Gugong, the Forbidden City, is easily *the* tourist attraction in China (aside perhaps from the Great Wall), nowadays.
Buddhist objects can be found in many places here, in what is now officially the Beijing Palace Museum. And yet, the Buddhist history is quite hidden.
It is only with descriptions of some places and talk about the people who lived – and worshiped – there that one notices the role that Buddhism had oftentimes played at the Chinese Imperial court.
The “Eastern Warmth Chamber” of the Shoukang Gong, the “Palace of Longevity and Health”, for example, is described as having been a Buddhist prayer room.
The Qianlong Emperor placed a golden stupa (of the size of a model of a stupa) here to enshrine a somewhat interesting kind of “relic:” The hair of his deceased mother, the Empress Dowager Chongqing.
It is interesting because a relic should be of a saint, normally – and the emperors and empresses who were close to Buddhism (there had also been some who opposed the religion), not least the last Empress Dowager Cixi, fashioned themselves Buddhas.
Cixi was known as Lao Foye, “Old Buddha”…
Temples and Tribute
Many objects, often – and especially in the case of Tibetan ones – presented to the imperial court as tribute, are to be found in many halls and palaces of the Forbidden City.
Not all came from Tibet, though; there were also Chinese-Mongolian workshops for such objects, even within the palace.
The Qing court apparently donated as well as received Buddhist statues and other paraphernalia.
The history of Buddhism in China (and Mongolia and Tibet) here becomes much more complicated than a mere tributary system, imperial takeover, or similar…
There is something conspicuously absent, however.
At least, the absence becomes conspicuous when one has seen old photographs such as those of Philipp Alfons Freiherr Mumm von Schwarzenstein, who had been the German Empire’s ambassador to Beijing in 1900:
His diary of photos includes several places in the Forbidden City that he labeled as temples.
The Zhongzhengdian and Yu-hua-ge
Currently the most interesting place, if by absence, is the Zhongzheng Dian (“Hall of Rectitude”) complex in the northwest of the Forbidden City.
This hall and surrounding structures such as the Yu-hua-ge, the Pavilion of Raining Flowers (or Flower Rain? or Rain and Flowers?… translations differ) was a major Buddhist complex in the Forbidden City.
From 1690, it served as a place for the recitation of Buddhist sutras and workshop for religious imagery; the Yu-hua-ge was the Hongli Emperor’s private chapel.
In 1923, the complex fell victim to a fire.
In 2012, restoration work was reported as finished. The complex was said to (have) become the home of a/the Research Center for Tibetan Buddhist Heritage and unified galleries for the Palace Museum’s collection of Tibetan Buddhist objects.
It was presented with photos of visitors taking photos (by China Daily), described as set to open to visitors in a few more years, at most (in the New York Times)…
And then nothing happened.
I tried to find the place repeatedly, asked guides and guards in the Forbidden City about it – and everyone proclaimed ignorance of its very existence.
According to reporting from 2017, the Zhongzhengdian (and it surroudings) remains closed to visitors, it may only become “visible” in virtual museum tours to be brought online.
Other “Hidden Temples”
Funnily, other places of Buddhist import were to be found. In odd ways, as well.
For one, there used to be a virtual tour of what was described as a Buddhist hall on the Palace Museum’s website. It seems to have disappeared again, however.
Maybe even more fittingly for the way things often go with religious structures – and so many other things – is the example of the two pavilions in the Imperial Gardens:
The Qianqiu Ting (Pavilion of One Thousand Autumns) and Wanchun Ting (Pavilion of Ten Thousand Springs) used to house Buddhist statues.
Every visitor who tours the Forbidden City will probably walk past them, on the way through the gardens towards the exit. But, if you do not know that these pavilions used to have a (Buddhist) religious meaning, you would just walk past them without learning about that.