Saturday, November 29, 2008

Yonghegong Lama Temple

I'm not normally impressed by the information signs at Chinese tourist signs. They follow a predictable pattern...

The [fill in the blank with the name of your favorite site] was first built in [pick some year really, really a long time ago...like before George Washington]. It was built during the [usually Ming or Qing] dynasty by [somebody like Emperor Qianlong]. The site consists of [a big number] hectares of land and [if we are talking about the Forbidden City, 9999] buildings.

In other words, lots of time and space details, but not much in the way of anything that gives you insight into anything other than the fact that China has had "five thousand years of glorious history."

Recently, however, one such sign actually caught and sustained my interest. Desi and I came upon this sign during a recent visit to the Lama Temple (during one of the kids' play rehearsals). It reads as follows...

WANFUGE
It was built in 1748-1750 A.D.
The Maitreya Buddha is standing inside. The statue (eighteen metres above the ground and eight metres below the ground) was carved from a single trunk of white sandal wood.
In august 1990 A.D. this Buddha was in Guinness Book of records.

Yes, this was during the reign of Qianlong. And yes, they are talking about the Guinness Book...ayou!

But take a second look. Yes, the piece of sandalwood is something like 80 feet long (if I'm reading the sign and doing my conversion correctly). Apparently, it took the Dalai Lama three years to ship the piece from Nepal to Beijing. They then had to construct a hall around the wood as they carved it into a statue. And burying part of the sandalwood for stability turned out to be very prescient, as today the Beijing subway passes directly beneath Yonghegong. You would hate to be a visitor in the future, coming to the ruins of the Maitreya Buddha and reading a sign like this (another one of my favorites, paraphrased from the front entrance of Yuanmingyuan)...

Unfortunately, this "wonder of civilization" was toppled to the ground by Lines 2 and 5 in the year 2069.

~Steve

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