*This is another essay that was originally conceived as a chapter in the ethnographic book I wrote about the Chinese peasant village I studied in two consecutive summers, Dang Jia Shan. Now that I am instead "publishing" it online (bit by bit) I have the luxury and what I think is a great benefit of adding photos. For a print book, I needed to instead describe things in words. Some of them now seem rather superfluous when you can simply take in a photograph. Nonetheless, I present mostly my full original verbosity. This is a look at the village temple. Please find more topics about Dang Jia Shan in the Travel Essays section.*
In the traditional lives of the villagers of Dang Jiashan village, the land all around them is alive with spirit. There is always communication between the people and the ancestor spirits; between people and the landscape energy—the forces of wind and water; and between people and the local deities, as the villagers eek out an agricultural livelihood beneath the watchful eye of the gods of land and rain.
Throughout rural China, the village temple is a place for villagers to concentrate their dialogue with the deities. In the hill country of northern China, village temples are usually perched high on a hilltop, but though they are elevated, they are not isolated. They’re integrated into the landscape, surrounded by cropland. In Dang Jiashan, the temple sits serenely atop the highest hill in the village. Large mulberry bushes grow at the perimeter where in the past a courtyard wall stood. Now only the entry doors remain, their function merely symbolic. A tall tree now thrives in the middle of the grounds. It’s a very peaceful place. But the temple was not always here.
Once upon a time the village temple lay on another hilltop on the other side of the village lands. The villagers still call that “Temple Hill.” One day the fortune stick was missing from the temple. Eventually it was found far away on another hilltop to the north, next to a fox’s den. The villagers returned the stick to their temple. Not long afterward, the fox broke into the temple at night, stole the oracle again and took it back to the same place. No one remembers now whether it happened yet a third time, or if it was only after the second time that the “the villagers suppose maybe the god like to move from there to here. You know here is more near to the village,” Anrong conjectured. “Maybe the people can come very frequently.” He giggled. “I’m not sure.”
There is a stone stele on the porch of the main building dedicating the temple in the year it was built, which isn’t listed exactly by calendar number, but rather as the seventh year of the sixth emperor’s reign in the Qing Dynasty. Which places the temple dedication in 1827.
It was destroyed 140 years later in the Cultural Revolution. Even though I know how pervasive this “revolution” was, reaching nigh into every nook and cranny in this giant country with its frenzied insanity, somehow it still surprises me at times to learn of the destruction and presence of Red Guards even in tiny little hamlets like this one buried in the depths of China’s rural lands.
The inside of the temple was completely defaced at that time. Speaking with a strangely quiet voice, perhaps from embarrassment or shame or maybe just general, unfocused discomfort, Anrong explained that the teenaged Red Guards “like from 14 to 18, something like that… the teenagers at that age, they are very bad; they just follow what the other said and somebody ask them to destroy that mural.”
Anrong, who was two years old when the Revolution started, said his memory of the temple grounds during that era of his childhood was just “chaos.” Sometimes he would come and pick apricots from the trees nearby, but thought nothing of the building otherwise. With all deities scorned and all religions forbidden, the temple was abandoned by the spirituality that once imbued it. In its stead were sheep. The temple was turned into a livestock pen.
In the early 1990s the temple was restored. A stele on the porch lists the names of the families who contributed to the restoration.
According to Papa, the new temple is not as good artistically as the original. In the old days the temple was lit with oil lamps. They were fitted with little chimneys that directed the smoke outside so that the dragons and murals would not get covered with black soot. Now there is an electric light bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling.
The temple structure itself wasn’t destroyed as completely as the inside, for it was still used for the livestock, but adornments on the roof were torn down and never rebuilt. Walking around through the temple grounds, Irene spotted a piece of stone that seemed unnaturally shaped and wondered if that could have been part of the old temple. “Oh sure,” Anrong said, however most of the stone that was torn from the old building was carried away by the villagers to be used in their homes for other purposes.
Isn’t it strange, I wondered aloud to Anrong, that one day people came here and made offerings to the various gods and the next day they kicked those gods down, or let others do it, and said it was all just superstition. But he, and Anju, and others I asked these kinds of questions to, always said they just didn’t think about it at the time. They were told it was all superstition, didn’t mean anything, and it must be torn down and abolished. That was that. The peasants never had time to sit around and contemplate more esoteric thoughts, Anrong and Li-Li both said. They were too busy trying to coax the land into letting them survive. But I thought, well isn’t a part of this coaxing the prayers to the land god and rain god? But I’ve learned from personal experience and from reading books of other authors in China, that there is never a satisfactory answer to questions about the Cultural Revolution. It’s as much of an enigma to the Chinese as it is to foreigners. It’s unsettling to everybody, to where I fear that China will for comfort’s sake come to cover it up or just forget it as a footnote in history, a brief anomaly: “Nobody knows how or why but let’s just move on.”
In Peter Hessler’s Rivertown he talks to a Chinese man who said that the Chinese couldn’t yet be trusted with a democracy because they are still too easily duped. There is not enough education yet in the country to make an honest democracy; peasants would believe in lies and it would be a completely corrupt system. However, when I asked some of the people in Dang Jiashan about their country’s government, if they thought there were ways in which it should change, they all said they thought many of the officials were already corrupt and the best way to fix problems in the system was simply to get the officials to do their job honestly. More and more Chinese people are starting to become educated and wiser and more savvy about politics, but the population is enormous, and this is a minority of people. And all you have to do is look back thirty years to see how malleable minds can be and how easily people can be led when they live in fear. People changed their behavior out of fear of persecution—humiliation or physical beating or exile—but what’s refreshing and striking is that many of them never changed internally, not in their hearts.
It’s in the area of religion or folk belief that a visitor to this area is most likely to contemplate the Cultural Revolution, indeed even notice it. The rural areas didn’t have as many intellectuals and bourgeois to persecute, so the Revolution’s destructive ideals were more focused here on things like prayer, worship, superstition, folk beliefs. These culminate in the village temples, but peasants also have traditionally kept niches for offerings in their own yao. So not only was the village temple ruined, but peasants were forced to fill the niches in their yao with cement or brick.
These niches are one of the neatest and most defining features about the local traditional architecture. Generally, they are built into the façade of the columns between each dwelling in a yao complex. If you think of a hallway in an apartment building, the wall between each resident’s door would have one of these niches. Generally around a foot high and about four or five inches deep, often the top part of it will be an open-hole design—similar to the wooden lattice work of the windows—of one item, like a star or a swastika.
I was tickled to see that a new hotel was being built in the town of Gao Xi Gou with the traditional yao architecture, using the rounded archway doors and windows. The best part was that in a central courtyard, the columns between the doors and windows had very beautiful niches incorporated into the gray stone façade. Any guest in the hotel can make offerings in these niches. Traditions such as these have survived the Cultural Revolution intact. As soon as it was over, the peasants uncovered their niches and took up where they left off, filling them with incense and other offerings. Though their outward behavior may have suggested otherwise, they never actually forgot.
It’s really telling how destructive “modernity” is when things like that survive something so drastic and repressive, but get erased now in the new progress. The three young families who have moved to the new village haven’t incorporated the niches into the white tile on the outside of their yao.
Irene asked Anrong, “Where did the people pray during the Cultural Revolution when the temple was ruined? In their homes?”
Anrong lowered his voice significantly, almost to a whisper, and said, “Yes, they’re just very secret about it.”
Irene asked again, “They did it in their house?”
Anrong said, “But nobody can say that. You know, sometimes maybe the parents just pray during the night, because they didn’t want the kids to see that, because otherwise the children always tell the truth. They might say ‘oh, my dad did something’ and that will be trouble.”
Villagers often left one tiny hole in the cement they used to fill in their home niches, where they could poke in one stick of incense. Also they would write the name of the god they were praying to on a piece of paper, and tack up the paper in that spot. These subtle offerings could be very quickly torn down and thrown away if a Red Guard was spotted approaching, or put up at night and thrown away in the morning.
In Papa and Mama’s yao complex, there is one quite large, rectangular space between two of the yao, sealed with two wooden doors. Once we asked what was in it, and Papa opened the doors to reveal a hodge-podge of items; it appeared to be a storage space. But he began pulling things out and moving others around to the sides to reveal, in the very back, a tiny Buddha. He laughed as we each peered in one at a time to see it.
The village temple is never locked. People can come pray whenever they want. The temple is “owned” by the village collectively, and different people take turns looking after the upkeep of the grounds and the structures. The first year I was there, everyone on the team was a little confused because when talking about the temple, Anrong kept mentioning the “landlord.” So we thought somebody in particular owned the grounds and people had to pay him money and other stuff; it started to seem rather bizarre until someone asked for some clarification. At that point we realized that Anrong meant to be saying “land god.” To him, trying to translate, “god” and “lord” were synonymous.
The temple grounds at Dang Jiashan are typical of the traditional village temples in the region, consisting of three main architectural features—the house of the primary god, that of the secondary gods, and a place for ancestral spirits. When a villager comes to make offerings at the temple to placate the spiritual world, the offerings are made at each of the features according to their importance—first at the primary temple building, then at the secondary structures, and lastly at the open-air ancestor shrine.
The primary temple in a small village, though the largest building of the temple complex, is still really a very small building, built to accommodate just a handful of people inside at one time. A temple is not analogous to a Christian church or Muslim mosque. No group activities take place within it, no sermons or worship. It is not the place for weddings or funerals; those take place within the family courtyard. It is a place for private contemplation, a place where the villagers make personal pleas to the gods or give them thanks, or to look for clues to their future.
Inside Dang Jiashan’s main temple, the Dragon God’s mother—the Holy Mother of the Ninth Heaven—resides, painted on the wall behind the altar. Each village temple is different; they don’t all have the same deities in them. A neighboring village has the Dragon God himself, who is the highest god in the region, the one who is supposed to have control over the rain. I asked Anrong if the temple to the Dragon God was more powerful than Dang Jiashan’s, since one would be speaking directly to the Dragon himself. “Not necessarily,” Anrong said. “You know, a mother can have a lot of say with her son! She can tell the son what to do and he’ll listen to her.”
Though Papa said it is not as well-done as the original painting, before the Cultural Revolution, the inside of the main temple in Dang Jiashan is still vibrant, with bright-colored paint covering every inch of the walls and ceiling. The Holy Mother of the Ninth Heaven and her attendants fill the back wall, which is the north side of the building. Beneath her, a raised stone platform extends the width of the temple. A small stone box sits on the altar, in which incense is burned as offering, and two red fortune sticks—the temple oracles—lie next to it.
The other walls are also covered in richly painted murals. On the east side, at the top of the wall mural, there are two rows of gods, “the gods from heaven,” Anrong told us, “and they have their responsibilities, you know.” The top row, “their status or their level is higher, so they use the dragon to be like their transportation”—each god there holds the reins to a colorful, scaly beast. But the second row, they just sit on horses. Each god has their own duty. Anrong pointed out a brown god with a hooked upper lip like a beak and said he’s responsible for the thunder; you can see he has a drum with which to make it. The god next to him, holding two cymbals far apart in preparation to smash them together, uses “this kind of instrument to make the light, the lightning.” A god on the opposite side of the line of gods has four eyes in his blue head, so he can look around in heaven and also at the same time look down on earth, “he knows both the earth situations and the heaven situations.” As for those on horses, they have “some special tools.” One tool is a mirror that the god can see the bad spirits with—they are personified at the bottom of the mural in the right corner: one is “like a fox spirit and the other is a tree spirit, and they do bad things, you know, keep the earth dry, not much rain, not so good harvest.”
Then along the very bottom of the mural, “the people here, they are the general people,” Anrong explained. They are carrying eggs and water on shoulder poles, and they pray to the legion of gods hovering over them to look down and see what’s going on, see how the bad spirits are keeping things dry. When the gods look and see, they use special arrows to shoot at the bad spirits. Then “after they’re killed, the rains coming,” and there is a general person holding onto a wide-brimmed straw hat beneath a downpour of rain. Then the people want to celebrate the rain, so they offer a pig head and some drink to the gods.
The mural on the west wall depicts activities after the gods finish all their duties and they go back to heaven. “Over there, there’s a kitchen in heaven,” said Anrong. “And over here on the ground the people are very lovely to celebrate; they got a very good rain and they will have a good harvest.” They had fire crackers and band instruments ready to play, and a goat to sacrifice. The gods and the general people all looked to be having a splendid time.
Jiang later asked me what surprised me most about the temple. Though it may seem like a simple thing, it was the intensity of color in the main temple paintings, and the complexity of the pictures. The colors were so vivid, that among a landscape dominated by shades of dry brown, the temple was like a dream. Anyone coming there to plead with the gods walks up the hill on a path which color has deserted, and then opens a door and steps into colorful, surreal imagery, into symbolism and metaphor, myth and magic. Somehow the villagers’ beliefs seem more powerful expressed in these bold, vibrant colors. When they open the temple door they must be simply stunned into belief, stunned into a higher mystical world, into the possibility that the rain may come.
Each year when I went to the temple, there was a banner of red cloth with large black Chinese characters written on it strung across the altar, tied with string to each of the dragon poles. It was a different banner each year, and at any given time there may be any number of any size of red cloth hanging in this or any village’s temple. They are gifts from people who prayed here and received what they prayed for. If your prayer is granted, it is proper for you to hang a red banner in appreciation to the god who helped you, noting on it the date the banner was made.
The secondary architectural feature of a village temple complex is one or more smaller buildings or structures that house other deities, secondary to the primary deity. In Dang Jiashan, there are secondary shrines for the land god and mountain god. They are just small shrines that you have to kneel on the ground to be able to look inside and place offerings.
The caretaker of the Xianglongsi Temple above the Yellow River in Jiaxian City told us a story that one time someone left offerings only at the main temple there to the Buddha. The next day at the little shrine for the land god, there was an enormous snake all coiled up inside it. The caretaker said the land god was mad that he didn’t get the same offerings as the Buddha. So the caretaker put an offering in the little shrine himself, and the next day the snake had gone. So he warned all of us that if we gave anything or burned any incense in the main temple, we couldn’t forget to do so at the smaller shrine also.
The third feature at a village temple complex is a place to leave offerings for the lonely spirits. “Lonely spirits,” explained Anrong, “nobody take care of them, no exact young generations take care of them, so the villagers just pray for them here.” Just as a family does at the graves of its own ancestors, a villager can leave offerings of food and water here so the lonely spirits have something to eat and drink. The placating of dead ancestors is perhaps the single most important duty a family has unto itself; happy ancestor spirits are benevolent and will benefit their progeny, while unhappy ones will become malevolent and cause bad things to happen. Eventually many of the dead cease to have visitors, though. Their families die out or move away or simply become negligent. So the village provides a shrine within the temple complex dedicated to these ancestors so they don’t get too lonely and unhappy. This shrine, usually shaped like a large bowl on a pedestal, is left outdoors for easy access by the spirits; and because spirits are believed to be able to travel only in straight lines, the shrine is usually in a direct line with the temple’s courtyard gates.
The ritual of offering is the same at all of the different structures/shrines of the temple complex. Each place has an incense box in which to burn sticks of incense. After lighting a stick, the villagers then place food before the box. Each time I went to the temple with him, Papa brought steamed bread rolls. Then kneeling at the altar, he held several sheets of yellow tissue paper up and lit them on fire with his lighter one at a time, holding each one while it burned until it dropped into ashes on the ground. After the paper was burned, still kneeling, Papa bowed his head to the ground three times.
It’s important to note that the color of the tissue paper is a fixed part of the ritual; it is never any color but yellow (whereas white paper is always burned at the graves of ancestors). Why yellow? Anrong conjectured that yellow has historically been the primary imperial color. All of the roofs of the buildings in the Forbidden City are yellow. The emperor wore special yellow robes and silks. Nobody could wear that shade of yellow except the emperor or empress. Perhaps the proprietary color of the terrestrial emperors became the color associated with the heavenly rulers as well.
So a trip to the temple takes a little bit of time in order to step through this ritual of offerings and kowtows four times—for the Holy Mother of the Ninth Heaven, the land god, the mountain god, and the lonely spirits. I imagine during this time one can’t help but become meditative, quietly stepping through the traditional prescription for making contact with the heavens, with the part of the world that is unseen, unheard, the part that yet seems to be responsible for holding our world together inside its net of destiny.
The other reason to come to the primary temple is to ask your fortune of the oracle. Unlike at the large temples such as Bai Yun Shan (where Anju went to divine Anrong’s fortune regarding his exams), which use the fortune sticks with numbers, in the small village temples, they use little six-sided cylinders, red or gold, with Chinese characters painted all along each side. This is what Anrong referred to as a fortune stick when relating the story of the fox and why the temple was moved to its present location.
The first time I came to the temple at Dang Jiashan, as a demonstration of how the red cylinder worked, Jiang had her fortune told. Anrong explained its use in the temple: “If you want to communicate with the god, you by this way … there are different characters, and you can just roll it, and it stops there or there, and some words are there …. First you need to pray and tell the god something and then he responds to you.”
Papa rolled the cylinder two times, and each time something good came up and Jiang was very happy. Papa smiled and patted her back. I then asked if I could get a fortune. “Of course,” Anrong said. I gave some money to the temple and Papa’s cousin burned some paper for me and then Papa rolled the oracle. When he spoke to Jiang to tell her what it meant, he wasn’t quite so smiley as he was with her fortune, and Jiang didn’t tell me what the oracle said. Papa rolled it a second time, and again no happy smiles and then there was some discussion between him and his cousin and Jiang. She asked me if someone was waiting for me at home, perhaps my husband or somebody. I said, I do have a husband at home, I suppose you could say he’s waiting for me. And a kitty-cat. Jiang explained, well the fortune says that perhaps you need to hurry home, that someone is waiting for you. It was the same both times, which apparently is unusual. Papa thought it could mean that my safety there was in danger or something like that.
Then Papa rolled the cylinder once more for me; he seemed to be trying to come up with something better. He didn’t say much about the third roll except to smile and say it was a good roll, or at least that’s what Jiang said to me. She and Anrong were concerned that I might not be happy with my fortune. But a fortune is a fortune; the oracle said what it needed to say, and I certainly didn’t expect that it had to be good. But actually, no one knew how eerily relevant the oracle’s answer was to the question I asked privately of it in my head. I didn’t have in mind a particular question when I asked to have my fortune told. But when I knelt down and was told to formulate something in my mind, a particular question immediately, almost forcefully, jumped up from my heart. It was as if my mind threw it out there into the void like a fast ball. Not only was the oracle eerily on the mark about the nature of my question, but as an answer, it was a very happy fortune. Someone is waiting for you. I didn’t necessarily see this as anything more than a joyful coincidence—the relevance of the oracle’s message—but when I returned to the village the following year, my question came back to haunt me. It seemed that the oracle had not forgotten it. It answered me again, but in a different and surprising way.
When we came back out of the temple after my fortune was divined, three of the young village girls who’d accompanied us that afternoon were squatting behind the land god’s shrine, softly singing together. Their breathy young voices, high and sweet, stayed close between them; I had to stand right next to them to hear the song well. I stood beside them and looked out at all the farmland surrounding us, at the mulberry bushes straight ahead that the kids had broken some branches from to make head wreaths. The air was heavy and still, except where the children sang; there they seemed to shovel out the heaviness, leaving a light, airy halo around them. Even the thin leaves on the tall, arching tree in the temple courtyard didn’t move, as if straining to hear the girls.
One morning we were visited in our yao by an older village woman who was beside herself with excitement that we must come see the professional singers that a neighboring village had hired for an annual celebration at their temple. We walked over there with our regular crew of children chaperones (we'd end up seeing most of Dang Jiashan's residents at the performance). As we approached the village, we stopped at the base of a hill covered in maturing crops. Winding his way down through the crops came a man with a portable temple—a wooden box with legs that fit over the man’s shoulders. containing a little effigy inside it. The man bent at his waist bowing over and over as he came down the hill. We stopped in the path and waited for him to reach us.
I didn’t know what we should do, and Anrong instructed us to drop to our knees and kowtow to the wooden box, to the little god that had been brought down the hill to us. After we paid our respects to the tiny god in the wooden box, we followed the man up the hill to his village’s temple.
There he turned around in numerous circles, bowed deeply, and finally set down the portable effigy. The villagers were awaiting our arrival, eager to see the four foreigners, and they lined the courtyard walls of the temple, where inside, bowls of food sat humbly on a table beneath the Dragon God.
The band of professional singers was covered by a pink tent across from the temple. All around the hilltop, villagers sat with piles of watermelon and candy and snacks for the audience to buy. This was the second day of the celebration, and the singers had begun their musical tales the day before. The stories were so long that they continued on into today. The singer stood at a microphone whose output was a bullhorn attached to the top of the tent. Beside him three men played their instruments: a Chinese banjo, an erhu and a flute, the flutist blowing lyrically into his instrument between drags on his cigarette, which he stored deftly in the crook of his first two fingers while he played. Behind them two women sat playing small percussion instruments.
After we took our seats they sang to us, welcoming each of us foreigners, naming our individual countries (which Anrong had told them) and entreating us to enjoy their performance. They were really quite serious about it—a little while later in the performance when some of the villagers were talking a little loudly and walking in front of the stage, the singer asked them to please settle down, they wanted to give their best performance for the foreigners. This was their first international audience!
I rather liked the singing even though I couldn’t understand the words. From time to time Li-Li or Anrong translated some of the plot, but it was very complex and convoluted … brothers and brothers-in-law, and fathers with marriageable daughters, prospective suitors, tests of strength and loyalty, inheritance, magic, all kinds of stuff. The singer was marvelously animated. The banjo player so obviously enjoyed his music, and it was mesmerizing to watch the flute player with his cigarette. Sitting in the audience under a sapphire blue sky, sucking candy Anrong’s sister bought for me, surrounded by strangers of a magnitude “stranger” (unfamiliar) than a crowd I might sit with back in America, was my peculiar kind of heaven. This ended up being one of the best and most memorable days of my life. But that's a story for another time.