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Heritage Trail project

Bai Lin Temple

Although Bailin Temple is near Lama Temple and both are key cultural relics under state protection, because Bailin Temple is no longer open to the public it is not as well-known. Our Cultural Trail starts from Bailin Temple because we would like to share some of the local stories of the old temple.

Bailin Temple was first constructed in the 7th year of the Yuan Zhizheng Reign (1347). On the historical map of Beijing, which was published by Beijing Yanshan Publishing House, Bailin Temple is not far from Chongrenmen City Gate, which is now called Dongzhimen City Gate, and it is also quite close to the Confucius Temple. Bailin Temple was rebuilt or renovated twice in the Ming and Qing Dynasties respectively. The two steles in the temple bear the information of the reconstruction in the Qianlong Era of the Qing Dynasty. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the most important renovation was done in 1992.

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People living in the neighborhood are only able to visit Bailin Temple when it is open to the public on Cultural Heritage Day. Even so, the temple is not completely unknown to the older generations in the neighborhood. During our oral history collecting process, quite a few mentioned their childhood memories of the temple.

Bailin Temple in the Memories

bls2An elderly man living in a nearby hutong told us about his memory of the temple. As he prefers to remain anonymous, we shall refer to him as The Old Gentleman. The Old Gentleman is 64 years old and his first memory of the temple is from 1958. “Bailin Temple has changed a lot. Speaking of the original appearance of the temple, I can remember how it looked 50 years ago. The last time I was in this temple was in 1958. …”

When he was young, the Old Gentleman often came to the temple to play. He remembered there were still monks in the temple in the mid-1950s. He usually could not get into the major hall, except when the monks prayed – “At that time, I would get into the hall by following them. In the summer, I felt chilly in the major hall. It was hot outside, but rather cool inside, as if there was air-conditioning in the hall. …There were murals in this hall; I asked when the murals were painted and was told during the Yuan Dynasty. Years later, I asked after the murals again and was told that the murals had disappeared a long time ago. What a pity, the murals were really good. They were portraits of individual figures. That is what I remember. That is a long time ago.”

bls3The Old Gentleman remembers when he was young there were two tablets displayed in front of the major hall. The characters on the tablets displayed the “dos and don’ts” of the temple.

Nowadays there are no tablets in any hall in the temple. There used to be a tablet hanging in one major hall saying “lion roaring.” The Old Gentleman said he was quite confused by the tablet – “In my childhood, I didn’t understand what the tablet was about. I was confused why it written with these four characters. And I remember it might have been written by Emperor Qianlong. I have never seen a tablet written with such characters – lion roaring.”

bls4There is a compound in the temple which used to be a traveling palace built under the order of Emperor Kangxi. Fifty years ago, the compound was transformed into a primary school. The Old Gentleman told us writer Shi Tiesheng wrote an article about the school. In his article “Memory of Temple”, Shi wrote:   

The campus of my primary school was a temple. To be accurate, it was part of a big temple. The big temple was called “Bailin Temple”. There were many thick cypress trees. When it was windy, the sounds of the old cypress trees were in harmony with the bells of the school.

It was said that the old man who was responsible for ringing the bells used to be a monk in the temple. When the temple became a school, he was secularized and became a janitor for the school. The old man was very nice to the kids. He would never be angry when you touched his red nose or bare head. When he noticed you were unhappy, he would lower his head and allow you to rub it. All the children liked playing in the janitor’s room. They squeezed in very tightly on his bed and joked around with him. When it was time for him to ring the bells, he would walk with an even pace under all the windows and corridors. You could hear “jingle—jingle” in the wind.

But one day, the ring of the bell suddenly stopped and the old man disappeared too. I heard that he went back to his hometown in a rural area. Why? It was said that he continued to burn joss sticks and chant secretly, while the brand new era declared a time of atheism.

Once upon a Time in Bailin Temple

According to the Old Gentleman there used to be a bell tower and a drum tower in the temple. Today, although the bell and drum towers are gone, most of the structures in the temple have been preserved. The structures in the temple are located on the central axis and its two sides. There are five yards. The yard in the very back is enclosed with its own gate. The structure contained within was used for storing sutras. The boards, on which a set of precious sutras from the 18th century were engraved, used to be stored here.

According to the property register of the temple in 1931, the abbot of the temple was Master Taiyuan. The address for the temple was not 1 Xilou Hutong, but 4 Bailin Temple Hutong. The register records that there were more than 100 Buddhist statues, 18 cypress trees, one pine tree, a pair of steles, one stone spirit wall, one pair of stone lions. Today there are no Buddhist statues left in the temple. The pair of stone lions are gone as well.

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In 1931, the Abbot Taiyuan of Bailin Temple was rather famous in Beijing. He was very active in the upper class circles. According to a memoir by Master Tanxu, Abbot Taiyuan was from northeast China. Prior to his conversion, his secular name was Zhang Jiechen. His family was rather wealthy, however after his father died, the wealth was quickly trifled away by family members. In 1924, Zhang Jiechen became a monk under Master Tanxu in Ha’erbin.

In 1925, Taiyuan came to Beijing. In the following year, the warlord Zhang Zuolin became the new leader of the Northern Warlords Government of China. Since Taiyuan came from the same area as Zhang, he soon became friends with Zhang’s Chief of Staff and thus was appointed abbot of Bailin Temple. In 1929, Taiyuan and a few Buddhist believers established a Buddhist academy at Bailin Temple. The next year, under the efforts of Master Taixu, the academy was reorganized on a larger scale. However, in 1931, the war between the Chinese and the Japanese in the Northeast had a serious effect on the financial resources of the temple. In 1932, it was announced that the academy was to close. Since Taiyuan had always lived a rather luxurious life, he eventually decided he could not survive in Beijing anymore and moved to, and later died in, Sichuan Province. Although Taiyuan had only been active in Beijing for five to six years, the academy was established during his time as abbot of Bailin Temple. He played a major part in advancing the study of Buddhism in Beijing. 

There are a few sentences written by the emperor Qianlong on the steles in the temple. One section says: “although people have short memories, they tend to remember those things that happened in their childhood. That is because the earlier something happened (in our lifetimes), the more we are attached to it. That is the same reason we renovated this temple. I was asked to write a few words for the temple. I do not want to quote Buddhist scriptures, but to record the history of the temple.”

Postscript

Bailin Temple used to be a prominent temple. In both the Ming and Qing Dynasties, and the Republican Era, it enjoyed high status in the study of Buddhism and in political circles. After 1949, it was, at one time, used as a branch of the Beijing Public Library and as an institute of the Ministry of Culture. We don’t wish to tell a grand story of Bailin Temple, but would rather have the local community members tell their stories of the temple. We hope these “small” narratives will be better appreciated by the general public, so that we, together, can care more about such places with historic, cultural and social values.

Oral history collecting: Hu Xinyu, Fang Lin

Transcription: Zhang Pei, Feng Haochen

Text: Hu Xinyu

Photo Deng Wei, Yu Meng

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