The Golden Temple
By Brian K. Brecht
Journeying to Asia for the first time was a cultural emersion. Having never been, an opportunity to travel to China came up in the fall of 2016. Initial hesitancy, unfamiliar culture, the language barrier, etc, were quickly push aside as the team I met there could not have been more hospitable or gracious. They took great pains to make us feel welcome and were incredibly generous with their time to shows us their city and highlight their culture.
One of the more profound sites came on a Sunday when my travel partner and I decided to venture out on our own. Shanghai is an amazing city with architecture from native Chinese to Colonial French and English, to the towering modern skyscrapers that now exists along the Bund.
On that Sunday morning, the team had heard of my love of history, so they pointed us to a bustling area on West Nanjing Road so I could experience one of the more famous structures of Chinese architecture in Shanghai.
Our driver pulled into the heart of a modern shopping district and surrounded by skyscrapers and busy pedestrians was the Jian’an Temple, also described as “The Golden Temple”.
Jian’an Temple is one of the most famous temples in all of Shanghai. An impressive structure from the outside, the façade boasts a “Grand Gate” with three massive wooded doors. On the far ends of the Grand Gate, a pair of Chinese Imperial guardian Lions flank each side.
The lions, of the style known to the Ming dynasty, are thought to protect the building and its inhabitants from harmful threats whether they be spiritual or physical. The Lions are always a pair, the representation of Yin and Yang, with a female on the left and male on the right. The male, who’s right paw rests on a sphere or cloth ball, is meant to represent his protection of the world, while the female’s left paw, holds down a playful cub, representing her protection of the family / children.
Another interpretation is the female protects the living souls dwelling inside the building, while the male guards the structure or external material elements. There are many artistic versions of the Lions, but this particular style really stuck with me and has become some of my favorite pieces of Asian sculpture.
We were directed to the admission gate and easily moved through security. Once past the gate we stepped into the primary courtyard in the center of the complex. The sight took me a little by surprise. Simply put, as a temple, I expected something quiet and serene. It was anything but.
Jian’an Temple, built under the Wu Kingdom during what was called the Three Kingdom period, is a functioning Buddhist temple and has been for most of its time, since it's construction in 247AD.
The central courtyard teems with activity as local Buddhists engage in various forms of prayer and social activity. And there is a profound smell of smoke and incense from the large ceremonial fires, as worshippers light incense and make their offerings.
The temple itself has undergone a number of physical transformations since its construction, having been moved in 1216 during the Song dynasty from its original location near the Suzhou Creek, to its current location.
As I mentioned the structure has functioned as a temple most of its lifetime, but there have been moments of disrepair and other uses. At one point the building had been turned into a plastics factory during the cultural revolution, and in 1972 it experienced a fire and burnt to the ground. In 1983 it was rebuilt and returned to its original purpose, then opening to the public in 1990.
The Jian’an Temple is an interconnected maze of courtyards and large halls. The primary halls, the Hall of the Three Saints, The Hall of Heavenly Kings and the Hall of Virtuous Works, are all of the Southern-style, each with its own courtyard, dating from the most recent reconstruction (1880).
The Mahavira Hall ("Precious Hall of the Great Hero"), contains the largest pure Jade portrait of Sakyamuni (Jade Buddha) in Mainland China.
In addition to the primary halls there are also the Hall of Virtuous Works and to the east of the main hall, the Guanyin Hall. In its center, a statue of the goddess made out of camphor wood, standing on a lotus-shaped base. It is 6.2 meters tall and weighs 5 metric tons.
During our time at the temple we moved freely around the complex, careful to not interrupt worshipers at prayer or social groups enjoying their midday meal together.
The moniker of “The Golden Temple” is fitting, as we admire the beautiful adornments that accent the rooftops and eves of the building. Elaborate dragon heads designed to protect the building, versions of the “Nine Dragons”, draw your eye up to the rooftops.
Chiwen the “dragon-fish”, with it’s open mouth, is described as “the dragon who likes to swallow things”. You'll find him in multiple places along the temple’s roof, often on the ridge-line, or on the ends of the ridge pole, swallowing evil influences. His presence on the roof is also said to protect the building or home against fires.
This was a fascinating scene to witness and an impressive structure to visit. During our stay we found a number of smaller halls and chambers that held other statues or artifacts we would have loved to spend more time learning about.
The Drum Tower and its corresponding Ming Dynasty Bell Tower were locked and only allowed a small view through a painted window. Clearly there are centuries of history we have yet to explore here in China.
Something for future visits.