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Uncovering one of Beijing's hidden gems

Updated: Jul 6, 2022 By Michael Rhys Card China Daily Print
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An example of the distinctive sculptures on display at Zhihua Temple, Dongcheng district, Beijing. [Photo by Michael Rhys Card/China Daily]

In recent weeks, those of us in Beijing have had to forgo the beginnings of a particularly hot summer due to the current outbreak of COVID-19 in the capital. Over the last month we have all missed out on certain things we enjoy, whether that's eating out at restaurants, going to the gym, the cinema or a drink with friends. For me it's been the temporary closure of the majority of cultural and historic sites across the city that are usually the focus of my photography. However, with Beijing recently announcing a staggered return to normalcy, these places are once again opening their doors.

There are the obvious places one might think to visit first such as the Temple of Heaven, Forbidden City, Summer Palace and so on. All undoubtedly great choices with much to offer, however, I would like to throw another suggestion into the mix. A temple which, in my opinion, is the best in the city but one that surprisingly few people know about or visit, which only adds to its charm. So I give this recommendation at the risk of destroying that peaceful seclusion.

Michael Rhys Card [Photo/China Daily]

Zhihua Temple, meaning "temple of wisdom attained", was built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in 1444 and is the only remaining Buddhist temple with Ming characteristics in Beijing. Constructed to honor a powerful and controversial eunuch, Wang Zhen, the complex contains the usual structures you might find within a temple, a Bell Tower, Drum Tower and pavilions capped with imposing black-glazed roof tiles, containing Buddhist statues and artwork. However, Zhihua Temple has some subtle differences and unique features that raise it to another level.

The first of these is the location, tucked away behind the giant Galaxy Soho building in Dongcheng district. Reaching the temple's entrance requires negotiating a labyrinth of hutong, which in itself is a great exploration and a chance to see the everyday lives of the locals in the area.

Once inside, visitors are given the opportunity to hear a performance of jing music, a style handed down over 27 generations of musicians and which sits on the list of national intangible cultural heritage items. The music is performed daily, and brings to life the ancient atmosphere of the temple.

Within many of the temple's structures are ancient sculptures and artwork, a not uncommon feature, but unlike those I have seen in comparative temples, those in Zhihua Temple have not been fully restored. With faded and flaking paintwork, you really feel the age of the relics and the weight of the history upon them, which allows for a greater appreciation of the skills that went into their creation hundreds of years ago. Though this visual doesn't apply to the buildings, which have been extensively renovated, within the temple there are museum exhibitions with a series of photos that let you see how the temple was before its restoration and provide more insight into its long history.

Finally, perhaps the biggest attraction for me is the relative obscurity of Zhihua Temple, being able to explore the complex in relative peace and quiet is a rarity in one of the busiest cities in the world and as a photographer it can be frustrating to get the shot I want when it's blocked by impenetrable crowds.

Every historical building in Beijing, and across China, has something to offer and teach us, but Zhihua Temple provides enough of a different flavor to stand shoulder to shoulder with the better-known locations in the capital and is surely worth exploring as the city once again returns to normal.

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