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Temples of China

Enlightening #MicroExploration

A “Tourist History” of Yonghegong

In earlier times, temples like the Yonghegong “Lama Temple”, now a popular tourist destination, were not usually visited casually. But then, there was no such tourism for the longest time.

Monks would live there, supplicants would come on special days… but then came colonial powers, at a time of Chinese weakness, and strange stories:

Early Western ‘visitors’ of China were at least as fascinated by the strange and terrible religions of Asia – and Tibetan Buddhism foremost among them – as people nowadays.

Probably even more, since it was nothing one had ever even seen any documentaries or read any magazine (or blog) articles about.

To witness, consider what Juliet Bredon (“Peking. A Historical and Intimate Description of Its Chief Places of Interest”, 1922) had to say about visits to Yonghegong…

After talking with high praise about Niujie Mosque and Islam, Bredon turns to how…

“Quite another order of religious faith is embodied in Lamaism, a decadent, repulsive yet picturesque form of Buddhism imported from Thibet [sic].”

Bredon 1922: 155

This became especially visible, this terror, when someone had the temerity to try and visit the temple anyways:

“In olden times, to enter the precincts was difficult and to depart from them–harder still. One Russian did indeed visit the Lamasery several times, using a box of Huntley and Palmer’s biscuits, of which the Living Buddha of the day was very fond, as a passport. But even he had gate after gate shut in his face when he tried to leave, whilst fierce monks jeeringly asked how much he would pay to get each opened.”

Bredon 1922: 156

(A footnote there adds that “Endless stories were told of the brutality and effrontery of the priests…”) (p. 156.)


“These [side] chapels are full of tawdry paintings of demons and she-devils, freaks of diabolical imagination, all part of the spurious apparatus of terrorism of a religion whose hold is the hold of fear.”

Bredon 1922: 167

How these opinions have, at least for the most part, changed!

It is also quite interesting to note, though, how much a certain “object interest” has not changed.

People who made it (in)to the Yonghegong took photos in certain places, even back around 1900, which are still the same places used for backdrops to photos nowadays.

The stone lions guarding the entrance to the Tianwang Hall of the Yonghegong, and therefore the religious precinct of the temple, seem to have fascinated early visitors from the West…

The same stone lions are – or look to be; one never knows what survived and what was restored – still in the same places.

Now, photos are taken much more easily by point-and-shoots and smartphones, more likely to be taken as quick selfies – but the same stone lions still form a popular backdrop.

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