the province suffering from a low profile in the West, Zhejiang needs to distinguish itself from other parts of the country. Perhaps one way that it could do this would be to promote itself as a literary and cultural destination. The north of Zhejiang has been home to many of the finest poets and storytellers in the country over many centuries, with Ningbo and Shaoxing being a particular focus for creative endeavours. We have already shown how Ningbo’s Moon Lake Park has been associated with poetry since the Tang Dynasty; it would be an obvious stop on a potential ‘Zhejiang Literary Trail’. But surely the highlight of such a trail would be TianYi Library, the most significant private library in Southern China. Though an ancient Chinese library doesn’t appear to be an obvious crowd-puller, it has long been rated the best attraction in the region on TripAdvisor, earning a whole string of rave reviews. It could easily be the star attraction on a tour of Zhejiang’s best literary sites.

Founded in 1561, the library was the brainchild of a Ming Dynasty statesman and librophile called Fan Qin. He assembled a library consisting of 70,000 books, manuscripts and woodblocks, many of them rare and valuable, thereby establishing the most important private library in China. As you enter TianYi Library (TianYi Ge) today, there is a statue of Fan Qin at the centre of the first courtyard. A bronze-cast statue of the ancient scholar shows him in robes and hat, seated on a chair, the whole thing mounted on a stone pedestal. His presence continues to be felt in the next part of the complex too, where we found his study and living and quarters. Even today the bare floorboards and sombre wooden furniture give a sense of scholarly seclusion and meditation. These rooms also serve as an introduction to the subtle beauty of the library complex.

Zunjing Chamber, as seen thrown a screen of trees and shrubs

Zunjing Chamber, as seen thrown a screen of trees and shrubs

Beyond this are a proliferation of fine old buildings, whose charm makes you slow down to take everything in. One of the best is the Zunjing Chamber, a two-storey building set in an atmospheric garden courtyard. Seen through the branches of trees, the chamber has a very romantic look, its eaves turning up at the corners, as if it were a temple or pagoda. Fronted by two stone lions, with wooden latticework branching across its windows, it houses a collection of paintings, scrolls and books within. As elsewhere in the complex, the moody, soft lighting enhances the appeal of the place. Also of interest here is the TianYi Library Chamber itself. This is an unpretentious building, fronted by a long, narrow porch supported on timber columns, yet Emperor Qianglong was so impressed by the library that he used it as the prototype for the official library at the Forbidden City itself.

The garden at TianYi Library, with a goldfish pond and covered walkway

The garden at TianYi Library, with a goldfish pond and covered walkway

Yet lovely as these buildings were, my favorite part of the complex- perhaps because it was so unexpected- was the large, South-of-the- Yangtze-style garden, with a large, greenish goldfish pond and artfully placed screens of trees. Evidently, Fan Qin was quite the aesthete. Not content with compiling China’s best private book collection, he had also built a beguiling garden that was almost the equal of those in Suzhou. It featured a long, wooden corridor, which would have enabled scholars to wander through there in rainy weather, and the grotesquely shaped rockeries and stelae which were once a hallmark and refined taste. The garden also contained a particularly fine specimen of a Ming-era family altar, worked in stone so as to resemble wood.

There are all sorts of other nooks and crannies to explore in this complex too. One of the more interesting exhibits is a small Mahjong Museum, featuring displays of various antique mahjong sets. Even though we have no idea how to play this Chinese board game, we were glad there was a museum somewhere dedicated to it. Finally, there is the Qin family’s own opera stage. This is a highly ornate work of art in its own right: every visible surface features intricate woodcarving, and the whole thing is made even more eye-catching by the liberal use of gold paint. The idea of Chinese opera performances only reinforced the sense of this family compound as a hub of highbrow cultural activity. Hopefully, Ningbo will choose to emphasize this side of its history in developing the tourist sector.

Moon Lake, Ningbo

During our first visit to Ningbo, in the Summer of 2010, we went off wandering one day and happened upon a lovely, little park, just a kilometre or so from the centre of the downtown area. We had no idea about the great age of the park, but its appeal was apparent even without an appreciation of its history. After a few minutes’ wandering about, we started to recognize elements of the Jiangnan (south of the Yangtze ) garden design which we had first encountered in Suzhou– a Jiangsu city much fancied for its classical gardens. For instance, we noticed the weathered rocks, known as scholar’s rocks, which had graced all the important gardens of Suzhou. There were also the pavilions, covered walkways and artfully placed shrubberies that we had come to associate with that Grand Canal metropole.

Yet on further reflection, there were also vistas that we associated with the West Lake in Hangzhou. Whereas the private gardens of Suzhou had boasted diminutive lily ponds, this park was designed around an entire lake. Though this little, crescent-shaped body of water was nothing like as big as Hangzhou’s famed waterway, West Lake, it certainly couldn’t have been contained in the private gardens found in Suzhou. This was more of a ‘cultural landscape’ in the vein of Hangzhou’s centrepiece. The hanging fronds of the willows and the stone arched bridges also suggested Hangzhou on a small scale. Perhaps the complex had absorbed something of the garden design of Suzhou as well as something of the ‘whole landscape’ design of the West Lake area.

Yet ambling about and reading the signs, we soon learned, to our astonishment, that the complex- known as Moon Lake, or Yue Hu- dated back further than either West Lake or any of the formal gardens in Suzhou; it had been a celebrated site since the early Tang Dynasty, some fourteen centuries before. Therefore, in its original incarnation, it must have been something different from what it had become; evidently, the stone arched bridges and scholar’s rocks had not been part of its original conception. The Moon Lake site had changed its style over the centuries, evolving from a Tang Dynasty complex into a modern recreation.

But its great age was not the only surprise. In addition, Moon Lake gardens had some intriguing literary associations. It turned out that city had a long and notable literary history and that several classic poets from the Tang and Sung Dynasties had visited Moon Lake, notably Sima Guang and Wang Anshi. In the seventeenth century, a famous poet’s society called the Moon Club had met here on full-moon nights and shared verses. This was to be our first introduction to the literary importance of Ningbo, but it was not to be our last.

We spent an hour or so there, watching the midday life in the park. There were workers eating their lunch on benches and even people sitting under trees on the grass. The more strenuously inclined were out on the paddle boats on the lake itself. In many respects, it was much like a city park anywhere, with people using it as a getaway from the crowded city on all sides. Yet it did retain a few hints of its ancient past. While there was certainly nothing surviving from its earliest centuries, there were a few attractive old stone buildings from the Qing Dynasty, and, as already stated, the garden design owed a lot to the fashions of centuries past. Nonetheless, with the benefit of hindsight, the main attraction of the lake was a sense of tranquility or, to use a word from a Wang Anshi poem, a sense of ‘quietude’. Perhaps it is fitting then to include one of the reformer-cum-poet’s verses before saying goodbye to Moon Lake.

          This garden of hundred acres is half covered in moss.
          A white stream meanders before the gate.
          But who can come here and enjoy this quietude?

          In covered walkways through the small courtyard spring is silent, silent,
          just mountain peach blossoms, a few apricot trees by the stream.
          For whom do they drop petals, for whom do they bloom?

A stone bridge and water lilies at Moon Lake

A stone bridge and water lilies at Moon Lake

Baoguo Temple: Ningbo’s Architectural Wonder

Our first stop on our trip to Ningbo was Baoguo Temple, which was located fourteen kilometres from the centre of town on Lingshan Mountain. Despite being one of the first cultural relics in the country to be preserved at national level, Baoguo Temple was still little known to most tourists. Yet we had placed it atop our Ningbo wish-list and took a taxi straight out there from the Ningbo Inter-City Bus Terminal. Unlike in neighbouring Hangzhou, taxis were plentiful in Ningbo and easy to flag down. Having shown the driver the characters for Baoguo Temple, we climbed into the taxi and set off towards the ancient structure.

The trip to the temple took around a quarter of an hour and ended up costing 60 yuan. It took us mostly through the suburbs of Ningbo and we only found ourself in rural surroundings in the immediate vicinity of the temple itself. Small mountains- or perhaps just tall, wooded hills- rose up before us, offering a respite from the concrete-coated city. As the taxi driver pulled over outside the temple, a family of three (in China most families are families of three) spotted the taxi and started waving at it. For the first time, the face of the driver brightened up; we guessed he had expected to be heading back to the city without a passenger.

We walked over to the ticket-booth for the site, which was housed in an attractive timber building fronted by the obligatory pair of stone lions. Traditional Chinese music was playing in the background, which created a relaxing, almost spiritual atmosphere, but the music notwithstanding, there were few other tourists about. We weren’t surprised by the lack of Western travellers- you don’t have to venture far off the well-travelled path to lose them in China- but important cultural sites are usually thronged with domestic tourists. Our research had led us to believe that Baoguo Temple was not a major tourist attraction, and that impression was confirmed upon our arrival; there were only a few families present at the entire site during our stay.

We paid 20 yuan to get into the temple, and immediately started our ascent to the former temple and monastery. We followed the stone path headed up the hillside, with the sound of cicadas humming in the threes. It was the middle of July, the height of Summer, and despite the overcast weather, the insects were out in force. Apart from cicadas, the other thing we noticed were redberries- a type of mulberry-like species were which were present in abundance on the hillsides. Parts of the path had even been stained dark red by the abundance of berries that had been squelched on them in the past.

At the top of the first flight of stairs was a small Chinese pavilion, whose tips were turned up at the corners. Though it was in the traditional style, it did not appear to be of any great age; nonetheless, it afforded good views across the lowlands below. A canal ran along the bottom of the hills, with clusters of houses gathered here and there along its length. Cameron suggested that although the Zhejiang landscape was still far from ‘natural’, it was much less of an indsutrial landscape than that of Jiansgu to the north. This seemed a fair assessment: in parts Zhejiang retained a rural appearance, despite the obvious population pressure. From the pavilion, the path zigzagged up to the Baogao Temple itself, which was set at the top of the rise and surrounded by thick, moss-green woodland.

Out front of the temple is a large courtyard with stone pavers and an ancient pool. However, the most important of the antiquities here are a pair of stone pagodas, dating from the Tang Dynasty in the second half of the ninth century. The West Pagoda, the better preserved of the pair, dates from 856 and the East Pagoda, whose top has been damaged, dates from 853. These pair of stone pillars feature some original Budhdist iconography and attest to the fact that there was already a Buddhist community here twelve centuries ago. These pagodas would have marked the site of important Budhdist relics.

Behind these pagodas are a series of buildings, which includes the most ancient timber structure in all Eastern China- the Main Hall of Baoguo Temple. Arranged along the central axis are the Heavenly King Hall, the Main Hall, the Hall of the Goddess of Mercy and the Sutra Attic, with the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower and other strutcures around the edges. These buildings form an impressive ensemble, but it is the Main Hall which has generated most of the interest. Dating from 1013, this millennia-old structure is the oldest surviving timber building south of the Yangtze. Even more importantly, it is a masterpiece of ancient design.

The main hall of Baoguo Temple, an architectural marvel

The main hall of Baoguo Temple, an architectural marvel

While many of the sights of China suffer from over-restoration, this hall has an authentic flavour; its weathered timber boards announce that here conservation has been more of a focus than “prettification”. The timber and stone temple has a patina of age which greatly adds to the dignity of the monument. It is very welcome that not only haven’t they painted and lacquered the old boards, but the interior isn’t artificially lit either; its air of perpetual gloom enhances the “old world” atmosphere.

We entered the temple and had a look about. The roof is raised on timber pillars and at the centre of the sacred space is a brick platform on which the central Buddha image would have been enshrined. It has long since vanished, but the architecture itself remains, and the roof in particular is a marvel that is worth close inspection. The brackets and beams interlock in an highly elaborate fashion, enabling the timber frame to support a 50 ton roof without the use of a single nail! This ingenious design was to prove widely influential in temple construction throughout China, Japan and Korea.

The innovative design of Baoguo Temple

The innovative design of Baoguo Temple

Aside from its design genius, the temple also has remarkable “pest-free” properties. Caretakers noted that the temple was never home to birds, insects, spiders or even dust, which sparked a flurry of theories until finally the mystery was solved. It turns out that the timber, variously referred to as yellow cypress or Chinese juniper, gives off a pungent aroma which acts as a natural pest-repellant. Furthermore, the way air circulates within the structure means that dust does cannot settle; the circulation also helps to ensure that birds and insects don’t remain inside. This is certainly one of those structures that convinces people of the wisdom of the ancients.

From the temple, we descended via a different path. Along the way we passed a stream which was running out of the mouth of a cave. This being China, a dragon legend has sprung up around the cave, and a dragon statue has been built here for local tourists. Its claws grip the edge of a pool and the water trickles out through its mouth; meanwhile, its giant tail is said to be hidden inside the cave. Upon reaching the bottom we walked out to the street, saying how much we had enjoyed the trip. There is a bus station just opposite the entrance, and waited for there for the bus back to town. The 332 bus ran back into Ningbo in about 30 minutes for a mere 2 yuan. Travellers not wanting to spend a lot of money on taxis should avail themselves of this option.