Chinese New Year's at the True North Shaolin Temple: Rebuilding the Northern Shaolin: Part IV
by Gregory Brundage
The first two reports on the rebuilding of the Northern Shaolin Temple were published in Kung Fu Tai Chi's 2010 September/October issue and the Shaolin Special 2005. In those, author Gregory Brundage described how the Northern Shaolin Temple was destroyed along with 70 of the 71 other temples on Pan Mountain during the "War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression" during the 1940s. Only one large white pagoda survived the terrible onslaught at the Northern Shaolin. The Songshan Shaolin Shaolin and Tianjin City have announced commitments to spend around two billion Yuan (RMB the Chinese currency) to rebuild the temple. Unfortunately however, for a variety of reasons in June of 2010, the construction was halted. For details, see the third report, which was published here on KungFuMagazine.com: Rebuilding the Northern Shaolin: Part 3. For Chinese New Year 2012, nine months since his last visit, Gregory Brundage offers us a fresh report, pregnant with hope that progress had taken place in his absence..
January 22nd, 2011 was no ordinary day in China. It was the Chinese Lunar New Year's Eve; and it was no ordinary New Year's Eve either, because it was heralding in the Chinese year of 4,710 - year of the Water Dragon. Dragons hold a special place in the pantheon of Chinese martial art mythology and history. For example it says in "Three Kingdoms" in reference to the incomparable hero Xuande:
"Seasoned plans and master moves; all divinely done. To one mighty dragon two tigers can't compare. At his first trial what victories were won! Poor orphan boy? The realm is his to share."
Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong, translated by Moss Roberts. Published by Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, Berkeley Los Angeles Oxford, Sixth Printing, 2011 p. 15.
New Years in China, also known as the "Spring Festival" is by far the biggest of all holidays in China. Dragon and Lion Dances, fireworks and family gatherings are happening everywhere on New Year Eve and Day. The holiday officially ends on Lantern Festival, the 15th day of the Lunar New Year.
So where I wondered for about one whole hot second, should I - the intrepid martial arts explorer - experience this wonderful event? There was only one answer: The true Northern Shaolin Temple.
I loaded up the car with fireworks and Maotai (a strong, colorless liquor of China distilled from sorghum and resembling vodka but usually of higher proof. Not for me of course, but as gifts.), cameras, notepads, snacks, an electronic dictionary, passport and so on, and headed towards Panshan (Pan mountain) in Jixian near Tianjin city. Before leaving I made a reservation at the small picturesque Xin Nong guesthouse hotel perched on the mountain near the site of the destroyed temple. Greeted at the hotel door by Mr. Wei Guoxin, the proprietor and his lovely wife, daughter and father, I was delighted to feel right at home again. Shortly thereafter I met other visitors which included a couple of small families that also decided to spend New Year's Eve at home away from home. We all then proceeded to eat a scrumptious feast that included beef, mutton, mountains of hot freshly steamed jiaozi (steamed dumplings in this case made with beef and vegetables, traditionally served on New Year's Holiday), and lots, lots more.
After that, a friend that lives in Panshan who I'd called ahead of time, showed up. We walked up to the sacred remains of the world renowned Northern Shaolin Temple. I was more than a little disappointed to find that nothing had changed since my last visit. But, I was happy. The sun shone brightly and I was there with a friend who knew the famed tower, trails around it and local people.
Whereas before I'd always admired Rogue Tower from a distance, this time we walked right up to the ancient surviving pagoda tower. We walked up an ancient stone stairway on the back of the tower, then along a very narrow shelf line around the outside, and stepped, with awe and reverence, and very, very carefully - inside.
Electricity danced along my skin, playing harmonies of flute and hide covered drums throughout my entire nervous system, while an endless series of gongs seemed to reverberate along my bones. Incense drifted through the air, or was it just my imagination? Could this be real? It seemed a dream. The qi of the place roared in waves. 'Is Satori something like this?' my puny ego asked itself. Or was it just imagination? Ha! How much history has this temple really seen?
Dates regarding its construction vary considerably. The Official Shaolin site says it was originally build in the Wei or Jin Dynasty around the second or third Century AD, and it is the earliest Buddhist temple in Tianjin and the annals of Jixian County. Then, the venerable master Fuyu (1201 - 1275) built five sub-temples of Shaolin incorporating the already existing temple on Panshan, however only this one was officially given the title: "Shaolin." ( See Shaolin Temple's statement on their official website here.) Thus, this temple has seen at least one thousand, seven hundred years of history, of which some 737 years were under the discipline of Shaolin Chan (Zen) Buddhism.
One might wonder how Buddhists celebrate the New Year, and indeed the next day - New Year's Day - I visited one of only two Buddhist temples in the neighborhood to survive the wars, to find out. After pausing for an indeterminate amount of time, and then taking some pictures, we walked down the mountain and drove to Baitasi (White Tower Temple) a branch of Songshan Shaolin Temple also on Panshan. The monks I had met there before had left and instead I met Shifu Shi Yandong, newly appointed abbot of the monastery. We chatted briefly while he worked on New Years' preparations. "Can foreigners come here and stay for a while?" I asked. "Yes," replied Shifu Yandong. "How much would it cost for one night?" I inquired. "There is no charge," he replied softly as if such a thing were obvious. Epiphany time again. Before leaving I kicked around their monstrously heavy, heavy bag, and then headed back to the guesthouse hotel for dinner.
At the hotel I helped the mother and grandmother of the house make jiaozi. Mine were a little less than perfect (okay, they looked darn strange). Around 7:00 people the whole family gathered for the evening meal and toasted the New Year. Then, all retired for a nap so as to be fresh for the midnight festivities. As for me, I set my alarm for 10:30 to climb up the mountain above the Shaolin's white tower pagoda, to get photos from behind it of "Zhuan Wa Yao" Village's fireworks at the foot of the mountain.
A little before 11:00 pm, I set out on my adventure, after explaining my intentions to Mr. Wei's daughter. She tried mightily to talk me out of it, but I was not about to be dissuaded. It probably sounded crazy to her, and she thought getting a good photo like I drew on paper for her was impossible. But, finally when she realized I wasn't going to change my mind she said: "Good luck!" in Chinese. I felt a bit bad, because I wanted to share the midnight moment with my new friends, but I was a martial-art-maniac-photographer on a mission of supreme importance. I was going to be the one, the only one to get photos of fireworks from behind the Northern Shaolin Pagoda at exactly midnight on New Year's Eve of the Year of the Dragon, in the year of 4710!
It was a crystal clear moonless night with a million stars above, the kind of stars one can only see in the countryside or out at sea. The temperature was about 18 below zero, but fortunately there was not much of a wind. I've been to this site four times before and thought I knew my way around, but getting up on the mountain above and behind the temple was new. There was no clear path that I could find and I had to climb the mountain with its huge boulders and deep piles of last fall's leaves, off trail. I'm sure there was a path. I just couldn't find it in the frozen darkness.
Finally I found some huge solid rocks in just the right position. Zhuan Wa Yao village was clearly and directly behind the ancient Pagoda. My watch had stopped at 8:18 for some reason and I had to rely on my mobile phone clock for the last 10 minutes. I had no time to waste. I kept receiving Happy New Year text messages but I ignored them. I set up my tripod, double checked the battery, made test shots with the camera at different settings, and waited.
When the moment came the lower part of the sky behind the pagoda lit up with a million colors exploding simultaneously. My phone rang, "Happy New Years Shi Long" I heard faintly... "Uh can I call you back in a few minutes?"
Click, click went the camera.
The still of the night ebbed and receded, as the revelers returned to their warm homes and a blanket of quiet reclaimed the earth. Too soon it was time to get down the mountain from this high rock. There was a trail I could see with my tiny flashlight, for about 15 meters before it disappeared over some rocks that seemed to be a cliff of some sort.
To make a long story short, about an hour and a half later I emerged onto a country road. It was like any country road anywhere, but I had my trusty GPS so I didn't feel totally lost. On one hand it didn't have any of the nearby roads for some reason, but generally did point the way. Had I been a bird the return to the hotel would have been easy, but instead it was another adventure. Strangely I wasn't cold or tired in the least, but rather exhilarated and enjoyed the stroll under the brilliant stars scattered like a million diamonds across the sky.
A small dirt road leading up off the winding old country road proved to be the wrong one, though my GPS said it was right. Then, the GPS shifted and directed me up a hill across a gorge, off-trail again. Having spent a significant amount of my childhood and teen years wandering mountains in the United States and Europe, in winters and summers, I felt perfectly fine plunging back into the forests and leaves, down one hill and up another.
Then I heard a human voice. It was Mr. Wei outside his hotel, probably worried about me. What a kind fellow! Though I had enormously enjoyed my midnight adventure, it was also ever-so-nice to return to civilization and a warm home, guided the last 50 meters by a caring friend.
Sleep came easily that night!
The next morning I had an appointment to go to Dulesi (pronounced: Dul-la-seu") Temple in Zhuan Wa Yao Village, as they were having a "Miao Hui," or traditional festival. Getting there wasn't so easy, because most of the roads again weren't on my GPS as many were quite new. The village had defiantly been undergoing a lot of reconstruction too, more so than the Shaolin! But, I stopped and asked a few people who were always friendly and willing to point the way, happily explaining in rapid-fire Chinese, of which I could only understand half at best.
Dulesi is famous for having the lofty and sublime Guanyin Pavilion, 23 meters in height, the oldest multi-story timber structure in China which shelters the 16.8 meter clay sculpture of the 11 heads Goddess Guanyin. Li Bai himself, one of most brilliant and talented poets of the Tang Dynasty, inscribed the wooden board with: "Eternity attained." After taking another bazillion photos and making more than a dozen new friends I hiked back to the car, only to make more friends along the way, some of whom gave me a traditional (non-alcoholic, natural, traditional and blissfully hot!) drink of some kind.
Then, I drove off - north, far north to another city: Zhongjiakou and other adventures. But, nothing in my life so far can compare to the family atmosphere at Xin Nong guesthouse, my short time at Baitesi (Shaolin) Temple and the kindly generous abbot Shi Yandong, New Year's Eve, year of the dragon at North Shaolin Temple and the festive atmosphere at Dulesi Temple. The warmth of all these people and the richness of the textures of their lives and varied cultures will live with me always. On the outside, I dare say some of them were poor, but their inner lives glow with the pearl of wisdom eternally sought after by that most ubiquitous of all creatures, the mighty dragon.
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About Gregory Brundage:
As a boy going to schools in different countries, Gregory Brundage had to fight a lot. At age 12 he started judo, and after that wushu. Since then he's fought in more than 300 martial arts tournaments. He's worked at a variety of jobs, ranging from farming and construction work to university lecturer. He is currently a teacher in Beijing.