An hour later, my guide who had defiantly said that she was a total aetheist, received a phone call offering her an opportunity to travel to Beijing, Xi’an and Inner Mongolia as a lead tour guide. She had been talking a lot about how her dream was to travel to other places. We should have world peace by next Tuesday at this rate.
I walked away from these gentle men with a lot of my faith in people restored. They went back to being – well, just simple folk – keeping God company during the hot, humid afternoon. As I left Zhangjiajie, I was talking with the guide and she said that on Saturday she was going to go to the temple again on her own and ask the monks to tell her what it all meant. I’m not a religious person really, but it was all very rewarding.
I review the temple buildings and its history separately.
I am a bit jaded by temples. I have either visited, inspected or assessed more than one hundred of them in the last six months, and like karst scenery there is such a thing as “too much temple”. But no matter how many temples you have visited, you are in for a real treat at the Puguang Chan Temple at the heart of Zhangjiajie City (in Jiefang Lu, opposite the plaza). Not just because this is a real temple with real monks and nuns, nor because they will waive the entrance fee if they think you are a nice person (which seems to be most visitors), but because I felt a warmer, more touching, respectful and welcoming atmosphere here than any other temple I have ever visited. Anywhere.
Now the reason for this is, bizarrely, because of a little scam they are running in the main, rearmost, temple hall, where a statue of Guanyin stands serenely in the gloom.
Around this room are tables where monks and other lay worshippers sit doing not much but laugh, chat and chill out. They warmly welcome you and insist that you light some tapers as a sign of respect. You are then urged to take a stick from a pot on which is a number carved. They then refer to a big book and read out the important things for you now and in the future, and promise to pray for you. The catch is that there is a fee, which is high. RMB 1000 for my “particularly good fortune”. But in a weird, very weird way, I just felt good. At one point the monk leaned over and confided “You don’t have to pay anything; we will be praying for you anyway” and gave me a big wink. I paid half for my prayers, deciding that half of the good things would be worth it. I had to write down my desires and when it was translated, ever so carefully into Chinese, the monk read it through in Chinese to murmurs of approval from the other monks. I had asked for world peace, tolerance of everyone, an end to hunger and a cure for cancer. He stopped, thought for ever such a long time and then, totally seriously, asked “Are these in order of priority?”
There is a really fabulous little museum dedicated to the Tujia minority in Zhangjiajie City, in a traditional house, although it was built in 1991. A local philanthropist set it all up and donated his substantial collection of paintings, artefacts, furniture and embroideries to the museum. It sees Korean visitors but rarely do Chinese or foreign tourists make it here. Yet this is a peaceful, interesting place to spend an hour or two. The staff are exceptionally friendly.
The interpretation is quite good and the museum guides really know their stuff.
There is a welcoming drum ceremony and then a tour around the three floors. The most precious artefact is a small carved stone panorama on the third floor that the philanthropist bought for just RMB30 in the late 1980s without realising what he was buying. Its significance only became obvious later.
The third floor, however, is mainly a shop selling sandstone paintings of Zhangjiajie. There are additional handicrafts on sale, primarily aimed at the Korean market, with some very nice carved mats at RMB80 each.
The Tujia costumes are probably the highlight, and a very far cry from the gaudy, clownish (and unrepresentative) clothing worn by the “pay me and I’ll sing; pay me more and you can take my photo” girls in the National Park. The clothing worn by the staff is extremely elegant and they are more than happy for you to take their photo.
Take your time here, and spend a while in the rest area/entrance lobby to chat to the staff, who are really thrilled to see visitors. If you are with a tour and want to see the museum, ask them to put on some of the additional activities (these need to be arranged in advance and you may need to pay for them, but I suspect it will be really good value for money).
Please do support this museum if you are in Zhangjiajie. It costs RMB31 to get in, and there is a donation box in one of the rooms. The staff are too polite to even mention the presence of the donation box, but remember that this money will go nowhere except the museum.
It is not well known that the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is dedicated to Marshal He Long, one of the early Communist leaders and one of the leaders on the Long March. Still loved in Hunan, He Long was a crusty peasant who believed in liberating the long-suffering peasants.
Born in 1896, he quickly became unhappy with the tax burden on the poor, and it was rather fitting that his first action was to attack a local salt tax office. His military abilities brought him recognition from the army and he quickly rose to become a leader. In 1926 he joined the Communists, to Chiang Kai-Shek's disappointment. After many atempts to woo him away from the Communists, Chiang Kai-Shek had more than a hundred close family relatives butchered.
He became a great speaker and was much loved by his men, but his ability to say the right thing at the right time brought him into conflict with Mao, who saw him, probably quite rightly, as a future threat. He never held any civilian post after 1949 other than as Sports Minister, but it appears he was happy to take a back seat.
But this was not enough to protect him durig the Cultural Revolution, when posters portrayed him as a monster and as a warlord. He was thrown into prison, and on June 8th 1969, he was murdered in hospital, and in the current government fashion it is blamed on Lin Biao and Jiang Qing so as not to cast any aspersions on the integrity of the Great Charioteer himself. One tour guide at Zhangjiajie muttered that there were "two great leaders from Hunan and only one of them has a statue at Zhangjiajie".
Zhangjiajie remembers the old warhorse and it seems that flowers are still occasionally found at the base of the huge statue, which stands with his back to the Emperor's Writing Brushes.
Behind this is the Arhats Hall, with the 18 wise men particularly bright and fresh. There are a further 24 deities on the upper level. It’s an unusual arrangement. The real star of the temple, architecturally and spiritually is the Hall of Guanyin at the back of the temple. When it was built, in the Ming Dynasty, there was little timber available and as a result, any old timber had to be brought into service. Many of the beams are crooked, yet still well positioned and well finished, so the building has a slightly rustic feel. Immediately in front are the two pools where, in the past, fish and turtles would swim. Now, a quaint stone turtle is the only occupant, with various figures onits back riding to nirvana. Guanyin Hall is constantly accompanied by devoted monks and some lay worshippers who will give a very warm and friendly welcome to anyone. I got the feeling that if the devil turned up he would be warmly welcomed and goven respect: these are good people here (see separate review)
To the right of the Guanyin Hall, is the Jade Emperor Tower, the talest building in the compound, but it is not open to the public as it is in a poor state and roped off. Nearby is the Hall of Three Purities. It is the oldest building, dating back to the Northern Song Dynasty. Puguang Temple actually has toom for three religions – Buddhism, Taoism (of the Zhengyi sect) and Confucianism, although it feels actively Buddhist. The Taoist aspect can be seen mainly through symbols and sayings rather than by active worship, and the Taoist priests also take part in Buddhist rituals.
Back at the front of the temple, the Shrine of Flourishing Culture has wonderful pictures and carvings of scholars studying for their examinations – in days gone by, state and religion were as close as they are noe, but for very different reasons! The front of this shrine is a masterpiece, and is best admired from the front garden area.
It gets a little mention in the local brochures and leaflets, but they never clearly state that it is actually in the very city centre of Zhangjiajie, just that it is in the east of the county. A bit like describing St Paul’s Cathedral as being “south of Milton Keynes”. Curious.
Perhaps even more sublime is that it is almost opposite Kentucky Fried Chicken.
It was first built in 1413, by the local miltary governor, Yong Jian, then rebuilt in 1743 by Shi Chengyun during the reign of the Ming emperor Yongzheng. It grew to become a subtantial monastery of the Linji sect, and in the first half of the 20th Century became one of the most important political centres of Buddhism in southern China.
The temple has a series of doors beyond the current front entrance that are varied in style and are particularly attractive, with many expressive stone carvings. Beyond these, and offset is the Mountain Gate, with just two ferocious guardians, Hem and Ham, welcoming – and warning – visitors.
There is a second Mountain Gate, unusually, where the more customary four heavenly kings and guardians reside, and further back the main Buddha Hall with very nice dragons climbing the two main front columns. Most of this part of the temple dates from the 18th Century and, again, unusually, the temple has a wonderful worn look, the paint faded and mellow. It all oozes charm and spirituality. In side buildings, monks and nuns go about their business; there is a strong feeling of kindness and gentleness here. Note the Buddhist tales carved on the doors, including summaries of some of the great exploratory journeys of early Chinese Buddhists including, naturally, Xuanzang’s journey to the West.
There are many paths into the park area, besides the main park entrances. These provide gorgeous hikes away from the tourist crowds. One might actually see the monkeys of the park instead of just hearing them. Inside, the paths will inevitably hit a park road, where one can hitch a ride on the park buses to other parts of the park.
Ask local motorcycle-taxis drivers to take you to the park but not the main gate, and they can show you a trailhead. As always, negotiate prices beforehand.