Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Ghastly Faces from Taoist Hell

It's been a bit different, this time in Beijing, than most of my time traveling; I'm here for so long that I don't have to rush to fit everything in.  Of course, in a city with the size and history of Beijing, there's more than enough to see that I could stay busy rushing around--but I'm glad I don't have to.  

After a morning spent reading, I wandered out into the filtered light of a smoggy afternoon.   My destination was Dongyue Temple; I'd read about it in an article I saw online about the ten creepiest temples in the world.  It was the same subway station as where I went to apply for my visa, but going the other direction once exiting.  This way led into a part of Beijing that didn't seem too touristy; offices, shopping malls, a Starbucks and Costa Coffee right next door to each other (I've never understood quite why they do that).  I was beginning to wonder if this was the right way after all when I finally came to it: a rather run-down looking temple, across the street from an equally tatty looking Walmart.  

I paid the entrance fee and stepped into the courtyard.  It looked so far like a normal temple, like many I've seen, albeit a dusty and faded one.  I struck a line through the middle, visiting the main halls of the temple; nothing unusual there.  I made it all the way to the back and started forward again.  Just as I was beginning to think that the writer of the article must have gotten the wrong temple, I notices that the outside wall in the first courtyard was divided into small, cave-like rooms, dozens of them.  As I walked closer, I saw that each contained ten or twelve life-size statues; a row of five or six on each size, with a figure on a throne in the center.  Little plaques announced that this was the Department of Righteous Living, Department of Animals, Department of Hell, Department of Earth gods, Department of Demons and Monsters, and on and on.  Some were divisions of spirits or beings, some were virtues, some were sins.  About each, there is a Taoist teaching.  

The first few were virtues or fairly boring sins; the figures were ordinary people; being virtuous doesn't make you interesting to look at neccessarily.  However, after about the third one, I realized the fun of this temple.  The department of animals included figures with human bodies, but the heads of various animals: a terrifying red-eyed rabbit, a monkey, a pig, a fish, a goat...the various demons, sprirts, river gods all were garishly painted and cartoonishly expressive.  Some held weapons, or grimaced painfully.  Many would give small children nightmares.  

I took pictures of the more ghastly ones, and then headed over to Wal-mart to look for a card-reader.  It turned out to be the worst Walmart I've ever been in; it was crammed into the basement, the aisles writhing around the existing structure it had been mashed into.  It was mostly just a grocery store; no electronics, no housewares.  The walmart and the whole shopping center it was in seemed as dusty and run-down as the temple across the road. 

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