If there is one Buddhist temple in Beijing that is widely known, it is the Yonghegong.
In fact, the Yonghegong may easily be the one Buddhist temple of the city that tourists visit even if their interest in Buddhism is very limited. It is, after all, on its own subway stop and close to the Confucius temple. And picturesque.
Regular tours of “must-see” spots in Beijing, however, still tend not to include Yonghegong, opting to go to places like the (Daoist) Temple of Heaven instead.
Video Walk-Through / Story
Yonghegong already carries a piece of its origins in its name: As a “gong” (宫), it is labeled as a palace rather than a (Buddhist) temple.
It was originally built as a palace (with work starting in 1694) and became the residence of Yinzhen.
That prince Yinzhen was the fourth son (to survive into adulthood, anyways) of the Kangxi Emperor. He was promoted to the title of Prince Yong, and eventually, in 1722, he became the Yongzheng Emperor.
Keeping with tradition, his palace was not to be used as living quarters for any other (secular) person – or so the story often goes. Therefore, the “Palace of Peace and Harmony” was converted into a temple.
(If you want to be exact, it was converted into a lamasery…)
The succeeding Qianlong Emperor awarded the temple imperial status, signified by the yellow roof tiles.
The temple/lamasery was inhabited by large numbers of Tibetan/Mongolian monks of the “Yellow Hat” school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelug-pa.
This newest school of Tibetan Buddhism aligned itself with the Mongols; it (thus) became a major form of Buddhism not only in Tibet, but also in China.
How exactly that power worked out, though, could be up for discussion: The Dalai Lama, easily the best-known and most influential figure of the Gelug-pa, and the Chinese Emperor had a strange relationship.
Among other things, it was customary for a long time that the Dalai Lama’s new reincarnation would (have to) be acknowledged by the Chinese Emperor. Otherwise, it was not valid…
Like so much of religion, the decades after the Chinese Civil War saw the closing of the temple. At least, it was declared a national monument, put under the protection of then-premier Zhou Enlai during the Cultural Revolution, and thus not destroyed.
With the period of Reform and Opening-Up, not only the economy was revived, the temple was also reopened to the public (in 1981). It has become a new home of Buddhist activity in China and a major tourist attraction.
Its history as a place visited by Western tourists (and “tourists”) is a peculiar one, fit for – and getting – a post of its own.
The plan of the Yonghegong is quite interesting since it is that of a Chinese palace, but fits a prototypical Chinese temple layout very well.
The main axis runs North-South, with the entrance in the South.
Before the usual area with drum and bell towers, in front of a Tianwang (“Heavenly King”) Hall, Yonghegong first has a square enclosed by threepailou gates.
These lie at the west (now the entrance to that area), east (in the direction of Bailin Si), and north (into the temple); the gate and screen that formed the palace/temple entrance in the south have been removed.
This now serves as a parking spot and gathering place where the entrance tickets are also sold.
From the pailou now serving as entrance (and ticket check), a path covered by gingko trees leads up to the Zhaotai Gate, through which one enters that area before Tianwang Hall.
A series of halls and pavilions along the axis of the structure, with further halls on the side, extends north, deeper into the temple.
Prominent among them is, first of all, the Falun Tower, the hall where the resident monks recite sutras.
The Buddha in the middle of this hall is said to have been built in the 1920s, paid for by donations; it actually depicts not a Buddha, but Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa sect.
Far back, almost (but not quite) at the northern end of the temple, are Wanfu, Yongkang, and Yansui Tower.
The whole of the Wanfu Tower, connected as it is with the adjoining Yongkang and Yansui Towers by second-floor corridors, is one of the peculiar and popular sights of the Yonghegong.
They make for quite an interesting (and picturesque) ensemble – and then there are also the sights within.
(I like to point that out in particular as there is an old photo of ‘visitors’ to the temple, taken where many modern tourists also take photos, that I used in a photo project that led me into the research about the Buddhist Temples of Beijing.)
The Sights of Yonghegong
The major claim to fame of the Yonghegong is the gigantic standing Maitreya Buddha statue in its Wanfu Pavilion (or Tower).
The Buddha was carved from a single piece of sandalwood that the seventh Dalai Lama had bought in Nepal and presented to the Qianlong Emperor.
The statue is 18 meters tall and 8 meters wide, the story goes that the Wanfu Tower was built explicitly to house this statue… and it sure looks the part when one stands at the statue’s feet and looks up.
It truly is massive.
There are many more smaller Buddha, bodhisattva, etc. statues to be seen. I particularly recommend the ones in the side halls, which show a nice diversity of styles; there are none to single out, though.
Interestingly, the main other object of/to note seems to be the bronze “lantern” of an incense burner towards the first part of the Yonghegong.
It is said to be the largest of its kind in the city, and it used to be popular to try and get a coin, thrown towards it, to come to rest on it.
That should have signified good luck for the thrower… but it looks like it may have been forbidden a while back. On early visits of mine, there were coins all over and around it; on later ones, they were all cleaned of.
The Uses of Yonghegong
Yonghegong, like many of the (Buddhist) temples in Beijing, currently has a kind of dual use.
It still functions as a temple, monks, supplicants, laypeople and all. It is also widely visited by tourists and sightseers.
Often enough, the two are the same… One of my favorite scenes to remember is still how I was wondering about taking pictures of the standing giant Maitreya, as there are “No Photo” signs posted there – only to see a visiting South Asian monk pull out his smartphone to snap a photo.
On the Chinese New Year’s Day (ChuYi), the lines of visitors entering to pray for good luck goes, literally, around the block. A block which is miles long.
For regular visits, there can be quite the lines at the entrance ticket booths, but the wait is usually not too bad.
For some insight into religion in current China, in all its diversity, and with traditional/restored architecture, a visit is highly recommended.
More can be found, though…