HIKER DIARY – EPISODE 4

It is time again for another episode of Buke’s Hiker Diary. In this fourth episode, he will take you to two almost forgotten temples in the heart of Shenyang’s commercial district. But read for yourselves…

Whenever I walk around in the labyrinth of small lanes in Southern Chinese towns, I simply expect to run into a small temple at every corner. With great curiosity and excitement, I go up to see how it looks inside and who it worships, usually Buddha, the Goddess of Mercy, Lao Tzu, the Goddess Matsu, and sometimes the local town or village God. Many temples there are merely a small shrine sitting along the street, worshipping some unknown Taoist spirit or even devil.

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Roadside shrine in Zhuhai city

Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism in China have mixed and interwoven with each other for thousands of years, so that it is almost impossible to untie these religious knots and establish a simplified single system. However, in spite of all the complicatedness, the record of every figure in each of the three religions has been preserved somewhere in numerous temples and thus survived until today, maybe as a statue standing silently on an altar, or by words engraved on the wall. The further South you go, the easier it is to find such heritage. In terms of culture and religion, the South of China is definitely richer than its North.

People certainly expect that in every bite of raisin bread, there are a certain number of raisins. If in the end the raisins are just a few, it would be very unpleasant. It is a pity that Shenyang has almost become such a big white loaf with respect to historical sites. It is boring to repeat again and again that Shenyang is ‘the origin of one dynasty and a capital of the monarchy for two generations’, as the city’s official slogan proclaims. Actually, Shenyang used to be quite rich in ecclesial culture. A very simple means of proving that statement is to look at the following names of places, translated literally: Long-life Temple Street, Golden Mind Temple Street, Maestro Tower Road, Splendid Rock Temple Lane, Dragon and Phoenix Temple Lane, Lord of Buddha Temple Lane, Wisdom Temple Lane, Safety Temple Bridge, Prince Zheng Lane, Prince Su Lane, Family Tree Palace Lane, Tall Altar Temple Lane, Goddess Temple Lane, etc. Do you feel like you are in Beijing when reading them? Actually, all these names exist officially in today’s Shenyang.

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Prince Su Lane in Shenyang

Then here comes more regret. You hope the bread loaf is not mixed well and all raisins are exclusively at one end, but it turns out to be still plain bread. You think Shenyang still has so many historical places, but in fact most of them are just names now. Only a few still stand today. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s go and see those that remain.

How many temples still exist? I will leave you to discover the answer to this by continuously reading this column. I once said in preface that this column is for those small and hidden jewels instead of big landmarks, so I am not going to write about Ci’En Temple or Eight Kings Temple (now Grand Magic Temple). In this episode, I will introduce Central Temple and Chang’An Temple, two charming places hidden in the busy commercial Zhong Jie area.

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A mother and son praying at Central Temple

Central Temple is really like a small but shiny pearl, which lies quietly north of Gu Gong, i.e. the Imperial Palace. Even if you have been many times to Zhong Jie and the Imperial Palace, you might not have noticed it. As indicated by its name, the Central Temple is almost right on the central spot of the historical imperial city. If we draw a Tai Chi within the imperial city’s four boundaries, the Central Temple is just the eye of one of two Tai Chi fishes. Built in 1388, the Central Temple is the smallest religious place in Shenyang. Although being small, it worships a great figure, Guan Yu, or Lord Guan, who is regarded as the most brave and loyal warrior in China’s history. Some scholars claim its original name was actually Loyal Temple (the meaning of忠 is loyal), but as its name was vertically written on the entrance board, it later became Central Temple (the characters for central are 中 and 心, the two components of忠). Quite interesting theory, isn’t it?

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The name of the temple after its transformation

The Qing Monarchy adored Lord Guan. Recorded in Shenyang’s historical county annals, there were once 43 temples worshiping Lord Guan in the city. However, only this one remains today.

Walking northeast from Central Temple, you’ll reach Chang’An Temple in around 10 minutes, certainly if you are not slowed down by window (or actual) shopping. Built on a 5000sqm site in Tang Dynasty, Chang’An Temple is a comprehensive complex consisting of several layers of palaces, side halls, a bell tower, a drum tower, a library, and many stone monuments. It is preserved and restored well, and populated by many monks today.

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A touch of Zen in Chang’An Temple

There is not too much ancient heritage left in Shenyang. When you go to Zhong Jie next time, why not go a bit away from the commercial street and pay a visit to the two lovely temples?

How to find the two temples?

  • In the commercial Zhong Jie area;
  • Central Temple is right outside the northern wall of Gu Gong, e. the Imperial Palace;
  • Chang’An Temple is north of the famous Lao Bian Dumpling Restaurant.

Extra tip:

  • They are free to visit;
  • There are plenty of small restaurants and food stalls serving local and country-wide specialties in those spider web Hu-Tongs (small lanes) centering around the main street of Zhong Jie. Many Hu-Tongs have been restored anew, such as The First Hu-Tong where you can see a big relief sculpture telling people’s daily life during the Qing Dynasty.
  • It is worth to go to Zhong Jie frequently to see if some new Hu-Tongs are restored, as the Shenyang Government is doing so right now. Lucky us, if we can have back all this heritage including Paper Hu-Tong, Copper Hu-Tong, Leather Hu-Tong, and Earhole Hu-Tong.

Written by Buke Wang

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