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Heritage Trail project

Horse God Temple


From Bailin Temple, walking along Zangjingguan hutong heading north, we soon come to a blind lane. The former Horse God Temple once stood at the end of this lane. When I first discovered the courtyard, Uncle Tai’s wife was sitting in the doorway. I got off my bicycle and started to chat with her. I was soon introduced to Uncle Tai who lives there. Uncle Tai told me that this used to be his temple. I was confused by what he said at first, but soon found out what he meant.

officially identified courtyards

msm2Uncle Tai’s courtyard is one of the 658 officially identified courtyards and structures by the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage and 50.6% of these courtyards are located in Dongcheng District. In 2003, all the even numbered courtyards, from No. 2 to No. 52 in Zangjingguan hutong were marked for identification. In other words, the courtyards between Beijing Doncheng District Municipal Warehouse and a yard with a sign saying “Yard with Ethnic Group Solidarity” are protected structures.

Since August 20th 2007, the Department of Housing Administration carried out a 95-day renovation project in the area. I noticed that one of the courtyards has been demolished and rebuilt, with red bricks replacing the old grey bricks including some suspected as the old city wall bricks. The house should still look gray from outside as the wall facing the street were built with gray bricks.

Wang Yuwei, director of the Department of Cultural Relics Protection with Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage said in an interview with Beijing Youth Daily on August 8, 2007, that these protected courtyards “are not cultural relics by law, but structures with certain historical appearance. Even if they are demolished, those who are responsible for it would not need to be punished by law.” The article also said that these courtyards will become cultural relics protected by Cultural Relics Protection Laws and should be repaired according to the standard methods of repairing cultural relics after the 3rd national culture relics census, which will be completed in 2010.

Among the officially identified courtyards there is also Tuguan Focang which Uncle Tai pointed at to me. If the long roof facing Horse God Temple belongs to Tuguan Focang, then this area might have been the east garden of the Lama Temple during the Qianlong Reign of Qing Dynasty. According to the official website of Lama Temple, Tuguan Focang was the palace in Beijing for Living Buddha Tuguan from Qinghai Province. During the Qianlong Reign and the second half of 19th Century, these living Buddhas in Beijing were competent assistants for the central government in Mongolian and Tibetan affairs. 

Horse God Temple—”My temple”

msm3Uncle Tai’s full name is Tai Baoshan. He is 70 years old and of Mongolian ethnicity. When he was seven, he came to Beijing from Inner Mongolia to live with his brother-in-law’s brother who was a lama at the Lama Temple. Uncle Tai said that it didn’t require much to be a lama at the time. “It didn’t require any qualifications. You just serve people and make a living.” He told me that there were two to three hundred lamas at Lama Temple and several ranks besides abbot and majordomo. Uncle Tai was an apprentice. Besides serving people, Uncle Tai also studied sutras in Tibetan. Among everything he studied, what he still remembers is the six-character dictum. “It is the six-character dictum in Journey to the West — an, ma, ni, ba, mei, hong.”

Uncle Tai was secularized when he was 20. When asked why, he laughed and said, “Why? Because I was still young.” He also said that two of his peers were all secularized and got married afterwards. After secularization, Uncle Tai then moved to Horse God Temple, which was built by his master’s master who was a lama at the Lama Temple. Upon his death, he passed on the Horse God Temple to his apprentice—uncle Tai’s master, Lama Gendun. Uncle Tai depended on his master to survive when he was in the Lama Temple and still lived with him after he was not a lama anymore. Uncle Tai said his original master was not Lama Gendun, but Lama Gendun really wanted him to be his apprentice. “He was alone because all his former apprentices were gone. They either left or joined the army. I was there when I was a kid. He knew me and liked me, so he wanted me to be his apprentice.”

msm4Horse God Temple was divided into two parts: the interior yard and the exterior yard. Before the Cultural Revolution, the exterior yard was Lama Gendun’s private property and the interior yard was the property of the Lama Temple. The one and a half rooms which Uncle Tai and his wife now occupy was the hall for worshipping Buddha, and the exterior yard was the major hall of Horse God Temple. Before the Cultural Revolution, Uncle Tai burned incense everyday in the temple and was in charge of managing the temple, and the temple was not open to the public.

According to Uncle Tai, Horse God, Dragon God, Guanyu and Guanping used to be worshiped in the temple. Their colored statues were removed from the temple and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. At that time, the lamas in the Lama Temple were sent to be reformed through labor. Uncle Tai’s master was sent to Nankou Farm in the suburbs of Beijing to work for more than 2 years. But Uncle Tai said his master had rather good luck. “My master was rather lucky, because he was given the job of serving the director of Nankou Farm. I came to visit him there. The director there had a car to use and I was sent back to Beijing by that car.” Uncle Ta himself was not impacted by the Cultural Revolution because he came from a poor peasant family.

Back from the farm, Master Gendun “stayed at home for some time, and was then accommodated in the Lama Temple.” “When Chairman Deng Xiaoping came into power, the Lama Temple became prosperous once again. He was the oldest master in the temple and was therefore given a separate place in the temple to live. But as his apprentice, I still cooked and brought food to him everyday until his death. Although there was a canteen in the Lama Temple, he still had our home cooked food.”

After the Cultural Revolution, Horse God Temple became a compound courtyard, housing 11 families, including his brother-in-law’s and his son’s. Several years ago, Lama Gendun died at the age of 102. Uncle Tai handled his funeral and took his ashes to Wutai Mountain. He went to the mountain twice and built a 1.2-meter-high tower for his master. In Uncle Tai’s home, Lama Gendun’s photo is revered with joss sticks and a statue of green tara in front of it. The green tara was previously worshiped by Lama Gendun.


After secularization, Uncle Tai became a factory worker and later got married, but he still lived in his master’s temple. He recalled after his master returned from the farm he “lived at home for some days.” He believed that his master, even after moving to the Lama Temple, should still eat the “home cooking” prepared by himself and his wife.

The first time I met Uncle Tai, he invited me home and showed me the photo of his master. He told me his master was the oldest lama to have resided at the Lama Temple. When collecting his oral history, Uncle Tai was not very talkative and all the information was obtained through asking him questions. During the conversation I was very confused by the relationship between him, his master and the temple. After listening to the recording of the conversation several times and reading the transcriptions, I started to understand that his master was not only a master, but also a father figure. This is the reason he stayed in the temple after secularization. To his master, the temple was his home; and to Uncle Tai, his master was a family member.

Oral history collecting: Yu Meng
Transcription: Zhai Ruixin
Text: Yu Meng
Photo Deng Wei
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