China’s spiritual renaissance of the past few decades has reopened many temples and integrated them into visitors routes and locals’ routines. Some of Beijing’s most famous temples hold daily ceremonies and attract scores of tourists and believers.
The Daoist temple Dongyue Temple is both a part of this bubbly resurgence and a quiet outlier. Located by the busy commercial area of Yabaolu, the quiet Dongyue Temple is one of the most overlooked yet fascinating temples in Beijing.
A Tumultuous History
Dongyue Miao was built in 1319 during the Yuan Dynasty and dedicated to the God of Mount Tai. The temple follows the Zhengyi school of Daoism, which emerged during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and is characterized by rituals of purification and abstinence, notifying deities of merits, submitting offerings and documents to heaven.
The temple was rebuilt several times in its history but failed to achieve popularity before the Qing Dynasty. According to an Old Beijing folk story, it was only after the last Ming Dynasty Emperor Chongzhen cursed the neighboring Sanguan Temple that Dongyue began to enjoy attention.
Today, the Sanguan Temple – or more properly Daci Yanfu Gong – lies half-demolished and swallowed into a Chinese Communist Party danwei while Dongyue carries on.
During the Cultural Revolution, the Dongyue Temple was gutted for use as a school, government office and community housing. The temple was declared a national treasure in 1996 and restored in 2002.
Bureaucracy of Heaven
Dongyue Miao’s most striking feature is its 76 “departments” of the Daoist bureaucracy, each of which is populated by plaster deities and supernatural creatures. The departments are hosted in chambers surrounding the temple’s main courtyard. In front of each chamber is a moneybox, providing visitors the chance to curry favor with their choice of coin or incense.
The departments cover almost anything imaginable, from Longevity and Bestowing Happiness to Betrayal and Punishment. There’s a Department for Preservation of Wilderness, where pious men hold a goose, a fish and a rabbit; a Department of Rain Gods, populated by an old man meditating with a lotus flower on his head, and a creature that’s half-frog, half-human; and an Animal Department featuring a busty pig.
For those with indelicate intentions, there’s a Department for Implementing 15 Kinds of Violent Death, which among other figurines includes a beheaded creature standing upright; a Department of Hell, guarded by Ox-Head and Horse-Face; and a Plague-Performing Department, with individuals who appear to be suffering.
The departments almost comically mirror China’s own governmental bureaucracy. The Department for Recording Merits passes the information to the Rewarding Department for Merits, which in turn passes individual records to the Department for Increasing Good Future and Longevity or the Department for Raising Descendants. For the corrupt politicians, there’s a Department of Official Morality, right next door to the Department of Confiscating Unwarranted Property.
Especially for families with children, the plaster statues can be a fun way to learn about the governing principles of Daoism, which include doing good deeds and living in moderation and in harmony with nature and society.
Dongyue Temple has more to offer than deities and monsters. The temple is home to a tablet written in 1704 by Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty. The emperor described, in Manchu and Chinese languages, the effort to rebuild the temple after a fire in 1689. Many smaller tablets populate its “tablet forest.” Most mark contributions to the temple by trade societies and families during renovation periods.
Visitors can also perform Daoist rituals such as burning incense, giving offerings, writing wishes on small red charms and hanging them onto an old locust tree. They can also rub the Bronze Wonder Donkey and the White Jade Horse in the main courtyard for good luck.
The temple’s north structure houses the Beijing Folk Custom Museum. During Chinese festivals, the temple and the museum host joint fairs and events.