Art China Gansu Tibet

The Great Monlam at Labrang

tiger in the crowd at hoincang


the masked procession

I’ve spent the last month holed up in a house outside of Labrang monastery, Tibet, studying Amdo-dialect, huddling by the stove, and feeding two cats. The house belongs to a Canadian woman named Tenzin Dolma and her husband Choejor, from Ngawa. Tenzin Dolma spent ten years at the Gomang Dratsang in Karnataka and now runs a thangka painting school here in Labrang. She has gone back to Canada for a little during the Tibetan New Years, and I am cat-sitting.

One of the big events of the Great Monlam (smon lam chen po) prayer festival at Labrang is the unveiling of the butter offerings (me tog mchod pa) in front of the main assembly hall of the monastery. Each of these offerings is presented by one of the six monastic colleges (grwa tshang), and the contents of the offering represent the specialty of that college. The offerings are traditionally viewed at night; starting at six in the evening and continuing into the early hours of the morning, a massive line of pilgrims snakes around Labrang monastery. Many pilgrims will wait four or five hours for the chance to process beneath the butter sculptures and make a quick obesience before being pushed onward.

So I took pictures of them all (you can get into the square behind without waiting in line) and then ran them all by my Tibetan teacher, a monk named Lobsang Choedrak, to find out who everyone in the sculptures was. This type of thing is useful for me to do, since my Tibetan is terrible and I often don’t know the Tibetan names or iconographies of even the most basic deities. The placement of the offerings is also interestingly symbolic of the intellectual ordering of the Tibetan sciences. In the center, directly in front of the gates of the hall, are two offerings representing the college of philosophy (thos bsam gling). Flanking this on either side are the upper and lower schools (rgyud stod smad), and on the outside, physically and intellectually, are the offerings of the Medicine College (sman pa grwa tshang) and the Kalachakra College (dus ‘khor grwa tshang). A recurring figure is the various incarnations of the Kunkhyen Lama (kun mkhyen rin po che; the Treasury of Lives refers to this line as the Jamyang Zheba), which is the main line of trulkus at Labrang monastery. I’ve got a lot of help from wikipedia, the Treasury of Lives biographical database, and obviously my teacher, Lobsang Choedrak. Here they are:

metok front


1) The College of the Wheel of Time:

(dus ‘khor grwa tshang): This college specializes in Kalachakra and astrology. It is famous for having designed the calendar now in use in this part of Amdo.

dus 'khor

rigs rdan drag po

rigs ldan drag po detail

Lower: Kalki Raudra (rigs ldan drag po), the “Fierce Destroyer” in Sanskrit, or in Tibetan, the “Fierce Holder of the Lineages”. The legendary twenty-fifth and last ruler of Shambhala who will ride out to destroy the infidels at the end of the world.

kun mkhyen gnyis pa

Upper: The second Kunkhyen, Jigme Wangbo (kun mkhyen sku phreng gnyis pa ‘jigs med dbang bo).


2) The Upper Tantric College:

(rgyud stod grwa tshang).

rgyud stod grwa tshang

jo'i sku

Lower: The Buddha Sakyamuni, aged twelve, seated on a lotus (lo mju gnyis na tshod can gyi jo bo rin po che’i sku) This image is a copy of the one that sits in the Jokhang Temple at the center of Lhasa.

kun mkhyen lnga wa

Middle: The fifth Kunkhyen Lama, Tanpa’i Gyaltsen (kun mkhyen sku phreng lnga ba bstan pa’i rgyal mtshan), flanked by Chinese-style dragons. This Kunkhyen was the one who established the Upper Tantric school in 1941.

tshe dpag med

Upper: Amitayus (tshe dpag med), the Buddha of Infinite Longevity. This is an obscure form of Amitabha (od dpag med), the Buddha of Infinite Light and the ruler of the Western Pure-Land Sukhavati (bde wa can).


3) Hevajra College:

(kyai [kyee] rdor grwa tshang). Hevajra is a tantric Yidam.

kyai rdor grwa tshang

tsi dmar chos sku detail

tsi dmar chos sku

Lower: The Red Pith (tsi’u dmar po), the Dharma-Defender of Samye Monastery. Also known as Nochin Chenpo (gnod sbyin chen po), “The Great Demon”. This deity is obscure; there’s a Florida State University PhD dissertation by Christopher Paul Bell on the topic.

kun mkhyen bzhi wa

Middle: The Fourth Kunkhyen, Tharto Gyatso (kun mkhyen sku phreng bzhi wa thar ‘dod rgya mtsho). The fourth Kunkhyen established the Hevajra college in 1879.

mgon po he ru ka

Upper: Tromgon Heruka, the Protector of the Trom Clan, Drinker of Blood (‘brom mgon he ru ka). I’ve not been able to find out any information about this deity.


4) The Academy of Study and Reflection: (1) (thos bsam gling).

The Academy of Study and Reflection is the central, oldest, and largest college of Labrang monastery. Thus instead of one butter sculpture it has two, placed directly in front of the assembly hall doors. The college specializes in the study of philosophy and debating.

thos bsam gling 1

kun mkhyen tang po

Lower: Je Tsongkhapa (rje tsong kha pa), the founder of the Gelug sect, seated in a palace. Seated beneath him are two of his main disciples, on the left Gyeltsabje (rgyal tshab rje) and on the right Khedrubje (mkhas grub rje). Beneath him is Mahakala (mgon po), the principle protector of the Gelug sect, and around him four Indian masters. Together with the four represented on the second sculpture of the Academy of Study and Reflection, they reflect the “Six Ornaments and Two Supreme Ones” (rgyan drug mchok gnyis). Clockwise from the upper left, they are: Nagarjuna (glu sgrub), Vasubandhu (dbyig gnyen), Asanga (thogs med), and Shakyaprabha (Sha’ kya ‘od)

'jam dbyangs dmar ser

Middle: Red-Yellow Manjushri (‘jam dbyang dmar ser). Seated on a lotus throne holding up a sword to cut through ignorance; on his right is the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra floating on a lotus.

sdon pa sakyamuni

Upper: The Buddha Sakyamuni (ston pa / sha kya thub pa)


5) The Academy of Study and Reflection (2) (thos bsam gling):



Lower: The First Kunkhyen Lama or Jamyang Zheba  (kun mkhyen tang po or ‘jam dbyangs bzhad pa). The first Kunkhyen Lama was a Gelug monk who founded Labrang monastery in 1708 or 1709. There is a legend which states that when he arrived in Lhasa for the first time in 1668, he presented a white scarf to the statue of Manjushri in the Jokhang temple. The statue smiled at him, and hence his name: “Jamyang Sheba” “He upon who Manjushri smiled”. Underneath him is the oracular protective spirit Nechung (gnas chung), also called Dorje Drakden and Pehar Gyalpo. Around him is a lineage of early Indian masters. Together with the four represented on the first sculpture of the Academy of Study and Reflection, they reflect the “Six Ornaments and Two Supreme Ones” (rgyan drug mchok gnyis). Clockwise from the upper left, they are: Dharmakirti (chos grags pa), Dignana (phyogs glang), Aryaveda (‘phags pa lha), and Gunaprabha (yon tan ‘od).


Middle: White Manjushri (‘jam dbyangs dkar po).


Upper: Amitayus, the Buddha of Infinite Life (tshe dpag med).


6) The Lower Tantric College (rgyud smad grwa tshang)

rgyud smad grwa tshang

'jam dbyangs bzhad pa sku brang tang po

Lower: Je Sherab Sengge (rje shes rab seng+ge). Sherab Sengge was a disciple of Tsongkhapa, who in 1433 founded the Geluk sect’s first tantric college in Lhasa. After a second one was founded in 1475, this became known as the “lower” (sman) college.

rgyal ba rdo rje 'tshang

Upper: King Vajradhara (rgyal ba rdo rje ‘chang), the “Thunderbolt-Bearer.” Vajradhara is the ultimate primordial Buddha in the Geluk and Nyingma sects.


7) The Medicine College: (sman pa grwa tshang)

sman pa grwa tshang

gtsang rgan ye shes bzang bo

Tsangmen Yeshe Zangbo (gtsang sman ye shes bzang bo), who doesn’t appear in the Treasury of Lives that I can find, but according to my monkish informants was an old teacher in the Medicine College.

kun mkhyen gsum ba

Middle: The Third Kunkhyen, Jigme Gyatso (kun mkhyen sku phreng gsum pa ‘jigs med rgya mtsho). I’m not sure if this Kunkhyen had any particular relationship to the medicine college or not; it’s not mentioned in his Treasury of Lives article.

sman lha

Upper: The Medicine Buddha, Bhaisajyaguru (sman lha or sangs rgyas sman bla). He sits cross-legged, holding a jar of medicine.

So that’s that. Just for fun, here’s the rest of the pictures I took during the Cham dances and processions after. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t take pictures of this stuff but the scene was too wild and strange to pass up…

the procession moving through the monastery (3)

monks walking with drums (1)

on a back street in Labrang

soldiers lining the procession way out of the main square (1)


Art China Hebei Translation Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

The Old Gentleman’s Eighty-One Transformations (pt.1)


The Great High Old Gentleman approaches the Han Pass. He is carried in an cart driven by a blue ox and accompanied by his disciple Xu Jia and one other. Meeting him with offerings is the guardian of the pass, Yin Xi.000huahu

The Great High Old Gentleman, surrounded by a heavenly host, receives supplication.

I originally met the Daoist master Liu Zhenzi while in police custody. This was during my first trip to Yu County. I’d tried to stay in a hotel in Warm-Springs township, only to have a police corporal show up and tell me politely that I couldn’t, these hotels were not permitted to accept foreigners, I would have to return to the county seat. “I don’t want to,”I told him. “This is the law,” he said. “I’ll pitch a tent on the street,” I countered, bluffing.  A lot of phone calls went back and forth between him and the police headquarters. “You can stay one night.” Two nights later a man came knocking at my door as I was about to sleep. He was a swarthy fellow with bulging cheeks and long front teeth that gave him a canny, beaverish look. “I want to take you for a ride,” he said. I told him, “fuck off,” and slammed the door. The next morning I awoke to him knocking. “I want to take you for a ride,” he repeated. I stormed out and went to the owner of the hotel, a friendly lady with a perm. “Who is this asshole?” I asked her. “Oh that’s Mr. Feng,” she told me. “He’s the chief of police for our town.”

Mr. Feng drove me up to the Daoist monastery that sits in the upper part of Warm-Springs Township, on a spur of land beneath the mud walls of the Northern Officials Fort. From the ceiling of the Daoist master’s living quarters hung long paper streamers like wintry jellyfish. The Daoist makes them for officiating at funerals, where he burns them on the grave. If you examine the streamers closely you will find that each long paper strand had been delicately cut with the repeated figure of a dead man, his mouth slightly opened in an expression of surprise and his sharp white fingers clasped across his breast. On the wall are hung calligraphic scrolls of nonsense characters.

The Daoist’s name is Liu Zhenzi 劉真子, “Liu the True Master”. He is a little man with bad teeth and a scraggly beard who obviously takes his job seriously, and dresses the part. He read my fortune by pulling bamboo slips from a jar (抽籤) and then led me and Mr. Feng up into the courtyard of the temple. The temple is called the Monastery of the Old Gentleman (老君觀). In the front there’s pavilions for bells and drums, beyond this a Hall of the Three Purities (三清殿) and behind that another Hall of the True Warrior (真武殿). In the courtyard between the two halls there stands a tree hung with red votive scraps of cloth, and a little plaque affirming that the tree is over 800 years old. Inside on the walls of the Hall of the Three Purities there are murals depicting a story called the Old Gentleman’s Eight-One Transformations (老君八十一化). Liu Zhenzi led me in and gestured at the drawings: here the Old Master arose from the primordial chaos and split into two, and then into three, and then cut open the world and separated sky and earth and sea, taught men the hundred trades and then departed through the Han pass to the west to convert the barbarians… After this Mr. Feng and I went out again and drove off to get drunk with some of his coal mining friends, and eat horse hoofs and camel ears.

A few weeks ago out of curiosity I printed out a block-print text of the Eighty One Transformations story, which was appended at the back of a monograph by Florian C. Reiter called “Leben und Wirken Lao-Tzu’s in Schrift und Bild: Lao-chûn pa-shih-i hua t’u-shuo”. This I had shameless scanned. The exact date of this text seems hard to know; this little summary on the website of the Australian National University where the text is held suggests that it dates from the Yuan or early Ming. This seems dubious to me; Hu Chuntao (胡春濤) on much better evidence puts the date of the text’s printing somewhere between the Kangxi and Qianlong reigns of the Qing (1661-1799). (It should be noted here that the following discussion is going to depend heavily on two very good things by Hu, his PhD thesis from the Xi’an Arts Academy 西安美術學院 “Researches on the Illustrated Old Gentleman’s Eighty-One Transformations” “老君八十一化圖研究” and an article “A Survey of the Frescoes in the Hall of the Three Purities in the Old Gentleman Monastery, Warm-Springs Township, Yu County, Hebei, and Researches into Related Questions” “河北蔚縣暖泉鎮老君觀三清殿壁畫的考察與相關問題的研究”. The electronic text of the scripture below was got from the comparative lists in his thesis, which was immensely helpful.)

Anyways I printed this book out and brought it over to Liu Zhenzi at the Old Gentleman Monastery. He was delighted, leaped up out of his study, and we zoomed right into the Hall of the Three Purities where he began to go through the whole story again, comparing the book against the images on the wall. I will regret to my dying day that I didn’t think to film this, but I did scratch down some notes at the time and then filled them out from memory that afternoon, so I’ve tried to reproduce below his literally off-the-wall commentary as best I can. I’ve translated the first thirty-four scenes of the story, which can be divided into roughly three sections:

(1) The Cosmogenesis, in which Laozi percolates out of the primordial chaos, splits apart heaven and earth, invents writing, agriculture, fire, and morality, and teaches them to humans.
(2) Passing out of China and into the west, in which Laozi arrives at the Han Pass, casts off his previous disciple Xu Jia as unworthy, obtains a new one in the guardian of the pass, Yin Xi, and teaches the Dao De Jing.
(4) Converting the Barbarian Kings, in which Laozi practices a series of miracles to impress the king of a Central Asian country called Kophen, and eventually founds Buddhism.

The remaining forty seven transformations after this mostly recount various stories of Daoist miracle working, and are not as interesting. Liu Zhenzi’s commentary is in italics, while my occasional notes are in brackets. There’s going to be a second part of this coming that compares the style of this book to the frescoes in Liu Zhenzi’s monastery, and discusses some related pictorial traditions around Yu County. I’ve translated 道 Dao as “Way”, 氣 Qi as “Energy”, and Jing 精 as “Essence”.




1) 起无始。太上老君生乎无始,起乎无因,为万物之先,元气之祖。鸿洞溟涬于光,众声色微始之中,自然而生。
Arising from the Beginningless: The Great High Old Gentleman arises from the beginningless and is born from the causeless. Of all the Ways he is the first, and he is the ancestor of the original Energy. In the vast, empty, primordial chaos, where there are no lights, forms, sounds, or colors, amidst the fine and delicate he is naturally born.

2) 显真身。太上于太空之中,结气凝真强为之容,或示仙姿,爰及肉身,不可揣度,自然周遍成象。
Revealing the True Body: Amidst the Great Emptiness, the Great High Old Gentleman gathers his Energy, congeals that which is true and strong for his appearance, and displays his immortal face. He changes into a body of flesh, the degree of which is unfathomable, and naturally gains a complete form.


3) 尊宗室。太上老君欲阐明大教而化万方曰:道不可无师,尊教不可无宗主。故老君师大道,君师元始天尊。
The Honored Lineage: The Great High Old Gentleman desires to open and illuminate the great Teaching and transform all within the ten thousand directions. He says, “The Way cannot be without honored masters! The Teaching cannot be without its lineage heads!” Therefore the master Old Gentleman,the master Great Way, and the heavenly worthy Primordial Beginning came into being.

Liu Zhenzi: “This of course is from the Dao De Jing. ‘One gives birth to Two, Two gives birth to Three, and Three gives birth to all of the myriad things,’ from the forty-second section. This is like how you Americans have a trinity in Catholicism. Both Catholicism and Daoism teach the same Way although obviously Daoism appeared much early than Catholicism. The appearance of the Great High Old Gentleman can be affirmatively dated to roughly eight thousand years ago and this is the original foundation of Chinese history. Usually Chinese history is quoted as being five thousand years old but in fact it is eight, dated from the beginning of the world. How old is America? Washington united America during the war of North and South. China of course is older.”


4) 历劫运。劫为天地成怀之名,阴阳穷尽之数,天气极于太阳,阳极则孛精化而为水,地气极于太阴,阴极则孛精化而为火,火焚水漂三清之下,九地之内,毫末无为流为五劫,起一伏周而还始。太上老君经此离合之数,动经亿劫。
Giving Calendar to the Motion of the Eras: A kalpa is the name for Heaven and Earth coming into being and then passing away, and the number of years it takes for Yin and Yang to be exhausted and used up. The Breath of Heaven reaches its utmost in the sun, the Great Yang. When Yang reaches its limit it overflows and the essence becomes that of water. The Breath of the Earth reaches its utmost in the moon, the Great Yin. When Yin reaches its limit it becomes bare, and the essence becomes that of fire. Fire burns and water swirls. Beneath the Three Pure Ones and within the Nine Lands, there is nothing whatsoever that does not flow for five kalpas and then, having made a great circle, return once again to the beginning. The Great High Old Gentleman governs the numbers of these partings and rejoinings, and controls and sets in motion a hundred million kalpas.

Liu Zhenzi: “Here you can see we’re getting to the part where ‘Three produces all of the myriad things.’ The separation of heaven and earth is the separation of Yin and Yang, male and female, north and south, etc. etc.”


5) 开天地。天地有形之大者,然有形生于无形,故能开辟天地者无形也。无形者道也,太上老君乃混沌之祖宗,天地之父母,故能分布清浊,开辟天地乾坤之位也。
Separating Heaven and Earth: In Heaven and Earth, those things which have form are large. Form springs from not-form: therefore that which is able to split apart Heaven and Earth is not-form, and not-form is the Way. The Great High Old Gentleman is the ancestor of the primordial chaos and the father and mother of Heaven and Earth. Therefore he is able to separate out the clear and the muddy, and split open the positions of sky and ground, Heaven and Earth.

Liu Zhenzi: “Here you can see the nine suns that once orbited the earth. No they’re not houses, they are suns, nine of them to be exact. When the earth was created there were nine suns not one, and thus there was never any night. The Lord Archer Hou Yi shot them down out of the sky at the beginning of things, and now we have only one sun, which is more scientifically suitable to growing plants and the process of the water cycle.”


6) 隐玄灵。老君于庚寅岁九月三日託郁卑天北玄王国,天罡灵境山李谷之间,玄灵圣母之胎。
The Concealing the Dark Spirit: On the third day of the ninth month of the Geng Yan year, in the Valley of Pears on the Mountain of the Heavenly Dipper Spirit Mirror, in Northern Dark Kingdom of the Tuoyubei Heaven, the Great High Old Gentleman enters into the womb of the Dark Spirit Saintly Mother.


7) 受玉图。太上老君于上皇元年出游行往西河遇元始天尊乘八景玉舆,老君稽首问曰:昔蒙训授天书玉字二十四图,今遇天尊愿垂成就。于是以洞玄内观玉符授老君。老君行三部八景并见天书玉字二十四图。
Receiving the Jade Images: In the first year of the Emperor on High, the Great High Old Gentleman goes out travelling on the Western River. Here he meets the heavenly worthy Primordial Beginning riding on an Eight-Resplendent Jade Palanquin. The Old Gentleman bows his head down to the ground and says, “Long have I humbly hoped to receive teachings from the Heavenly Book of Jade Characters with Twenty Four Pictures. Today I have met your heavenly worthiness, I hope that I may achieve this wish.” Thereupon the heavenly worthy grants Old Gentleman the jade marks of the dark and profound inner gaze. The Old Gentleman practices the teachings of the Three Bodily Areas and the Eight Resplendencies and is able to see the Heavenly Book of Jade Characters with Twenty Four Pictures.


8) 变真文。太上老君以龙汉元年于中央大福堂国南极赤明国东极浮黎国西邪王国北方郁卑国。太上以五方真炁之精结成宝字大方一丈八角垂芒为云叶之行,成飞走之状。
Transforming the True Literature: In the first year of the Dragon-Hero reign, the Great High Old Gentleman is in country of Yubei. This is located south of the Central Great Prosperity Hall Country, east of the Southern Pole Red Brilliance Country, west of the Eastern Pole Fuli Country, and north of the Evil King Country. The Great High by means of essence of the five-directional true Energy gathers together and creates precious characters. They are as large as a foot on each side and octagonal. The characters are resplendant and move as do tendrils of cloud. They assume the appearance of flying birds and walking beasts.


9) 垂经教。太上老君于中皇元年命青童君考校天文,为宝经三百卷,符图七千章,玉诀九千篇,又于龙汉元年著洞元经十二部,赤明元年降洞玄经十二部,开皇元年出洞神经十二部。
Handing Down the Scriptures and Teachings: In the first year of the Middle Emperor the Great High Old Gentleman orders the Blue Youth Gentleman to examine the writings of heaven, and to create a Treasured Classic in three hundred scrolls, seven thousand chapters of orders and images, and nine thousand rhyming formulae. And again in the first year of Dragon-Hero reign he writes the Profound Primordial Scripture in twelve sections. In the first year of the Red-Brilliance reign he hands down the Profound Dark Scripture in twelve sections. In the first year of the Opening Emperor’s reign he releases the Profound Spirit Scripture in twelve parts. [All of the scriptures mentioned above appear in the Daoist Canon 道藏, – ht]

Liu Zhenzi: There is an important question which we ask ourselves in Chinese culture. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In Daoism we know that the egg came first. The egg congealed out of the primordial breath and was nurtured by the light of the sun and stirring of warm vapors. Out of it hatched a snake with the head of a woman. Her name was Nvwa and she is not pictured here, which is incorrect.”


10) 传五公。中皇之后,太上老君昔于河上传十三虚无圣人行于五公术。
Transmitting the Arts of the Five Lords: After the reign of the Middle Emperor, the Great High Old Gentleman travels upon the Yellow River, trasmitting the practice of the arts of the Five Lords to the Thirteen Sages of Emptiness.

Liu Zhenzi: “The Five Lords refers to the Five Phases or Elements. The number five is extremely important in the world, and allows us to see how all of the myriad things are connected. Humans have five fingers and five toes, as well as five principal sense and five principal orifices. There are five major organs in the body, five principal grains, and there are five directions in the world, being north, south, east, west, and center. Indeed at the beginning of things after Nvwa made humans out of clay the people of the world were divided into these directions, and they later became the various races. Thus we Chinese belong to the Yellow race and the Filipinos are Blue. You Americans belong the White race, the Europeans are black, and the South Africans are red. All things are connected.”


11) 讃元阳。太上老君在伏羲时,为人仆将散以清浊元年号郁华子,说元阳经。伏羲行之以画八卦,造书契,观象取法,则制嫁娶,叙人伦。
Praising the Primordial Yang: During the time of Fu Xi, the Great High Old Gentleman discourses simply to the people on the separating of pure and muddy. [Note, I’m pretty sure the text is corrupt in some way here. This is a guess. – ht] In the first year he is called the Master of Abundant Splendor, and he speaks the Scripture of the Primordial Yang. Fu Xi practices this. He is able to draw the Eight Trigrams, and create characters for writing. He contemplates the images of the trigrams and uses this as his laws. Thus he is able to regulate the marriages of men and women, and teach the proper relations between humans.

Liu Zhenzi: “The Eight Trigrams of course refers to the Classic of Changes which you must be aware of. Do you remember the first time we met? This was when that policeman brought you here two years ago and I read your fortune by choosing sticks from a can. You received ‘Riding Horses to Success’, which is very auspicious.”


12) 置陶冶。太上老君在祝融时为人食生冷,以天汉元年号广寿子,说按摩通精经,祝融行之,乃钻木出火,陶冶为器。
Erecting the Firing of Pottery: During the time of Zhu Rong, the Great High Old Gentleman acts for the people, who are eating raw and cold food. During the first year of the Heavenly Hero reign, he is called the Master of Broad Longevity. He speaks the Massaging-to-Achieve-the-Essence Scripture. Zhu Rong practices this. Thus he is able to rub sticks to create fire, and bake pottery to create utensils.

Liu Zhenzi: “After this one of you Americans developed matches and lighters. Of course that took place much later.”


13) 教稼穑。太上老君在神农之时,为世人捕食禽兽。于清汉元年号大成子,居济阴,说太乙元精经,神农行之,播百榖以代烹杀,和诸药以救疾病。
Teaching Sowing and Reaping: During the time of the Spirit-Farmer, the Great High Old Gentleman acts for the people of the world, who are catching and eating birds and beasts. In the first year of the Pure Hero reign he is called the Master of Great Achievements. He lives in North-of-the-Ford, and teaches the Great Second Primordial Essence Scripture. Spirit-Farmer practices this. He propogates the hundred grains to replace killing and boiling, and harmonizes all of the medicinal plants in order to cure plagues and sicknesses.


14) 始器用。太上老君在伏羲之后,示以世法制礼乐,造衣裳,作宫室,创舟车,置棺椁,措弧矢,立刑狱,修书契,服牛马,成杵臼,为重门以日中为市。
Beginning the Use of Tools: In the time after Fu Xi, the Great High Old Gentleman shows to the world how to give law and governance to ritual and music, how to create clothes and robes, how to erect palaces and houses, how to build boats and carts, as well as the delineation of inner and outer coffins, the making of bows and arrows, the erection of punishments and prisons, the cultivation of books and letters, the domestication of cows and horses, the use of mortars and pestles, and how to hold markets at noon around the double gates (?).

Liu Zhenzi: “Here you can see rich men, poor men, temples, houses, carts, tools, food, and weapons. You Americans of course are much more adept at making weapons than we Chinese. Have you seen the old guns they used to use before you Americans brought us rifles? You couldn’t hit anything with those guns. Completely useless.”


15) 住崆峒。太上老君在黄帝时号广成子,居崆峒山,黄帝往见而问至道,曰:所问者物之质矣,足以及至道。帝退闲居三月复往邀之。膝行而问治身,曰:善哉!问乎至道之精,窈窈冥冥,至道之极,昏昏默默,无视无听,抱神以静,行将自正,帝闻之广成子之谓矣。
Residing on Kongtong: During the time of the Yellow Emperor, the Great High Old Gentleman is known as the Master of Broad Accomplishments. He lives on Kongtong Mountain. The Yellow Emperor comes to see him there and ask how to achieve the Way. The Old Gentleman says to him, “The physical quality of the one who is asking me – it is enough even to achieve the Way!” Thus the Yellow Emperor lives in seclusion for three months and then once again travels to entreat the Old Gentleman. He approaches on his knees and asks the correct way to govern the body. The Old Gentleman says, “Good! You have asked how to achieve the essence of the Way; far it is, and dark! You have asked how to achieve the utmost of the Way; obscure it is, and silent! It cannot be seen and it cannot be heard. You must recieve the spirit and become quiet, and practice self rectification.” The Yellow Emperor hears that which the Master of Broad Achievements has to say.


16) 为帝师。太玄玉女少昊时人居蜀长松山,修长生之道,感太上老君与群仙降于山左巨石之上,神光照映,玉女驰往,太上老君以八隐文授之。
Serving as the Imperial Master: In the age of Shao Hao, the Great Dark Jade Woman is a person who lives in the province of Sichuan on the Mountain of Long Pines, practicing the Way of Long Life. When she hears that the Great High Old Gentleman and a flock of immortals have risen up to a great rock on left side of the mountain and are emitting a glowing spiritual brilliance, she drives her chariot towards them. The Great High Old Gentleman grants her the Eight Hidden Texts.


17) 授隐文。太上老君在少昊顓頊帝嚳唐尧虞舜夏后殷汤时,皆有所授之經。
Granting the Hidden Texts: In the times of Shao Hao, Zhuan Xu, the Emperor Ku, Tang Yao, Shun of Yu, and after the fall of the Xia dynasty the emperor Tang of the Yin, all of these receive Scriptures from the Great High Old Gentleman.


18) 诞圣日。太上老君以殷十八王阳甲庚申岁真妙玉女昼寝,梦吞日精,化五色流珠,因而有孕,八十一年至二十二,王武丁庚辰二月十五日,圣母因攀奢树,剖左腋而生,又玄中元记所载李灵飞得修真之道,不仕其妻,尹氏昼寝梦天开数丈,见太上乘日精驾九龙而下,化五色流珠,吞之有李。
Giving Birth to the Saintly Sun: In the Geng Shen year of the reign of the eighteenth king of the Yin Dynasty, Yang Jia, the True Subtle Jade Girl takes a midday nap. She dreams that she swallows the essence of the sun, [This sounds even dirtier in Chinese than it does in English, -ht] which becomes a flowing pearl of the five colors. Thus she becomes pregnant. This lasts eighty one years, until the reign of the twenty second king, Wu Ding. On the twenty fifth day of the second month of the Geng Chen year, because the saintly mother grips onto the branch of a tree, her left armpit opens and she gives birth. Another version is given in the “Dark Middle Primordial Record”, which tells that Li Spirit-Flight is cultivating the true Way. He does not attend his wife, who is of the Yin family. While taking a midday nap, she dreams that the heavens split open a few feet, and she sees the Great High descending down to her, riding the essence of the sun and driving nine dragons. This becomes a flowing jewel of the five colors, which she swallows and becomes pregnant.


19) 为柱史。太上老君于周文王时号变邑子,居岐山,周闻之,拜守藏史,作赤精经。及周克商,拜柱下史,值璇玑经授,周公成康时复为柱下史。
Acting as the Pillar-Official: During the reign of King Wen of Zhou, the Great High Old Gentleman is known as the Master of Changing Settlements. He lives on Branched Mountain. The King of Zhou hears of this, pays him homage and gives him the title of Official of the Treasury. He teaches the Red Essence Scripture. When the house of Zhou conquers the Shang Dynasty, homage is made to the Old Gentleman and he receives the title of Official-Beneath-the-Pillar. He grants the Big Dipper Scripture. In the reign of Lord Becomes-Healthy of the Zhou, the Old Gentleman is once again made the Official-Beneath-the-Pillar.


20) 弃周爵。太上老君历周成康之世,免退归毫。昭王时见黑气祲之祥,以八天隐文授昭王,王不信,后有膠船之难。
Casting Off the Titles of Zhou: The Great High Old Gentleman passes through the era of lord Becomes-Healthy of Zhou, after which he retreats from public life and returns to the infinitessimal. In the time of King Zhao he sees a black vapor of inauspicious import. He grants the Hidden Text of the Eight Heavens to King Zhao, but the King is without faith. After this the King suffers the disaster of the glued-together boat.

[To elucidate this point we turn to Baidu Baike, which quotes Huang Fumi’s 帝王世纪 “Records of the Eras of Emperors and Kings”: “昭王德衰,南征,济于汉,船人恶之,以胶船进王,王御船至中流,胶液船解,王及祭公俱没于水中而崩” “King Zhao’s virtue had failed. He set out on an expedition to the south and needed to ford the Han river. The boatmen hated the king, and so presented him with a boat that was held together by glue. The king piloted the boat into the middle of the river’s flow, whereupon the glue liquified and the boat came apart. Thus the king and all of his officials sunk beneath the waters and perished.” – ht]


21) 过函关。太上老君□之流沙,先有紫气西度函关,周大夫尹喜为关令,见之乃斋戒以俟,后七月十二日果太上老君驾青牛车至,喜曰圣人来矣。老君曰:何以知之?喜曰:去冬天理星西行遇昂迩秋融风三至东南真炁,状如龙蛇,此真人至之念也。
Crossing Through the Han Pass: The Great High Old Gentleman [wishes to cross] the Flowing Sands. Preceding him through Han Pass comes a vermillion vapor. The guardian of the pass, Yin Xi, sees the vapor. He gives offerings, fasts, and waits. Afterwards on the twelfth day of the sevent month, the Great High Old Gentleman arrives riding on a cart driven by a blue ox. Yin Xi says, “A sage has arrived!” The Old Gentleman replies, “How do you know?” Yin Xi tells him, “Last winter a comet was seen in the heavens, traveling west on high. This fall a warm wind thrice blew from the south-east and a perfect vapor was seen, in the form of a dragon. These were the signs that a perfected being was to arrive.”


22) 试徐甲。太上老君谓弟子徐甲曰:吾欲往西域,至函谷。潜试之乃令甲牧牛,以吉祥草化一女子,行及牧牛所,甲感之,遂废约索金。太上老君曰:昔汝命尽,吾以太玄生符投之即活,言讫,符甲口中飞出,复为白骨。尹喜稽首,愿赦其罪,太上老君即以符投甲,形如故。
Testing Xu Jia: The Great High Old Gentleman says to his disciple Xu Jia, “I wish to journey into the Western Regions, and thus we have come to the Han Pass. As a secret test he orders Xu Jia to graze the ox. Then he takes auspicious herbs and transforms them into a girl. The girl goes to the place where Xu Jia is grazing the ox. Xu Jia desires her, and thus abandons his vows and seeks payment from the Old Gentleman for his years of service. The Great High Old Gentleman says, “Long ago the span of your life was finished, but you lived because into you I put the Mark of the Great Dark Life.” As soon these words have been said, the mark flies out of Xu Jia’s mouth, and immediately his body returns to whitened bones. Yin Xi bows his head down to the ground, and begs that Xu Jia’s crime be forgiven. The Great High Old Gentleman once again puts the mark back within Xu Jia, and his appearance is restored to what it was before.


23) 训尹喜。太上老君西迈遇尹喜,邀圣驾至终南。尹喜故宅,乃结草为楼,将隐。喜乞著书,太上老君乃授喜道德经五千言,大丹设节解之要。
Teaching Yin Xi: The Great High Old Gentleman goes west but he meets Yin Xi, who invites him to come to the Mountain of the Ends of the South, which was Yin Xi’s former home. Yin Xi weaves grasses together to make a tower, and invites the Old Gentleman to rest there. Yin Xi begs the Great High Old Gentleman to write a book, so the Old Gentleman grants to Yin Xi the five thousand words of the Classic of the Way and its Power. This great alchemy lays out the the necessities of regulation and release.


24) 升太微。太上老君以昭王二十六年甲寅,实录云二十四年甲寅,将欲升天,告喜曰:子午日清斋之后往城都青羊肆寻吾。言讫不见。喜即叩头告曰:愿复一见。即仰视,见太上老君坐云华之上,状若金人,与诸仙升太微。
Ascending to the Great Infinitessimal: In the twenty sixth or Jia Yin year of the reign of King Zhao, or according to the “Veritable Records” the twenty fourth year, the Great High Old Gentleman decides that he is going to ascend to heaven. He tells Yin Xi, “After making a pure offering at noon, search for me leading a blue sheep in the market of Chengdu.” After the Old Gentleman speaks this suddenly he is no longer to be seen. Yin Xi knocks his head against the floor and says, “Please grant that I may glimpse you again!” And then he looks up, and sees the Great High Old Gentleman seated on a resplendent cloud, with the appearance of a golden person, ascending to the Great Infinitesimal amidst a host of all of the immortals.


25) 会青羊。太上老君化身下降于蜀,託孕李氏家,丁巳尹喜至蜀,寻于市中,见人牵羊,喜自解,既有青羊,又有市肆,太上所约此是也。遂问牵羊何往,答曰:家去。喜随往,令告尹喜至,地踊玉局,太上老君化白金之身,坐其玉局上,赐喜文始先生号。
Meeting the Blue Sheep: The Great High Old Gentleman’s transformed body descends to the land of Sichuan, where he enters into the womb of a woman of the Li family. On the Ding Si year, Yin Xi arrives in Sichuan, and begins to search through the markets. He sees a man there leading a sheep. Yin Xi understands in himself: a blue sheep in the city market is the meeting that the Great High One ordained. Therefore he asks the man leading the sheep where he is going. The man replies, “I’m going home.” Yin Xi follows him. When it is reported that Yin Xi has arrived in this place, he mounts up to the Jade Bureau. There he sees the Great High Old Gentleman transformed into a body of white gold, sitting amidst the Jade Bureau. The Great High One grants Yin Xi the title “Master of the Primordial Writings”.


26) 游诸天。太上老君与尹喜上朝元始,游群帝之乡所,至天宫见天帝,乘九灵之舆,荫七元之盖,建摄魔之节,迎太上老君,求问至道。
Traveling Across All of the Heavens: The Great High Old Gentleman and Yin Xi ascend to the court of the Primordial Origin, and travel to the homelands of all of the emperors. They ascend to the Palace of Heaven and meet the Heavenly Emperor. He rides a palanquin of the nine spiritual forces, shaded by a roof of the seven primordials. Here they instigate the holiday of pacifying demons (?). The Heavenly Emperor welcomes the Great High Old Gentleman, and seeks to know from him how to obtain the Way.


27) 入罽宾。太上老君授太上老君之命,化西域入罽宾,居窟山,胡王出猎,见虹蜺贯日,盖见太上老君问是何人,答曰:修道之人,王曰:不闻有道,曰:大道弥隆,王改宜宣奉焉。
Entering Kophen: The Great High Old Gentleman recieves the Great High Old Gentleman’s order [sic] to convert the Western Regions. He enters into Kophen and dwells there in a mountain grotto. One day a barbarian king is out on the hunt when he sees a rainbow passing across the sun. Therefore the King comes upon the Great High Old Gentleman, and asks him who he is. The Old Gentleman answers, “I am a man cultivating the Way.” The King says, “I have not heard of this ‘Way’.” The Old Gentleman tells him, “The great Way is extremely profound. Your highness should convert himself and fittingly propogate and receive the Way.”

[According to William Tarn’s “The Greeks in Bactria and India”, Chinese Ji Bin 罽宾 refers to the toponym recorded in Greek as Kophen or Kophene. It’s not clear precisely where this was, but it seems that the Chinese used it broadly to refer to the Kushan empire, eastern Afghanistan, and Kashmir. -ht]


28) 化王子。罽宾王子七人将侍从,至太上会所,拜曰:我生边境,幸遇圣人,乞教存安之道。太上曰:宜修三顺六微之要,内保乎己,外以成和。王子等顿首奉行。
Converting the King: The king of Kophen along with seven of his retainers arrives in the place where they last met the Great High One. They make obesiences and the king says, “I was born in these border regions, but am lucky enough to meet a sage. I beg that you teach me the Way of existing in peace.” The Great High One says, “It is fitting that you cultivate the necessities of the Three Obediences and the Six Infinitessimals. Protect the interior for yourself, and the exterior will become harmonious.” The King and his attendants bow their heads, receive the teaching, and practice it.


29) 集圣众。胡王与徒众再至山中,稽首问曰:前说深奥,未任求奇妙,欲行何法?太上曰:昨令汝等事佛,吾以中食化之,王举国就会,七日别去。王子复请太上中食,太上召十万六通神人经月而来不已,王子仓库空已,及半,神人来而不止矣。
Gathering Together the Host of Immortals: The barbarian king and a mass of followers once again come up to the mountain. They bow their heads to the ground and the king asks, “The Way that you told to us was deep and profound. We have not yet come to believe it, and seek marvels. What method then should we practice?” The Great High One says, “Yesterday I commanded you serve the Buddha. I will convert you via an offering of lunch!” The king gathers together his entire nation for a meeting, and after seven days they disperse once more. The king invites the Great High One to attend the midday-meal offering. Thereupon the Great High One summons a hundred thousand spirit people of the six achievements who arrive at the offering continually throughout the whole month, until the King’s storehouses are completely exhausted and nothing is left. The feast is not even half over and still the spirit people come without cease.


30) 演金光。胡王曰:太上徒众果多,令我仓库将倾,岂是有道之人耶,我向察之必是鬼魅,若不早图,恐弥损害,宜急焚之,积薪,兵围太上逊意而入,国人皆见太上身放光明,火中为说金光明经。
Giving Off a Golden Glow: The barbarian king says, “Great High one, the mass following you is so great that it has caused my storehouses almost to collapse. How can these be people who follow the Way? When I examine them I think that they must be devils! If I do not make some plan now, then I fear they will greatly diminish us and do us damage. It is suitable in this emergency that we burn them!” The barbarians  pile up kindling. The soldiers surround the Great High One, but of his own will he enters the fire. All of the people of the nation see that the Great High One’s body emits a brilliant light, and in the midst of the fire he speaks the Golden Light Sutra.


31) 起青莲。胡王其怒益甚,又以大镬煮之三日三夜,镬汤之中莲花涌出,太上坐莲花上说莲花经,谓王曰:此经神力不可思议,能辟汤火,汝可奉行。
Arising on a Blue Lotus: The barbarian king’s wrath is now exceedingly great. He has the Great High One boiled in a giant cauldron for three days and three nights, but the Great High One gushes out of the cauldron’s broth on the petals of a lotus. He sits there on the lotus flower and speaks the Lotus Sutra. He says to the barbarian king, “The spiritual power of this sutra is unimaginable, it can save one from fire or from being boiled. You should recieve it and practice it.”


32) 捧神龙。胡王转怒,遂令沉于水中,太上老君亦逊水而入水不能溺,神龙捧于水上,为说涅盘经。
Being Held Up by a Spirit Dragon: The barbarian king becomes even more enraged. He orders that the Great High One be drowned in water. Once again the Great High Old Gentleman is obedient and he enters into the water but he cannot be sunk. A spirit dragon holds him up on the surface of the water, and he speaks the Nirvana Sutra.


33) 摧剑戟。胡王告邻国曰:国内有一老人,变化无常,愿兴兵跟助,顷间,胡兵悉围,老君害之,太上身放威光,飞电入冲,声如霹雳,夫石反中胡兵。胡王投地作礼伏道,归教。
Frustrating the Cuts of Swords: The barbarian king sends message to all of the neighboring countires, saying, “within my nation there is an old man, who transforms ceaselessly and has no constancy. I ask that you raise hosts and assist me.” In a very short time, the armies of the barbarians have all surrounded the Great High One. But the Old Gentleman defeats them, for his Great High body emits a fiercesome glow. Lighting flies out like a flood and a sound is heard like thunderclaps. The arrows and stones of the barbarian armies all fall back down in the midst of their hosts. The barbarian kings all throw themselves to the ground and make obeisance to the Old Gentleman. The bow before the Way, and take refuge in the Teachings.

[Somebody’s probably done this already, but there’s an interesting essay to be written here about the uses of the words hua 化 and bian 變, both meaning roughly “transformation”. Since the discovery of the Dunhuang Library in the early 20th century everyone’s been arguing about the exact meaning of the words “transformation image” bian xiang 變相 and “transformation text” bian wen 變文. In the oldest versions of the Old Gentleman story (~3rd century AD), the text was called “The Old Gentleman Converts (hua 化) the Barbarians” Lao Jun Hua Hu 老君化胡. By the time of the emergence of the first pictorial versions of this story (according to Hu, ~7th century AD), the title of the text has changed to “Illustrations (tu 圖) of the Eighty One Hua (Transformations? Conversions?)”. Thus the meaning of the title seems to have shifted under Buddhist influence; hua 化 no longer prosaically means “to convert” but has come to mean whatever it is that Buddhist bian 變 “transformation” meansOtherwise there’s no other way to understand the title of the text; the Old Gentleman after all neither converts eighty-one people nor transforms his body eighty-one times. Thus one can only turn to Victor Mair’s famous definition of the word bian 變: “the representation (whether verbal or pictorial or sculptural) of a narrative moment or locus in or a succession of narrative moments or loci”, which also has content related to performance, manipulation of reality, and miracle-working (神變). When the barbarian king exclaims that the Old Gentleman is “transforming” bian hua 變化 without cease, the meaning seems to be something of this nature. -ht]


34) 说浮屠。太上老君令尹喜为佛,乃语胡王曰:已告汝师,赦汝罪犯。群胡欢喜,于是太上说四十二章经,乃遣飞天神王率国人生喜心者,剃须发,偏袒合掌,赭衣以作浮屠,丧门授以浮屠之教。
Speaking of the Buddha: The Great High Old Gentleman orders Yin Xi to become the Buddha. Yin Xi speaks to the barbarian kings, saying, “I have already reported to your armies that your sins have been forgiven.” Therefore all of the barbarians welcome Yin Xi. At this time the Great High One speaks the Sutra of Forty-Two Chapters. Then he sends apsaras and heavenly kings to lead those people of the nations whose hearts have become joyful. They shave their beards and hair, free their robes on one side, clasp their hands on their chests, wear red clothes, and worship the Buddha. The sramanas recieved this, and called it the Teaching of the Buddha.

Et Cetera.


Art China Shanxi Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

Architectural Details from the Old City of Hunyuan

I liked the color these people painted their house

just a random street scene

Last week I had the very pleasant opportunity to walk around the old township seat of Hunyuan County (渾源縣). This is a town that sits directly beneath the “Holy Mountain of the North”, Heng Shan (北岳恆山) and the famous Hanging Monastery (懸空寺). I’d passed through here a dozen times on my way to and from Yu County but never got off the bus. The ostensible reason was to see the Monastery of Eternal Peace (永安寺) and the Liao dynasty brick pagoda nearby. The Monastery as far as I’m concerned is one of the absolute highlights of northern China. The main hall (大雄寶殿) is a massive place empty of high, interlocking wooden beams and airy cold. Wrapping the walls on all four sides are over 170 square meters of Yuan dynasty murals. On the south and flanking walls march the hosts of the Great Offering of All on Land and Water (水陸大齋), hundreds and hundreds of figures bearing banners, and on the two sides of the north wall are eight giant Tibetan-influenced tantric deities, bearing dharma-implements in their many arms and mounted on ferocious beasts. It’s one of the most utterly stupendous rooms I’ve ever stood in.  Unfortunately though you’re not allowed to take pictures inside, so can’t put that up here. It turns out though that Hunyuan also has one of the best-preserved old towns I’ve ever seen in northern China, with an incredible amount of architectural ornamentation and stone-carving of the type that’s mainly vanished in most other places. So I had a nice walk around and took pictures of that instead.

The architectural styles here are both similar to those in Yu County and different in interesting ways; Yu County houses do not have the lovely rows of decorative tiles that run along the gables here.

the houses in this part of northern Shanxi have these wonderful decorated gables

tile lattice between two buildings in a courtyard

There are several different styles of gatehouses opening onto the street. This type with the house-like roof is probably the most common, with the same type of paneled pillar capitals found in the villages of Yangyuan county (陽原縣).

a doorway on the street in hunyuan

pillar flanking a gate 07

The other type of gatehouse does not have a sloped roof, but instead imitates in stone the elaborate and multi-level facade of a wooden pailou (牌樓) archway.

detail of an outer gate 17

Within the gate there is usually a small antechamber, facing a shadow-screen (影壁).

detail of an outer gate 13

a shadow-screen within a gate 01

The household itself is entered by an inner gateway, which sits adjacent to the shadow-screen at a 90 degree angle. This interesting little antechamber space provides a place for the household to display its wealth and taste without actually allowing passerby on the street to see directly into the main courtyard.


And within that is the courtyard itself, which I couldn’t go into, because it’s someone’s house. So that’s all quite nice. They’re planning to bulldoze the whole old city of course so you should see it while it’s still there. Here’s the rest of the pictures.




Art China Hebei Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

Some Operatic Chinoiserie in Yu County, or, the Endemic Drama

jiugongkounanbu (15)

jiugongkounanbu (21)

jiugongkounanbu etc
Drawings of actors and performers from the panels above an opera stage

An essential part of an village fort in Yu County is the village opera stage. The standard Mandarin for this would be 戲台 xi tai, “Opera Platform”, but Yu County people call these structures 樂樓 yue lou, “Music Houses”. Outsiders find this quaint. Before the Communist takeover, there were at least 700 opera stages in Yu county, spread over 738 villages. Now there are around 300 opera stages still remaining, some perfectly intact and some almost totally collapsed. To be clear, this is a lot of opera stages. According to one count, the entire province of Shanxi contains only 146 such pre-Communist stages, less than half the number in the one county of Yu. And while the building of these opera stages is not usually recorded in literary sources, we actually can tell some things about who used them and when by visual and written information on the walls of the stages themselves.

When a particular opera troupe played a show at a particular stage, it was common for them to write a small graffito on the back interior wall of the stage to memorialize the performance. Many of these still remain. From these we know the names of many of the late Qing opera troupes operating in Yu County or visiting from neighboring regions. The Yu County scholars Tian Yongxiang 田永翔 and Wang Zhijun 王志軍 state that they’ve counted the names of at least 400 individual opera troupes from the stage walls. They divide the types of performances into 大戲 “Great Opera”, 秧歌 “Seedling Songs”, 弦子腔 “Zither Tunes”, 道情 “Operas of the Way and Emotion”, 賽戲 “Temple Fair Plays”, 燈影戲 “Lamp-Shadow Plays”, 高蹺戲 “Plays on Stilts”, 羅羅腔 “Lolo Tunes”, 耍孩兒 “Playing with the Children”, and others.  These two authors provide a whole history of opera in Yu County, pointing out that musical performers have existed in Yu County since antiquity, being mentioned in the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) records of the Kingdom of Dai (代國), which had its royal city in what’s now Yu County. Opera stages, however, came much later. I can’t ever recall seeing a dated epigraph in an opera stage earlier than the Daoguang Reign of the Qing (1821-1850), and there are numerous ones after that. From this we can infer that opera, or at least opera stages, really took off in a big way in Yu County from the early part of the 19th century.

As for the opera stages themselves, they are generally one-roomed structures, enclosed on three sides and raised up to a height of 1.5 meters or so off the ground on a mud and stone platform. In all cases they face a temple, for the purposes of offering operatic performances to the gods. The stages themselves are bisected about halfway in by a decorative wooden screen stretched between pillars, which encloses the front stage from a rear area which is invisible to the spectators. This wooden screen is often decorated with colorfully painted panels depicting actors, musicians, and tumblers. On the side walls of the front part of the stage there are often murals which would serve as scenery for the plays.


An opera stage from the front. The stage faces a temple to Lord Guan across a little square, and is boarded-up against the elements.

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The interior of an opera stage, looking in; note the paneled wooden screen across the middle and the effaced frescoes on the outer flanking walls.

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An opera stage from the inside looking out. The wooden screen has been taken down here and the room is being used for storage; note the frescoes on the outer flanking walls.

In present-day Yu County the opera-stage murals are usually heavily damaged or completely effaced, as wind and rain can come in through the open face of the stage. Nevertheless enough of them remain that one can discern two main decorative tropes. The first, and more common, is paintings of folding screens. These give the illusion of a wealthy interior and the panels of the screens themselves are often painted with monochrome Shan Shui “Mountains and Water” scenery. The second, less common trope, is architectural drawings. These are quite rare and I’m only aware of seven extant examples in all of Yu County, of which only one survives in anything like an intact state. Nevertheless there’s enough of them, and the architecture depicted in them is distinctive enough, that it’s possible to say something about what these drawings are and what they’re supposed to be representing.

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To begin with, the standard composition for these drawings is as follows (for examples, see above and below). Two scenes are painted on the two sides of the opera stage. In each of these scenes, there is a large, multi-storied building painted towards the inside of the stage. These are often multi-storied structures with rows of western-style windows and sometimes domes or barrel-arched roofs on top. On the upper floor of these buildings are sometimes balustrades or belvederes of a type sometimes found in western buildings but almost never seen in China. At the base of this structure there is a sort of gate portico or platform. This portico and the large multi-story building behind it are often enclosed by a wall in the lower part of the composition. In front of this portico and towards the outer side of the stage, the scene opens up onto a plaza or open country where figures may or may not be found. Sometimes in the plaza and sometimes in the background beneath a further compound wall, you can see one or several Chinese-style pagodas rising up. The compositions typically have strong blue coloration.

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Note the various elements: The tall western-looking building on the right (the inner side of the stage), the portico or gate at the bottom center, and the Chinese-style pagodas behind a wall to the left (the outer side of the stage). 

Occasionally one or both of these structures have plaques hung over the gates which give a legend. There are five extant legends, which are as follows:


(1) Partially illegible; I can make out Si Ji? Chun [ ] Ben 四吉?春[ ]本, “Four Auspicious? Spring [illegible] Basic”, which obviously doesn’t make any more sense in Chinese than it does in English, so who knows.


(4) Si Wang Lou 四望樓, “The Tower of Gazing in the Four Directions”


(3) Si Wang Ting 四望亭, “The Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions”


(2) Xi Yang Lou 西洋樓, “The Palace of the Western Seas”


(1) Yi Da Gong 意大宮, “Intentions-Great Palace”, or possibly Yi Da Guan 意大官, “Intentions-Great Official”. This overwrites an apparently earlier legend in blue ink which says [ ][ ] Zhen Shi, [ ][ ]真事 “[two illegible characters] True Affair”.

So what does all this mean? It turns out that at least two of these titles can be matched to actual buildings that exist or once existed.


1) 四望亭

The Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions

There’s two versions of this in the inscriptions, one of which is a pavilion or pagoda (ting 亭) and one of which is a mansion or tower (lou 楼). Nevertheless they seem to refer to the same thing. The key to identifying the structure is two figures on the top of the pagoda in two separate drawings, a young girl and a monkey. They’re just visible in the drawing below, as beneath them various figures comment and posture.

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A monkey and a girl atop the Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions

These two figures come from an anonymous folk novel called either “The Green Peony” 《绿牡丹》or “The Full Tale of the Pavilion of Gazing in Four Directions” 《四望亭全传》. Opinions on when this was written seem to differ (I’ve seen it put at various points between 1600 and 1900) and nobody knows who wrote it. This story ostensibly narrates the swashbuckling saga of some young braves during the age of the Empress Wu Zetian (624-705). Interestingly enough, although the play contains plenty of male characters, the main warriors are all female. The central heroine is a young circus performer named Hua Bilian 花碧莲, “Flower Jade-Lotus” who takes up arms against the various men who want to marry her and then against the empress of China herself, aiming to rescue the deposed heir of the Tang Dynasty and restore him to the throne. “The Green Peony” became a popular subject for plays; the “Dictionary of Chinese Bangzi Opera Titles”《中国梆子戏剧目大辞典》lists two extant plays named “The Green Peony”, and notes that each of these can be broken up into many smaller plays, which are performed individually. The summary of the action of the plays is as follows:

Hua Zhenfang travels with his wife and daughter, making a living by performing. He becomes friends with Luo Hongxun and Ren Zhengqian. Wang Lun is the son of the evil official Wang Huaiyi. Wang Lun plots to kidnap the daughter of the Hua family, Jade-Lotus, and force her to marry him. Jade-Lotus and her mother create great havoc in the official’s palace, and break out and escape. On the road in Yangzhou, they pass by the Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions. Jade-Lotus climbs up the pagoda to capture a monkey but loses her footing and falls. Fortunately she’s caught by Luo Hongxun. Hua Zhenfang promises her in marriage to Luo Hongxun. Wang Lun uses a huge amount of gold to hire the assassin Pu Tianpeng to kill Luo Hongxun. Luo Hongxun, however, gives Pu Tianpeng silver ingots and the two part. Pu Tianpeng’s father in law, Bao Zeng’an, hears about this and invites Luo Hongxun to his village, “Stockade on the Waters”,  for a meeting. Bao Zeng’an’s daughter, Golden-Flower, gets drunk and challenges Luo Hongxun to a contest of the martial arts. In a moment of anger she wounds him, but Bao Zeng’an and Hua Zhenfang etc. come to the rescue.

The second play seems to be a sequel to the first. The action moves from personal conflicts among the characters to national swashbuckling among the great and powerful of the Tang Dynasty. Jade-Lotus takes the center stage as the main martial hero:

During the Tang Dynasty, the empress Wu Zetian orders Zhang Tianyou to take the city of Fangzhou, but he suffers a great defeat. The virtuous official Di Renjie [the famous “Judge Dee”] has characters tattooed on Zhang Tianyou’s back, and releases him back to the court. In resentment, Zhang Tianyou asks the empress Wu to have Di Renjie executed. Just at this time, from the west of the nation of Qi comes a strange beast which no one is able to tame. The Empress Wu gives an order that a master of strange creatures be found. The Green-Forest peasant rebel heroes Hua Zhenfang and Bao Zeng’an order the two girls Jade-Lotus and Golden-Flower to travel to the capital. They are successful in subduing the beast, and they are both granted the title “The First of the Three Ranks”. The Empress Wu sends Wei Shihua to lead Jade-Lotus to subdue Di Renjie as well. Along the way, Wei Shihua is able to capture the Lord of Luling, Li Chengjian. But he doesn’t expect that Jade-Lotus and the others will change sides. They attack Wei Shihua and kill him in a fight, saving the Lord of Luling [who goes on to replace Wu Zetian and restore the Tang Dynasty as the Zhongzong Emperor].

Just in case you wanted to picture this, here’s a clip from an old movie of “The Green Peony” which shows the first meeting between Jade-Lotus and Luo Hongxun.

Of course the couple is fated to be, but Luo Hongxun and Jade-Lotus are separated and don’t meet again until the twentieth chapter, which is the important one for our purposes. The scene now is at a crossroads near the east gate of the city of Yangzhou 揚州. Yangzhou is a town of great refinement on the lower Yangzi river, famous for its literati, its courtesans, and for having been repeatedly and brutally sacked at various points in history. Our hero Luo Hongxun and his drunken friend Yu Qian have gone out to attend a fair at the Temple of the Three Officials 三官廟. Yu Qian catches sight of a monkey which has escaped from a neighbor’s house. He leaps onto the roof to catch it. The monkey, frightened up, jumps from the roof onto the side of a pagoda which sits in the middle of the street, called the Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions. Yu Qian leaps after it. The two of them shimmy up the side of the pagoda but Yu Qian still can’t catch the monkey.

Right at this moment, Hua Zhenfang, his daughter Jade-Lotus, and the nine Ba brothers are driving their horses in through the city gate. The street is mobbed with spectators watching the scene on the pagoda. Not a man to sit in traffic, Hua Zhenfang stampedes his horses into the crowd and scatters them all. He rides up to the base of the pagoda and recognizes his old friend Yu Qian climbing around up there. He makes inquiries and finds that the owner of the monkey is willing to pay ten silvers if someone can catch it, and twenty silvers if a girl as pretty as Jade-Lotus will climb up there in front of everybody and do it. After some haggling, a deal is made.

Here’s from the story. I think this is fun:

Hua Zhenfang shouts up at Yu Qian, “This malicious little creature, it doesn’t need someone like you to catch it. That’s like cutting up a chicken with a cattle knife! Uncle Yu, we haven’t had the chance to meet for so long, I implore you to come down and talk, and my daughter will go up in your place and catch the monkey for you.” He turns to Jade-Lotus. “Daughter! Get up there!”

And you only have to see – Jade Lotus uncoils her body and leaps onto the first floor of the pagoda. The crowd of people watching all raise their voices to applaud: “Such a skill is rare to find, even in a thousand years! Truly amazing, truly amazing!”

At the moment that Jade-Lotus leaps onto the pagoda, the monkey is within, but startled by her it jumps up onto the second floor. Jade-Lotus pauses just for a moment, but then uncoils her body once again and leaps up after it onto the second floor. Granny Hua sees her granddaughter on the second floor of the pagoda, and immediately releases her own body and leaps up onto the very top floor of the pagoda. The crowd on the ground once again applaud, “For such an elderly person to have such energy – she really is an old robber’s wife!” And when Hua Zhenfang sees both his mother and his daughter preparing to ascend even further, he, Yu Qian, and the other six all spread out to stand around the four sides of the pavilion.

Jade-Lotus has now attained the second floor. She takes out a handful of the fruits she’s been carrying against her breast, and tosses some of them in front of where the monkey can see, sitting herself up above so as not to startle it. When the monkey catches sight of the fruits he immediately takes them up in his hands and gobbles them down into his mouth. When he’s finished, Jade-Lotus throws another handful, and the monkey once again takes them up and eats them. Jade-Lotus very slowly inches forward, until she’s about two or three feet away. Suddenly the monkey sees her and is startled, and flees towards the south side of the pagoda. Jade-Lotus is behind a wall and she can’t see where he’s gone. Ba Long is standing on the ground at the south side of the pagoda. He shouts up: “The monkey’s gone to the south!”

Jade-Lotus turns towards the south. She throws another handful of fruit out that way. Once again, the monkey takes it up and eats it. Jade-Lotus inches closer to it, until she is almost up to the creature, but once more the monkey is startled and flees off somewhere else, she can’t see it. It seems to Jade-Lotus that if the monkey hadn’t been scared off by Yu Qian, she would have been able to capture it easily with this method. But her father Hua Zhenfang and Yu Qian are standing beneath, shouting up: “The monkey’s jumped over onto the northern side!”

Jade-Lotus turns towards the north. The monkey jumps up onto the top floor. She goes up after it. Happily, up above doesn’t have walls blocking her line of sight. Jade-Lotus formulates a plan. She says: “I have to drive this creature out onto one of the corners of the pagoda roof. That way, he’ll have nowhere to escape to. That’s the only way I’ll catch him.”

Once again, she takes out another handful of fruits from her shirt, and throws them onto the protruding north-east corner of the roof. Once the monkey sees that there’s fruit there, he heads towards the north-east corner to pick it up and eat it. Jade-Lotus slides herself ever so slightly towards the monkey. She reaches out an arm to grab him. The monkey sees that Jade-Lotus is blocking the escape route to the right, he’s got no empty space to escape through. The animal panics, and uses all his might to leap, hoping that he can jump right over Jade-Lotus’ head. For many years though nobody has kept up the Pagoda of Gazing in the Four Directions. The wood is rotten and the mortar and bricks are coming apart – and Jade-Lotus and the monkey both fall! On the ground the people exclaim: “How terrible! Someone’s fallen down!”

As Jade-Lotus falls, Hua Zhenfang, Yu Qian, and the Ba brothers are all dismayed and without any recourse. Jade-Lotus has absolutely no way of saving her own life. The only hope comes from one young man beyond the four or fifth ring of spectators, who shouts: “You still haven’t moved to save her – what are you waiting for!”

将身一纵过来,将花碧莲双手接住,抱在怀中,坐在尘埃。众人齐道:“难得这个英雄,不然要跌为肉泥!” 花振芳同众人跑过来一看,接住花碧莲者,不是别人,正是骆宏勋大爷!
He uncoils his body and with a single leap he’s there, and catches Jade-Lotus with both hands, and holds her to his breast, sitting down onto the ground. Everyone shouts: “What an extraordinary hero! Without him, she’d have been crushed to meat-mush!” Hua Zhenfang and a whole crowd all run over and with one glance they see – the person who’d saved Jade-Lotus was none other than Luo Hongxun!

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So that’s the story. This would have circulated both in the form of operas and of vernacular storytelling performances. Here’s one video of it being performed in Jiangxi style; the entire play takes five hours of watching to finish.For vernacular storytelling, here’s one of the “Jade-Lotus Catches a Monkey” section being first sung and then narrated by this guy from Langfang 廊坊. This dude tears it up:

As noted above, there’s one pavilion with the legend Si Ji? Chun [ ] Ben 四吉?春[ ]本, “Four Auspicious? Spring [illegible] Basic”. I still have no idea what this means, but if you look closely you can see the figures of Jade-Lotus and her grandmother climbing around on it. The monkey’s been scratched out.



Interestingly, as it turns out, the Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions actually exists in real life, and there’s some argument to be made that at least one Yu County painter had actually seen it. It sits just within the eastern gate of the old city of Yangzhou. This is nearly 600 miles as the crow flies from Yu County, but the drawing and the structure itself match fairly well. Here’s the drawing and the building as it stands today; I stole this image from the internet.


I still have no idea why everyone in Yu County felt the need to draw this specific pagoda from this specific story on the walls of their opera stages, but I think it’s interesting. I had fun pursuing this particular monkey of the mind across the internet and eventually catching it, so I’ve put up the results here.

Some Miscellania:

(1) After extensive googling, I can say that there are at least two other buildings in China which have the name 四望 “Gazing in the Four Directions”. One of these is an unremarkable pagoda in Chongqing. The other is a little pavilion in a park in Harbin. According to the government website for Harbin’s Hulan District, this was constructed by a governor named Lu Kezun 路克遵 in 1927, with fines he’d levied on some ne’er-do-well named Zhu the Black Son (朱黑子). Zhu had been found guilty of stealing the colorful park railings and using them to decorate his whorehouse.

(2) The whole thing about letting loose the horses and pursuing the monkey is possibly some sort of Buddhist metaphor. This comes from the stock phrase 心猿意馬 “The monkey of the mind and the horses of the thoughts”. These have to be properly reigned in so that the practitioner can concentrate.

(3) According to Baidu Baike, there’s record of a structure with the name “Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions” having been built in Yangzhou in the early 13th century. Unfortunately it’s noted as sitting south of the city, while the present one clearly sits right at the east gate. A second gazetteer from the Qianlong reign puts the building of the structure in 1559, when it was constructed by the adjacent Confucian Academy as a pavilion to the gods Wenchang and the Kui-Star. Hence it was known as the Wen-Kui Tower 文奎樓. According to the dominant theories on the internet, the pavilion only acquired the name “Gazing in the Four Directions” after 1853, when the Taiping rebels took the city, propped up ladders and scaffolding onto the sides of the thing, and used it as a watchtower. It retained this use until Qing loyalist troops retook the city a few years later. That said the pavilion is clearly mentioned in the late-Ming “Green Peony” as having been located at a crossroads near a gate in the Yangzhou city wall, so my guess is that this theory is bunk.

(4) This is off-topic, but the whole thing reminds me of a story told to me by an elderly resident of the lower fortress in Futu Village (浮圖村). In the center of this village is an archway on top of which sits a tower room. The tower was originally a temple to the god of literature, Wenchang, but after the Communist takeover this was found to be both feudal and unpropitious. Sensibly enough the villagers decided that rather than going to the trouble of tearing the giant stone tower down, they’d just rename it in honor of Mao’s 1963 Socialist Education Movement, which aimed to “Purify Politics, Purify the Economy, Purify the Party Organization, and Purify Ideology” (清政治,清经济,清组织,清思想). Thus the tower was rechristened “The Tower of the Four Purifications” (四清樓). It remained unmolested right through the Cultural Revolution and retains this name today.

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2) 西洋楼

The Mansion of the Western Seas

Now we turn to the other structure identified by name on the opera stage at the Big Stubborn Fort, the Xi Yang Lou 西洋樓, “The Mansion of the Western Seas”. As noted above, these drawings usually portray multi-story buildings with long rows of windows and occasionally domes on top, both architectural forms not found in traditional Chinese architecture. As it turns out, there’s an explanation for this available fairly nearby: “The Mansion of the Western Seas” was the name of a European-style palace constructed by Italian and French Jesuits for the Qianlong Emperor in the middle of the 18th century.  The western mansions were constructed over a roughly twenty year period, beginning in 1749 and coming to completion in the early 1770s. The palaces were built to showcase the European concept of hydraulic-powered fountains, which the Qianlong emperor found fascinating, and to hold the extensive Imperial collection of European artifacts and exotica. The compound and the several buildings within it sat in the northern part of the Garden of Perfect Light (Yuan Ming Yuan 圓明園), a vast Qing summer palace in the fields north of Beijing, which was originally begun by the Kangxi emperor in 1690. The Mansions of the Western Seas were famously looted and then put to torch along with the rest of the Garden of Perfect Light in 1860 by the Anglo-French invasion force during the Second Opium War, in revenge for the torture and execution of British envoys. Since the European mansions were built of marble while the much vaster Chinese palace surrounding it was built of wood, the only part of the Garden of Perfect Light that survives today is the ruined masonry of these European buildings. The tumbled-down masonry is today preserved as a “national ruin”, to commemorate China’s humiliation at the hands of foreign powers during the Opium Wars.

The reader here should be aware of how exotic multi-story buildings, arcades, domes, belvederes on the roof, and other such architectural features were in China. For this we can quote the French missionary-painter Jean-Denis Attiret, in his famous epistle on the Garden of Perfect Light:

“Their Eyes are so accustom’d to their own Architecture, that they have very little Taste for ours. May I tell you what they say when they speak of it, or when they are looking over the Prints of some of our most celebrated Buildings? The Height and Thickness of our Palaces amazes them. They look upon our Streets, as so many Ways hollowed into terrible Mountains; and upon our Houses, as Rocks pointing up in the Air, and full of Holes like Dens of Bears and other wild Beasts. Above all, our different Stories, piled up so high one above another, seem quite intolerable to them: and they cannot conceive, how we can bear to run the Risk of breaking our Necks, so commonly, in going up such a Number of Steps as is necessary to climb up to the Fourth and Fifth Floors. ‘Undoubtedly’, said the Emperor Cang-hy whilst he was looking over some Plans of our European Houses, ‘this Europe must be a very small and pitiful Country; since the Inhabitants cannot find Ground enough to spread out their Towns, but are obliged to live up this high in the Air’.”

- Attiret, “A Particular Account of the Emperor of China’s Gardens near Pekin“, 1747, trans. Sir Harry Beaumont.

In any case, it’s my contention here that whoever drew these images on the opera stages of Yu County had clearly seen the western structures outside of Beijing. The following black and white engravings were made in European style by a Manchu painter named Yi Lantai 伊兰泰 in 1783, and represent the most complete record of the Mansions.

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花園正面 – The Maze, from “The Delights of Harmony, p.40.

Domes are never found in Chinese architecture almost as a rule; there was at least one in the Mansion of the Western Seas, in a pavilion at the center of the maze.

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海晏堂北面 – North facade of the Palace of Calm Seas, from “The Delights of Harmony”, p.46.

Long, multi-story buildings of several stories.

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湖東線法畫 – Painting of perspective, east of the lake.

Receding perspective was a novelty, and one of the purposes of the Mansions of the Western Seas was to showcase this Western artistic technique. This depicts what “The Delights of Harmony” describes as, “a long basin leading to a European village painted in perspective on walls erected like a theater set” (p.9).

All this so far is a bit circumstantial. Actually the clearest indication that someone in Yu County was familiar with the buildings and ornamentation styles of the Mansion of the Western Seas comes not from the opera houses themselves but from the interior frescoes of a particular shrine to the God of Wealth 财神殿 located at the south end of a village fort in Yu County. (As usual I’m not going to say where.) These scenes flank either side of the small temple room and the main votive statue, and depict devotees bearing treasures to what is presumably the palace of the God of Wealth. The composition of the images is identical to the opera-stage drawings: a large multi-story building on the inner side of the hall with a pagoda on the outer side, and a gate or portico at the base of the structure. And one glance at the ornamentation style of the windows marks the scene as representing not only western-style architecture, but the specific quasi-baroque style of the Mansions of the Western Seas. The below color pictures come from “Yu County Temple Frescoes”, p.243.




方外觀正面 - Main Face of the Belvedere, from “The Delights of Harmony”, p.43, detail.


養雀籠東面 – East Face of the Aviary, from “The Delights of Harmony, p.42″, detail.




海晏堂北面 – North facade of the Palace of Calm Seas, from “The Delights of Harmony” p,46, detail.

So in this case it seems pretty clear – someone in Yu County was familiar with not only the general forms of western architecture, but the specific ornamentation types of the Mansions of the Western Seas. This actually sheds light on the interpretation of one of the other gate legends recorded above. One of the buildings is titled Yi Da Gong 意大宮, “The Intentions-Great Palace”. Besides just being a strange name for a palace, this isn’t any more grammatical in Chinese than it is in English – at very least it should be Da Yi Gong 大意宮 “Great-Intentions Palace” and not “Intentions-Great”. But if the building is intended to portray a baroque mansion designed by the Jesuit artist Giuseppe Castiglione, the meaning is suddenly obvious. The full title should be Yidali Gong 意大利宮 “The Italian Palace”. The Chinese painter in Yu County, finding “Italy” a mouthful, simply lopped off the -li in Yidali and gave the palace a two-character name that sounds much more acceptably Chinese.

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The Italian Palace

As for how some lowly village painter in Yu County would have found his way into the Emperor’s own summer palace, Attiret’s letter, quoted above, presents something of both the problem and the solution.

… ‘Tis very fortunate for me, that I had got the little Knowledge of Painting that I have: for without this, I should have been in the same Case with several other Europeans, who have been here between Twenty and Thirty Years without being able ever to set their Feet on any Spot of this delightful Ground [the Garden of Perfect Light]. ...There is but one Man here; and that is the Emperor. All Pleasures are made for him alone. This charming Place is scarce ever seen by any body but himself, his Women, and his Eunuchs. The Princes, and other chief Men of the Country, are rarely admitted any farther than the Audience-Chambers. Of all the Europeans that are here, none ever enter’d this Inclosure, except the Clock-makers and Painters; whose Employments make it necessary that they should be admitted every where. The Place usually assign’d us to paint in, is in one of those little Palaces above-mentioned; where the Emperor comes to see us work, almost every Day: so that we can never be absent.

 – Attiret, “A Particular Account of the Emperor of China’s Gardens Near Pekin“, 1743, trans. Sir Harry Beaumont.

Which is to say, nobody but the emperor, eunuchs, and concubines were allowed into the Garden of Perfect Light. The only exceptions were artisans and painters. And little Yu County, on the wrong side of the Taihang range, had nothing whatsoever in abundance other than superb artisans and builders.

The Mansions of the Western Seas must have been well known to Yu County people. The structures stood at the far northern extremity of the Gardens of Perfect Light, north of the city of Beijing and right along the normal traveling route over between Yu County and the capital. Yu County people would surely have seen the exotic, multi-story buildings rising over the garden walls as they passed to and from Beijing. And it’s conceivable that the destruction of the gardens would have made the place better known to the people of Yu County. After its vengeful sack by European troops, the 64 square miles of what was once the Qianlong Emperor’s grand pleasure gardens reverted to brush and farmland. The only buildings that still stood were the gutted marble remains of the Palaces of the Western Seas, several buildings of which were photographed still standing amid the cornfields well into the 20th century. As I hope I’ve demonstrated with this blog, Yu County people were an imaginative lot, and it’s hard to see how they could have passed by the towering ruins of strange, foreign palaces along the road to Beijing and not taken an interest. And what better to do with these curious buildings than to paint them as a kind of reverse-chinoiserie background for your opera stage?

And this gets to what’s actually interesting about these few and ruined images, drawn on the walls of dilapidated buildings in a remote Chinese county, hundreds of years ago. It turns out that in these tiny walled villages you have a miniature counter-narrative to the whole tragedy of 19th and 20th century Chinese history. Everyone knows that 19th century China behind its walls was conservative, patriarchal, and closed to the outside world. And yet in every single village these illiterate farmers built sumptuous opera stages so that they could have light, color, excitement. They loved tough, smart, working-class heroines who took up arms against the powerful and unjust, and also sometimes just had fun chasing monkeys around on the roof. And when they found themselves faced with a foreign culture, their reaction was one of admirable curiosity, openness, and imagination.



- 无名氏著. 绿牡丹. 杭州: 浙江古籍出版社 : 浙江省新华书店发行, 1985. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <>
[Anonymous. The Green Peony. Hangzhou: Zhejiang Classics Press: Distributed by Zhejiang State Xinhua Bookstore, 1985. Web. 17 Dec. 2014 <>]

– Attiret, Jean-Denis, S.J. (1702-1768). “Lettre du Frere Attiret de la Compagnie de Jesus, Peintre au service de l’Empereur de la Chine. A M. d’Assaut. A Pekin, le 1. Novembre 1743,” in Lettres édifiantes et curieuses écrites des missions étrangères par quelques missionnaires de la compagnie de Jésus. Paris: Guérin, 1749, 27:1-61. English translation of 1752 by Joseph Spence [Sir Harry Beaumont], A Particular Account of the Emperor of China’s Gardens near Pekin; rpt. in The English Landscape Garden, ed. John Dixon Hunt (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1982).

- Thiriez, Régine. “Old Photography and the Yuanmingyuan.” Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation 6.3 (1990): 203-18. Taylor Francis Online. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <>.

- Thiriez, Regine, and Karen Turner. The Delights of Harmony: The European Palaces of the Yuanmingyuan & The Jesuits at the 18th Century Court of Beijing. Ed. Ellen Lawrence. Worcester, Massachusetts: Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Art Galler & College of the Holy Cross, 1994. Print.

- 王志军, and 田永翔. 中国蔚州民俗文化集成:地方剧种概说. 北京: 中国戏剧出版社, 2012. Print. [Wang, Zhizhun, and Tian, Yongxiang. China Yu County Folk Culture Series: Summary of Local Opera Types. Beijing. China Opera Publishing Company. 2012. Print. This also comes emblazened with the resplendent English title, “Chinese national culturei ntegration Yu Zhou The endemic drama”.]
- 殷建宏. 戏台与社会:明清山西戏台研究. 北京: 中国社会科学出版社, 2009. Print. [Yin, Jianhong. Opera Stages and Society: Researches on Ming-Qing Period Opera Stages in Shanxi. Beijing. China Social Sciences Press. 2009. Print.]
- 蔚縣博物館. 蔚州寺廟壁畫. 北京: 科學出版社, 2013. Print. [Yu County Museum. Yu County Temple Frescoes. Beijing. Scientific Press. 2013. Print.]

- 中国梆子戏剧目大辞典. 太原: 山西省戏剧研究所, 1991. Print. [Great Encyclopedia of China Bangzi Opera Titles. Taiyuan: Shanxi Province Opera Research Institute, 1991. Print.]

Art China Translation

On the Description of the Kunlun Mountains or Tibet found in the Classic of Mountains and Seas


”The Classic of Mountains and Seas” is a long list of real and invented mountains, rivers, gods, countries, sacrifices, plants and peoples. It was traditionally ascribed to the Sage King Yu, who wandered about primordial China channeling off the waters of the Deluge, setting order to things, and naming the mountains and rivers. In an epilogue to the first five books, “The Classic of Mountains”, Yu is made to state that he travelled across 5,370 mountains which occupied an area of 64,065 li. I don’t know if this is the exact number of mountains or li described in the book but it does in truth contain a very great number. Unfortunately Yu’s Epilogue is generally agreed to be spurious and a later interpolation, and nobody knows who really wrote “The Classic of Mountains and Seas”. Scholars think it was composed between the third and first centuries BC by several different unknown authors. It was then famously annotated once at the end of the Han Dynasty in the third century of the common era and then a second time in the Qing Dynasty at the start of the eighteenth century and has since been translated several times into English.

The book contains several long sections concerning the Kunlun Mountains or the Kunlun Wasteland, which seems to refer more or less to Tibet. In fact of all the delirious mass of mountains and tribes of men described in “The Classic of Mountains and Oceans,” the Kunlun, or Tibet, receives the longest and most detailed description and is mentioned most often. The most curious thing is that it is left very ambiguous what exactly the Kunlun is, or are, because in the same breath they are mentioned as a range of mountains, a single mountain, a mound, an immense wasteland, and a city, which is holy. 

We are told that the Wasteland of the Kunlun is 800 leagues square and 80,000 feet high. It is also a city, called “The Great God’s City on the Earth Below” or perhaps “The City that is Beneath the Emperor of Heaven.” The Wasteland of Kunlun, or the city of God, has nine gates on each of its four sides. each of which is guarded by a creature called the Opening-Brilliance. The Opening-Brilliance has a body as large as a lion and nine human heads, all of which face east. It is also standing on the peak of Kunlun, which, we gather, is now a single mountain. East of the Opening-Brilliance a group of Shamans stand about the fallen body of the God Yayu. The Shamans possess an elixir of immortality.

It’s enlightening to know that the story of Yayu and how he died actually bears relation to the history of “The Classic of Mountains and Seas” itself. (I’m getting this information from the introduction to the published translation by Anne Birrell, by the way.) The earliest existing preface to the work, written around the year AD 6, records that around 50 BC a man was found enclosed in a cave in Shaanxi, shackled to the floor, with his hands bound behind his back using his own long hair. The discovery was reported to Emperor Xuan of the Former Han Dynasty, who sought at length for an explanation. Finally the palace Librarian and Archivist, Liu Xiang, pointed out that “The Classic of Mountains and Seas” contained a potential explanation. At the start of the section called “Treatise on the Western Lands Within the Seas”, it is related that the God Yayu was murdered by the lesser gods Betrays-Responsibilities and Wei. In retribution, a greater god sentenced the two murderers to be shackled by the right foot, bound up in their own hair, and hung from trees on a mountaintop to die. The Emperor Xuan was favorably impressed, and thus the fame of “The Classic of Mountains and Seas” was ensured. Elsewhere it is related that Yayu had the head of a dragon and ate human beings. Getting back to the point, according to the book Yayu’s corpse can be found on the wasteland or mountaintop or in the city of Kunlun, which is to say, in Tibet, beneath the nine-headed eastward gaze of the Opening-Briliance, guarded by the elixir-bearing shamans with the strange names.

“The Classic of Mountains and Seas” relates other things about the Kunlun. Many different types of trees grow there, and many rivers cross it, flowing mainly from west to east but sometimes looping to the north or turning south. Also many different animals abide there. So does the Queen Mother of the West. Elsewhere it is said that she lives on a mountain north of Kunlun, or perhaps within it on a mountain of flames. In further chapters many other places are listed as laying to the north or the south of Kunlun, but these places are obscure and the people who live there are vague.

Most of the rest of “The Classic of Mountains and Seas” is monotonous. There are some useful factoids: “There is also the Country of No-Intestines. The people there bear the surname Ren, which means “responsibility”. They have no children or descendants, and eat fish.” “There is a god which has the face of a man but no arms, and his two feet are reversed on top of his head. His name is Sighs.” Then there are an enormous number of descriptions of mountains, listed in apparently linear order of distance going in any of the cardinal directions and helpfully annotated with the suggested animal sacrifices to be made to each. “And traveling north for two hundred and eighty li there is a mountain called the Great Salty Mountain. There is no grass or wood here, but beneath it is a great amount of jade. This mountain cannot be ascended from any of the four directions. There is a snake the name of which is called Long Snake, which has hair like hog bristles. It makes a sound like drums and wooden clappers.” On the mountains live diverse flora and fauna, some of which are monstrous and eat people, some of which can be eaten by people to medicinal effect, and some of which are reclusive and when they appear herald certain things, like spates of arson, or the wanton dismissal of officials in the nearby towns. 

Various things occurred to me when I was reading it. Umberto Eco makes the following comment about Hesiod’s “Theogony”: “At first sight we might think that form is characteristic of mature cultures, which know the world around them, whose order they have recognized and defined; on the contrary the list would seem to be typical of primitive cultures that still have an imprecise image of the universe and limit themselves to listing as many properties as they can name without trying to establish a hierarchical relationship among them. For example, we might interpret Hesiod’s “Theogony” in this sense; it is an inexhausted list of divine creatures that certainly refer to a genealogical tree that a philologically patient reading could reconstruct, but this is definitely not the way in which the reader (even the original reader) reads or listens to the text, which presents itself rather as an intolerable swarm of monstrous and prodigious beings, a universe overpopulated with invisible individuals that runs parallel to that of our experience and whose roots are sunk in the mists of time. Yet the list turns up again in the Middle Ages […]” (The Infinity of Lists, p.18.) Also, and I’m not totally sure if this is actually relevant here, but in the Maitrāyanī Samhitā it is recorded that, “Indra is said to have cut off the wings of the mountains, which originally alighted wherever they pleased and thus made the earth unsteady. The wings became the thunder clouds.” This raises the possibility of a Deluge not of waters but of mountains.

Anyways for fun I decided to translate all the bits of the “Classic of Mountains and Seas” that have to do with the Kunlun Mountains. I did it based on this one from The Chinese Text Project 中國哲學書電子化計劃 and with a lot of help from the notes and modern-Mandarin version provided here, on 古詩文網. I also scanned in some illustrations (異獸圖), which came from an anonymous and fragmentary Qing dynasty printing with commentary by one Wang Bo (王紴), reprinted in 歷代山海經文獻集成, vols. 6 and 7,  edited by文清閣 and published by 西安地圖出版社, 2006, print. As usual if the reader wants to contest certain fine points of translation then he can bloody well go translate it himself.


From the Treatise on Western Mountains (西山經):

And traveling west for another four hundred and twenty li, there is a mountain which is called Mount Bell. This mountain has a son named Drum. His appearance is that of a dragon’s body and a man’s face.

zhong shan zi gu

Mount Bell’s son, Drum

He and Qinpi murdered Baojiang on the sunny side of Mount Kunlun, and so the Emperor of Heaven had both of them killed at a place called the Yao Banks on the eastern side of Mount Bell. Qinpi was transformed into a great osprey. The osprey’s appearance is that of a eagle with black markings and a white head, with a red beak and the claws of a tiger. Its call is like that of a morning swan. When it is seen it portends great numbers of soldiers. Drum was also transformed into a bird called a Jun, which has the appearance of a sparrow hawk. The bird has red feet and a straight beak, yellow markings and a white head. Its call is like that of a swan. When it is seen it portents a great drought in that town.

qinpi and gu

The bird called Jun which Drum transformed into, and the bird called Great Osprey which Qinpi turned into.

And traveling west for another hundred and eighty li, there is a mountain which is called the Mountain of Peaceful Tools. The Gaze River is also here, which pours down into the flowing sands. There are many marked rays, which have the appearance like that of carp, with the body of a fish and the wings of a bird, great markings, white heads, and red beaks. Thus they are commonly found walking in the Western Sea and swimming in the Eastern Sea, by means of flying at night. They make a sound like the phoenix-chicken, and their flavor is both sour and sweet. The meat induces madness when eaten, and when they are seen they portend great bumper harvests in all the lands beneath heaven.

wen yao

The Marked Ray

And traveling west for another three hundred and twenty li, there is a mountain which is called the Mountain of the Pagoda-Tree River. The Hill-of-Seasons River is also here, which flows down into Lake You. In this lake are a great number of snail mothers. Above it there are large amounts of gypsum and realgar, as well as great deposits of pearl-like rocks, gold, and jade. On the sunny side of the mountain there is much red millet, and on the shady side many mines of gold. This is truly the Emperor of Heaven’s only flat garden. The god Yingzhao governs it. His appearance is that of a horse’s body and a human face, with the markings of a tiger and the wings of a bird. He travels about to all of the Four Seas, and his call is like the sound of a pomegranate. To the south this mountain looks out on the Kunlun. Its light is resplendent and its atmosphere is invigorating.

ying zhao shenThe God Yingzhao


To the west the Mountain of the Pagoda-Tree River looks out on the the Great Marshes, which is where Lord Millet was buried. Upon it is much jade, and on the shady side is much of something that looks like yao wood. To the north it looks out upon all of that adjoins. The scholar-tree ghost Lilun lives there, and it is the abode of zhan hawks. To the east it looks out on the four slopes of Mount Heng. There are poor ghosts which live there, each according to its kind. From it comes a greatly pouring river, which is extremely clear. The Heaven God is there, which has the appearance of a bull, and it has eight feet, two heads, and the tail of a horse. Its cry is like that of a Bohuang. When it is seen it portends the appearance of soldiers in the cities.

tian shenThe Heaven God

To the west four hundred li is a place called the Hill of the Kunlun. This is truly the Emperor of Heaven’s only capital on the world below. The god Luwu rules it. This spirit’s appearance is that of a tiger’s body with nine tails, a human face and a tiger’s claws. The Luwu rules the nine divisions of the world and the times of the emperor’s gardens.

shen lu wu

The God Luwu

There is a beast there, which has the appearance of a sheep and four horns, which is called the Earth Cricket. It eats people.

tu lou

The Earth Cricket

有鳥焉,其狀如蜂,大如鴛鴦,名曰欽原,蠚鳥獸則死,蠚木則枯。有鳥焉,其名曰鶉鳥,是司帝之百服。有木焉,其狀如棠,華黃赤實,其味如李而無核,名曰沙 棠,可以禦水,食之使人不溺。有草焉,名曰薲草,其狀如葵,其味如葱,食之已勞。河水出焉,而南流東注于無達。赤水出焉,而東南流注于氾天之水。洋水出 焉,而西南流注于醜塗之水。黑水出焉,而西流于大杅。是多怪鳥獸。
There is a bird there, which has the appearance of a bee, except the size of a mandarin duck. Its name is Admiring-Origins. If it stings a bird or animal then that animal will die, and if it stings a tree then the tree becomes withered. And there is a bird there, which is called the Quail Bird. This bird governs the hundred recompenses of the Emperor of Heaven. There is a tree there, which has an appearance like that of a pear tree. It has yellow flowers and red fruits, the taste of which is like a plum but without a pit. This tree is called the sand pear tree. It can prevent floods, and eating it makes a person not urinate [or alternately, not drown]. There is a grass there, which is called bin grass. Its appearance is like that of the kui flower, and its taste is like an onion. If you eat it all difficulties will be stopped. The Yellow River comes out from here, flowing first to the south and then pouring to the east where it enters Not-Arriving. The Red River comes out from here, and flows to the southeast where it pours into the River of Broken-Channel-to-Heaven. The Yang River flows out from here, and goes to the southwest where it pours into the River of Ugly-Embankments. The Black River comes out from here, and flows to the west into Big-Shaft. There are many strange birds and beasts here.

qin yuan

The Admiring-Origins

Another three hundred and seventy li to the west, there is a mountain which is called the Mountain of Happy-Wandering. The Peach River comes out of it, and to the west flows into the Lake of Millet. Here there is much white jade. In the lake are many Slippery Fish. Their appearance is that of snakes except they have four legs. They eat other fish.

gu yu

The Gu Fish
[My text reads “Slippery Fish” 滑魚; the picture
 has Gu [魚+骨] Fish]

Traveling west by water four hundred li, there is a place called the Flowing Sands. Another two hundred li further suffices to reach Snail Mother Mountain. The god Long-Chariot rules this place, and this is the result of the Nine Virtues of Heaven. His appearance as a god is like that of a person except with the tail of a zhuo leopard. Atop this mountain is much jade, and at its foot are many blue rocks and no water.

shen chang chengThe God Long-Chariot

Another three hundred and fifty li to the west, there is a mountain which is called Mount Jade. This is the abode of the Queen Mother of the West. The Queen Mother of the West has the appearance of a person but the tail of a leopard, the teeth of a tiger, and a good roar. She has wild hair and wears jewelry. She governs disasters from heaven and the five catastrophes.

xi wang mu

The Queen Mother of the West

There is a beast there, which has an appearance like that of a dog but with the markings of a leopard and the horns of an ox. It is called Jiao. Its cry is like that of a dog, and when it is seen it heralds great bumper harvests in that country.

jiaoThe Jiao

There is a bird here, which has the appearance of a wild chicken except red. Its name is called Victorious-Meeting, and it eats fish. Its sound is like that of a deer, and when it is seen it heralds great floods in that country.

sheng yu

The Victorious-Meeting

Another four hundred eighty li to the west, there is a mountain which is called the Hill of Xuanyuan [the Yellow Emperor]. There are no grasses or trees. The River of Tears flows comes out of here, and flows south to pour into the Black River. There is much red millet, and lots of gypsum and realgar.

Another three hundred li to the west, there is a mountain which is called the Mountain of Massed Rocks. Beneath it is the Stone Gate. The Yellow River passes out of it and flows to the west. Of all the myriad types of trees, there are none that do not grow on this mountain.


From the Treatise on Northern Mountains: (北山經):

…And traveling north for two hundred and eighty li there is a mountain called the Great Salty Mountain. There is no grass or wood here, but beneath it is a great amount of jade. This mountain cannot be ascended from any of the four directions. There is a snake the name of which is called Long Snake, which has hair like hog bristles. It makes a sound like drums and wooden clappers.

chang shi

Long Snake

And travelling north for another three hundred and twenty li there is a mountain called the Abundant Buzzing (Dun Hong) Mountain. There are many palms and evergreens upon it, and at its foot is much purple ci grass. The Abundant Buzzing (Dun Hong) River is here, and it flows to the west into Lake You. It comes out of the north-east wing of the the Kunlun Mountains, and is truly the only source of the Yellow River. In it are many Red Trout.

chi waRed Trout

Of its beasts there are many rhinoceroses, yaks, and hu pigeons.

mao niu hu jiuA yak and a hu pigeon

And travelling north for another two hundred li there is a mountain called the Lesser Salty Mountain. There is no grass or wood here, but much green jade. There is a beast here, which has the head of an ox, and a red body, the face of a man, the feet of a horse, and its name is called Yayu. Its cry sounds like that of a child. It eats men. The Abundant (Dun) River comes out from here, and it flows into the Goose Gate River. In it are many shishi fish, the meat of which will kill a man.

ya yuYa Yu

From the Western Treatise on the Great Wastelands (大荒西经):

In the midst of the Great Wasteland there is a mountain, the name of which is Sun and Moon Mountain. It is the axle of heaven. The Heaven’s Gate of Lady Heavensmouth [吴姬] is where the sun and moon enter in. There is a god which has the face of a man but no arms, and his two feet are reversed on top of his head. His name is Sighs.


Jade Hat sired Old Child, and Old Child sired two sons Heavy and Black. The Emperor of Heaven ordered Heavy to sacrifice to heaven above, and ordered Black to work the earth below. The earth below therefore gave birth to Choke. Choke is located at the western extremity of the world, in order to govern the passage of the sun, moon, stars, and constellations.


There is someone with his arms reversed. His name is the Heavenly Keeper of Beasts.

tian yuThe Heavenly Keeper of Beasts

There is a woman washing a moon. Emperor Excellent’s wife, Constant Xi gave birth to twelve moons, and thus began to wash them.

chang yi yu yueConstant Xi Washing the Moons
[Each of the little circles in the water has the character 月 for “moon” on it.

There is a mountain called Dark Cinnabar Mountain. There are Birds of Five Colors, which have human faces and hair. There are Blue Wen Birds, Yellow Ao Geese, Blue Birds, Yellow Birds. Where these gather together, that nation will be destroyed. There is a lake which is called Fierce Wing’s Strivings, Jade Hat’s Lake.

wu se niaoThe Bird of the Five Colors

In the midst of the Great Wasteland there is a mountain, the name of which is Ao’ao Steel. The sun and moon enter here. There is a beast which has heads on the left and right. Its name is called Pinpeng.

pin pengPinpeng

There is Sorcerer’s Mountain. There is Gully Mountain. There is the Mountain of the Golden Gate. There is a person called the Corpse of the Yellow Lady. There are Close-Winged Birds. There are White Birds, with blue wings, yellow tails, and dark beaks. There are Red Dogs, which are called the Dogs of Heaven. The places where these descend will have war.

tian quan bai niaoA Dog of Heaven and a White Bird

South of the Western Sea and by the shores of the Flowing Sands, behind the Red Waters and before the Black Waters, there is a great mountain. There is something called the Hill of the Kunlun. There is a god with a human face and a tiger’s body, with markings and a tail, entirely white, which is located here.

kun lun shenThe God of the Kunlun

Beneath it are weak waters which circle it in a whirlpool, and beyond them are mountains of flames. Anything that goes into them is always burned up. There is a person wearing jewelry, with the teeth of a tiger and a leopard’s tail. She lives in a cave. Her name is the Queen Mother of the West. All creatures and things can be found on this mountain.


From the Great Treatise on the Northern Wastelands (大荒北经):

In the midst of the wastes there is a mountain, which is called The Northern Limit, the Carpenters Square of Heaven. The waters of the sea flow north into it. There is a god, which has nine heads with human faces and the body of a bird. The god’s name is Nine-Phoenixes.

jiu fengThe Nine-Phoenixes

There is another god, which holds a snake in its mouth and snakes in its hands. It has the head of a tiger and the body of a man, with four hooves and long elbows. Its name is Hard-and-Good.

jiang langThe Hard-and-Good

In the midst of the great wastes there is a mountain, which is called Becoming the Capital and Carrying Heaven. There is a person, who has two yellow snakes for earrings. This person’s name is the Striding-Father. Lord Soil gave birth to Belief; Belief gave birth to the Striding-Father. Striding-Father could not measure his own strength. He wanted to pursue the light of the sun. He chased it to the place where it sets. Then he drank up the water of the Yellow River, but there was not enough, so he went into the Great Wetlands. He never reached it, and died in that place. When the Responding-Dragon had killed Unusually-Moronic, he also killed Striding-Father, and then departed for the south to dwell there. Therefore there is much rain in the south. There is also the Country of No-Intestines. The people there bear the surname Ren, which means “responsibility”. They have no children or descendants, and eat fish.

chi youUnusually-Moronic

Venerating-Work had an minister whose name was Xiang-yao. He had nine heads and the body of a snake all curled up around itself. He feeds on the soils of the nine divisions of the world. The soil that he breathes on becomes marshy lakes, exceedingly rank and bitter, such that none of the hundred beasts are able to dwell there. When Yu the Great was damming up the waters of the Deluge, he killed Xiang-yao. Xiang-yao’s blood was so exceedingly stinky, that it was impossible to grow grains in that place, and there was so much water about that nobody could live there. Yu the Great dammed the water. He piled up dykes three times and thrice they collapsed, until finally he made the place into a lake. Because of this all of the emperors took the dyke as an altar. The place is located north of Kunlun Mountain.

There is a mountain of hills. Tall bamboo grows on it.

In the midst of the great wastes there is a mountain, which is called Not-Turning. The waters of the sea flow into it.

There is a mountain called Linking-Offspring. Upon this is the altar of Venerating-Work. Those who would fire arrows here do not dare do so in the northern direction. There is someone wearing blue clothing. Her name is called the Yellow Emperor’s Woman-Demon. Unusually-Moronic raised soldiers to attack the Yellow Emperor. The Yellow Emperor thereupon commanded Responding-Dragon to attack Unusually-Moronic in the wilderness of Ji prefecture. Responding-Dragon dammed up the waters. Unusually-Moronic appealed to the Earl of the Wind and the Master of Rain to release great winds and rain. In response, the Yellow Emperor sent down from heaven Woman-Demon, and the rain stopped. Thus Unusually-Moronic was successfully slain. But Woman-Demon was not able to return to the world above.

nv ba

The Woman-Demon

Where she dwells, there is no rain. Uncle Jun spoke of this to the Emperor, and afterwards she was given a place north of the Red Waters. Uncle Jun thus became the lord of the fields. Woman-Demon at times goes off into exile. Those who wish for her blessings must say, “Oh Spirit, come north!” But first they must clear out the water channels, so that the gullies and ditches are freed of obstacles.

chi shui nv zi xianThe Offering of the Woman of the Red Water

From the Western Treatise on the Lands Within the Seas (海内西經):

In the lands within the seas, the south-west is hillier than the north.

Betrays-Responsibilities had an official who was called Danger. Betrays-Responsibilities and Danger murdered Yayu. The Emperor of Heaven therefore bound them both in shackles on top of the mountain called Distant-Relatives. He clamped their feet and bound their hands behind their back with their own hair, and suspended them thus from a tree on top of the mountain. This is located north-west of Open-Forehead.

er fu chen weiBetrays-Responsibilities’ Official, Danger

The Great Wetland is a hundred li on a side. Flocks of birds are born there and shed their feathers there. It is north of Goose Gate. Geese go out from amidst the Goose Gate Mountains, which are located north of High-Willows. High-Willows is north of the Kingdom of Dai.

The grave of Lord Millet is encircled by mountains and rivers. It is west of the country of the Di people.

The country of the Flowing Sands and the Yellow River where the inhabitants have the surname Feng is three hundred li on every side. In the western there is an wetland, and in the center there is a mountain. It is located to the west of the grave of Lord Millet.

The Flowing Sands exit from Mount Bell, and flow west and then south across the Waste of the Kunlun. They enter the sea to the south-west at the Mountain of Black Water. East Lake is on the eastern side of the Great Wetland. The Yi People are east of East Lake. The country of the Mo people is north-east of the River of Heroes. The place is close to Yan, and wreaks havoc upon it. The Fierce Bird lives to the north-east of the Country of Mo. This bird has red, yellow, and blue markings. It roosts in the east.

Within the seas, the Waste of Kunlun is in the north-west. It is the capital city on earth of the Emperor of Heaven. The Waste of Kunlun is square and eight hundred li on a side, and it is ten thousand feet high. Upon it is a grain tree, which is the height of eight xun and takes five men with their arms spread to encompass it around. At each face are nine wells, which have jade for railings. At each face are nine doors, and the doors are guarded by the beast called Opening-Brilliance. All of the hundreds of gods reside here. At the edge of the Red River is the Eight-Pointed Cliff. Only Lord Yi was able to climb to the ridgeline of this cliff.

The Red River emerges from the south-eastern corner and goes to its north-east, then to the south-west pours into the Southern Sea to the east of the Country of Abhorrent-Fires. The Yellow River emerges from the north-eastern corner, and goes to its north, and and in the south-west it once again enters into the Sea of Bo. The Auspicious River and the Black River emerge from the north-western corner, then turn east, and go east, and again turn to the north-east, and enter into the sea to the south, passing the Completely-Square Bird to the east.

To the south of the Kunlun is a watery depth that is three hundred feet deep. The Opening-Brilliance beast is like a type of great tiger with nine heads, each of them with a human face. It faces east, standing on top of the Kunlun.

kai mingThe Opening-Brilliance

West of the Opening-Brilliance there are fenghuang phoenixes and luan bird phoenixes, and they are all covered in snakes and draped with snakes, and in front of their breasts are red snakes.

North of the Opening-Brilliance there are the seeing-flesh creature, the pearl tree, the literary jade tree, the yuqi jade tree, and the tree of escaping death. The fenghuang phoenixes and luan phoenixes all carry shields. There is also Li Zhu, as well as grain trees, pines, sweet water, holy wood, and mandui, which is also called the straight-wood-of-crossed-teeth.

East of the Opening-Brilliance are the Shaman Peng, the Shaman Bright, the Shaman Di, the Shaman Shoe, the Shaman Sail, the Shaman Image. They stand on either side of the corpse of Yayu. Each of them holds the medicine of escaping death, with which they will revive him. Yayu has the body of a snake and the face of a man. He was killed by the official of Betrays-Responsibilities. Atop the Following-Constant tree there is a three-headed man, who is looking at a tree of langgan jade.

ya yuYayu

South of the Opening-Brilliance is the Tree Bird, which has six heads, as well as hornless dragons, fu dragons, snakes, apes, leopards, bird ranking trees, with trees and wood around the outside of the pools, reciting birds, xun hawks, and the Seeing-Flesh creature.


From the Northern Treatise on the Lands Beyond the Seas (海外北经):

Venerating-Work had a minister named Xiang-liu. He had nine heads, with which to devour the nine mountains. Everything that Xiang-liu pushed against was crushed into lakes and rivers. Yu the Great killed Xiang-liu. His blood stank, such that it was impossible to plant trees or the five grains. Yu the Great dug the place up. He piled up earth three times and three times it collapsed. Finally he piled it up into the Altar of All the Emperors. This is located north of the Kunlun, and east of Rouli. Xiang-liu had nine heads, each with a human face. He had the body of a snake, which was blue. People there don’t dare to shoot arrows to the north, for they are in fear of the Altar of Venerating-Work. The altar is east of Xiang-liu. It is square. At the corner there is a snake, which is the color of a tiger. The snake’s head faces the south.

xiang liuXiang-liu

The country of Deep-Eyes is east of here. Each of the people there has only one arm and one eye. It is east of the altar of Venerating-Work.

The country of No-Intestines is east of Deep-Eyes. The people there are very long and have no intestines.


From the Northern Treatise on the Lands Within the Seas (海內北經):

In the lands within the seas, the the north-west is hillier than the east.

On the Mountain of Snake Shamans, there is a man standing holding a cudgel and facing east. This mountain is also called Mount Turtle.

The Queen Mother of the West leans on a table and wears jewelry. South of her are three blue birds, which are there for the Queen Mother of the West to take and eat. This is north of the Waste of Kunlun.

There is a person called the Earl of the Great Procession, who holds a dagger. East of him is the Country of Enfeoffed Dogs. The corpse of Betrays-Responsibilities is also east of the Earl of the Great Procession.

The Country of Enfeoffed Dogs is also called the Country of the Dog Barbarians. Their appearance is that of dogs. There is a girl, who is right now kneeling and making an offering of millet as food. There is a horse with markings, which has a body like plain white silk, a red mane, and eyes like gold. Its name is the Auspicious-Amount. If you are able to ride it, you will live to ten thousand years.

quan rong

A Dog Barbarian

The Country of Ghosts is located north of the corpse of Betrays-Responsibilities. The creatures that live there have the faces of men and only one eye. Another saying is that the god Betrays-Responsibilities is located east of them, and that they have the faces of humans and the bodies of snakes. The Centipede-Dogs are as dogs, but blue, and they eat people starting with the head. The Exhausting-Strangeness has an appearance like that of a tiger, except it has wings, and it also eats people starting with the head. Those who are eaten are those who have let their hair down. The Exhausting-Strangeness is located north of the Centipede-Dogs. Another saying is that they start eating from the feet.

The Emperor Yao, the Emperor Ku, the Emperor Cinnabar and the Emperor Dance each have two altars. Each one is square, and they are located north-east of the Kunlun.

The Large Bee has an appearance like that of a grasshopper. The Red Moth has an appearance like that of a moth. The Jiao insect has the body of a person with the markings of a tiger. On its lower legs it has [something, composed of the characters 啟 over the character 月]. It is east of the Exhausting-Strangeness. Another saying is that its appearance is like that of a person. It live north of the Kunlun Waste. The Tafei has the head of a man and the body of a beast. It is blue.

The corpse of the Jubi is that of a person, with its neck cut off and its hair loosened, missing one hand. The people of the Ring-Dogs have heads of beasts and the bodies of men. Another saying is that they have the appearance of hedgehogs, similar to dogs. They are yellow.

huan gou

A Ring Dog

The creatures of the Mei have the bodies of men, dark heads, and straight eyes.


A Mei

The people of the Rong Barbarians have the hands of men and three horns.




A Rong Barbarian

The Country of Those With the Surname Lin has Treasure-Beasts. They are as large as tigers, colored all over in the five colors, and their tales are longer than their bodies. They are called the Zouwu, and if you can get on one you will ride for a thousand li in a day.

zou wu

The Zouwu

South of the Kunlun there is a forest of blocked up water which is three hundred li on a side. At the greatest extent of its depths it is three hundred feet. Only the Ice-Peace is accustomed to living in this place. The Ice-Peace has the face of a person, and rides two dragons. Another saying calls the place the Depths of Extreme-Loyalty.

The Yellow River pours out of Sunny-Muddy Mountain. Then it pours through Ice-Gate Mountain. The corpse of Prince Night has two arms, two legs, a chest, a head, teeth, but all split apart and in separate places. The sage emperor Shun’s wife Deng Bishi gave birth to Night-Glow and Torchlight, who can be found in the Great Lake of the Yellow River. The spiritual power of the two girls can light up the area for a hundred li on a side. Another saying calls their mother Deng Beishi.

The Country of Lid is south of Great Yan, and north of the dwarfs. The dwarfs belong to Yan. The Land of the Morning Calm is east of the Serried-Sun, north of the sea and south of the mountains. The Serried-Sun also belongs to Yan. The Archer Girl of Serried-Sun can be found on the islands of the sea and the Yellow River. The nation of the Girl Archers is on the sea, and belongs to the Archer Girl of Serried-Sun. To the south-west, it is encircled by mountains.

Big Crabs can be found in the sea. The Hill Fish has the face of a person, hands and feet, but the body of a fish. It is found in the sea. The Great Bream lives in the sea. Ming Zuyi lives in the sea. Mount Penglai can be found in the sea. The market of the giants can be found in the sea.

da xie A Big Crab



Art China Hebei Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

Some Inconclusive Evidence for Alien Abductions in Yu County



The Dragon Kings live in the Crystal Palace beneath the ocean and dispense rain. For this reason they are worshiped in the districts that border the Gobi. Temples to the Dragon Kings in Yu County are decorated with scenes of the Dragons riding out amidst clouds and deluge. Underneath these painted storms are commonly little scenes depicting common people going about their business. These can be various and interesting. I’ll write a full and informative post about Dragon King Temples in Yu County at some point, but I thought I’d point out here an alarming little cautionary tale to be found on the walls in one particular temple in the northern part of the valley. The reader is invited to make his own conclusions regarding UFO abductions, ancient astronauts, etc.

Yu County gets some pretty good rainstorms during the spring and summer. These spiny characters below drag their carts of water through the clouds and dispense it by ladle to the terrestrial realm below.



If you’re out in the fields when this happens, your best bet is to drop your rakes and hoes and make for cover.


Those who get under the trees in a timely fashion will generally have no problem surviving the storm.


If you’re not fast enough though, you could get hit by lightning. The drum descending upon the fellow in this picture symbolizes thunder.



Even worse though, you could just get abducted by dragons.


Presumably this guy got eaten. I personally find this little story worrisome. At very least it’s food for thought for next time you’re out in a thunderstorm.


Art China Fortresses Shanxi Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

Pillar Orders in Yangyuan County



So, in other news, I’m back in Boston. I’m using the libraries, applying to grad programs in Tibetan Studies, and catching up on old stuff. I’m also done walking, maybe for good, and so am going to be changing this blog around to be more focused on art.

To that end I’m going to back post some stuff I’ve had sitting around for a while. These are pillar capitals found under the eaves of walls of fortress-villages of Yangyuan County (陽原縣). I’m not sure how much this particular ornamentation style extends beyond Yangyuan; I’ve never seen it in any of the neighboring counties and in fact it seems pretty specific to certain villages within Yangyuan. In most villages, no houses have pillar capitals; in some villages, every house has them. It’s possible that the style extends north from Yangyuan, which is a direction in which I’ve never explored, but it does not extend south into Yu County and from what I’ve seen it doesn’t extend east or west either. I’m interested though in the idea of micro-cultures, which can be limited to specific counties or even particular villages which simply had unique artistic traditions. Here’s my collection:







China Translation

Drawn With a Very Fine Camelhair Brush: Some Asiatic Enumerata

敦煌石窟全集;佛轉故事書卷,p.127, cave 61

cave 419

The upper image is cave 61 at Mogao, taken from 敦煌石窟全集:佛轉故事書卷,p.127.
The lower image is from cave 419, taken from 敦煌石窟藝術,莫高窟第四二零窟,四一九窟 (隋), p.10



Buddhists divide suffering into three types.

1) Dukkha Dukkha: The Suffering of Suffering. This refers to pain, hunger, unhappiness, what we usually think of by the word “suffering”.

2) Vipariṇāma Dukkha: The Suffering of Change. All things are impermanent and any happiness comes with the knowledge that it will someday end. Sickness, old age, and death are inevitable for us all.

3) Saṃkhāra Dukkha: This is the most subtle of the three types of suffering. It refers to the suffering of being at all.



On West Lake at the Midsummer Festival there’s nothing whatever to see. The only thing to do is to watch the people who attend the Midsummer Festival. If you go to look at these people, you should divided them into five types, and look at each.

One type plays drums and flutes from houses and boats. They wear high hats and extravagant clothes amidst the lanterns and fires and watch actors and operas as voices and light mix in the chaos. These people can be called, “those who go to look at the moon but don’t see it.” Look at them!

One type is both on the boats and among the houses. They mingle with famous entertaining girls and talented women, and bring with them child actors, and their laughter is mixed with shouts. Then they sit on open pavilions and gaze and glance to the left and right. These are the ones who are beneath the moon, but who aren’t actually looking at the moon at all. Look at them!

One type is also out on the boats, singing. They entertain famous courtesans and idle monks, pour soft cups of tea and sing in low voices, with soft flutes and light harps, as the sounds of men and instruments mix together. These are are the ones who are beneath the moon, and they are looking at the moon, but they also want people to look at them looking at the moon. Look at them!

One type is found neither on the rafts nor on carriages. They wear neither shirts nor turbans, but have become drunk on wine and full on food, and go shouting in groups of three or five, jostling their way through the crowds of people, either at the Monastery of Auspicious Light or at Broken Bridge, shouting, hooting, and causing a ruckus. They pretend to be drunk, singing off-key songs. They look at the moon, and they look at the people who are looking at the moon and look at the people who aren’t looking at the moon as well, while in fact they don’t see a single thing. Look at them!

One type rides on little boats with light curtains, and warm themselves around stoves of clear tea. When the tea has been brought to boil they quietly pass around white porcelain bowls of it. Among good friends and beautiful women they sit together awaiting the moon, either concealing themselves in the shadows of trees, or escaping the hubbub in the middle of the lake. They look at the moon but nobody sees that they look at the moon, and in fact they are not even really so intent on looking at the moon. Look at them!


- By Zhang Dai, 1597-1679.
Translated by me from the version found here



“Though there are many types of females, there are none that are not included into these four types – lotus, picture, large conch, and elephant. A woman of the lotus type is best. She is beautiful, with smiling face; her body is slender and supple. She has no freckles, and her color is ruddy and white. She has shiny very long black hair, and her eyes move about like frightened deer. Her nostrils are small; her eyebrows are thick. She likes clean clothes and simple food. She wears only a few adornments, like flowers and so forth. She is altruistic and a doer of virtue. She has abandoned desire for others than her own husband. Her breasts are soft, round, and big. Her vagina is about six finger breadths deep. Her menstruation emits a fragrance like a lotus; therefor she is of the lotus type. The wife of King Rama, Sita, the wife of the Pandava [princes], Draupadl, and so forth are lotus types. Mostly in former times there were many of the lotus type; they are born among good lineages in the central areas of agreeable lands.

The picture type is of medium height. She is not very fat and not very thin. She has roving long eyes which are like petals of a lotus. Her nose is like the sesame flower. She wears clothes of various colors and a garland of yellow flowers. She likes all kinds of pictures. She is enthusiastic to hear interesting stories. She keeps various small birds, parrots, and so forth. Always a group of children stays around her. Her body is as beautiful as a painted picture; therefore she is said to be of the picture type. She has less inclination for the bliss of copulation. Her other attributes are like those of the lotus type. Her reproductive organ is roundish and eight finger breadths deep. Her pubic area has little hair, and her menstruation is clear. Ulomaka and Rasajna are women of the picture type. It is said that the picture type appear on the banks of great rivers, such as the Ganges, Kaveri, and Sindhu [Indus].

The large conch type is thin and tall. Her neck is crooked; the tip of her nose goes upward. The shape of her face is long and of beautiful color. She eats various foods again and again. She is clever at protecting her household, her servants, and those around her. She talks well; her mind is clear, and she is only a little secretive. It is easy for her to become acquainted quickly with all whom she meets. She has little respect for her elders, but it is said she mixes compatibly with her own family. Her jealousy and passion are great. Her genitals are warm and ten finger breadths deep. Her pubic hair is thick, and her secretion comes out easily. A sour odor is emitted from her body and vagina. Most women of the world are included in the great conch type but from the differences of quality and temperature of the region many different shapes and colors occur. The three qualities of being talkative, having a facile tongue, and having a crook in the neck are taken as being unmistakable signs of this type.

The elephant type is short; her limbs are broad. Her mouth and nose are thick. Her hips are larger than anything else. Her eyes are reddish; her hair, coarse; her shoulders, rounded. Her breasts are very large and hard like stone. She eats a great deal, and her voice is strong and anxious. She covers her whole body from head to food with adornments. She likes adultery and low gossip. Most of this type separate from their husbands. She acquaints with large men of great strength and all others she finds. As she has strong passion burning hard, she wants to sleep with every son and father. She needs to copulate many times each day. Though a hundred men do it, she is not satisfied. Her genitalia is very hairy and burns with heat like fire. It is always dripping wet and has an odor like that of an elephant. An adulteress like her is not suitable as a wife, but as she is vigorous in the act, she is renowned as the superior of maid-servants.

By dividing again each of the four fundamental types of women into four, there are sixteen types. Understand the divisions – the lotus of lotus type, etc. – in accordance with what was explained earlier about the types of men.

The divisions were spoken by Maheshvara. Vatsyayana speaks of two groups of three types each, making six. In that system the three types of males are rabbit, buck, and stallion. The three types of females are doe, mare, and elephant. The best, middle, and last of those two groups should be underestood according to the order of their presentation. Though many modes of division are explained in the commentaries, except for only minor points they all agree.”

 – From “The Treatise on Passion” by Gendün Chöpel
trans. Jeffrey Hopkins & Dorje Yudon Yutok. p.173-175.


མི་མ་ཡིན་པས་འཛིན་པའི་རྒྱལ་ཁམས་བརྒྱད། The Eight Realms Controlled by Non-Humans

1) ལྐོག་པ་བྲང་འགྱར། “Those With Throats Stuck to Their Chests”

2) ཐེ་རང་མིག་གཅིག་པ། “The One-Eyed Therang [demons]”

3) སྐྱེ་ལྤ་རྨེ་ཤ་ཅན། “The Goitred Moley Ones”

4) སོག་པོ་སྤྲེའུ་ལག་ཅན། “The Monkey-Handed Mongolians”

5) རྒྱ་མོ་ཁྱི་ཁྱི་ཅན། “The Chinese Women who Possess Dogs”

6) རྣ་བོ་ཆེ་བོང་བུ། “The Large-Eared Donkeys”

7) ཚེ་ཚེ་ར་མགོ་ཅན། “The Goat-Headed Goats”

8) ཙུ་ཏ་རྐང་གཅིག་པ། “The One-Legged Tsu-Ta”

 – From Jigs-med-gling-pa’s “Discourse on India”
Trans. Michael Aris


Chöpel, Gendün, trans. Jeffrey Hopkins, and Dorje Yudon Yutok. Tibetan Arts of Love: Sex, Orgasm, & Sexual Healing. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1992. Print.
敦煌硏究院, 江蘇美術出版社編; 主編段文傑; 編著楊雄. 敦煌石窟藝術. 莫高窟第四二零窟, 四一九窟(隋). 南京: 江蘇美術出版社, 1996. Print. [Dunhuang Academy, Jiangsu Arts Press; Edited by Yin Wenjie, written by Yang Xiong. Dunhuang Grotto Arts: The 419th and 420th Caves at Mogao (Sui Dynasty). Nanjing: Jiangsu Arts Press, 1996. Print]
Jigs-med-gliṅ-pa Raṅ-byuṅ-rdo-rje, and Michael Aris. Jigs-med-gling-pa’s Discourse On India of 1789 : a Critical Edition and Annotated Translation of the Iho-phyogs Rgya-gar-gyu Gtam Brtag-pa Brgyad-kyi Me-long. Tokyo: International institute for Buddhist studies, 1995.

施萍婷. 敦煌石窟全集:佛教故事書卷. 香港 : 商務印書館, 2002. Print. [Shi Pingting. The Complete Collection of the Dunhuang Grottoes: Volume on Buddhist Stories. Hong Kong, Commercial Press, 2002. Print.]

Art China Hebei Shanxi Translation Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

List-Cities and Form-Cities: Umberto Eco in Yu County

taken from 故城寺壁畫, 16-17


gu cheng si

gu cheng quan jingThe uppermost image of the temple interior is from 故城寺壁畫, p.16-17. The other photos by me.

In “The Infinity of Lists”, Umberto Eco makes the distinction between “form” and “list”. “Form” is whatever can be delimited, given boundary and shape. “List” is anything limitless and impossible to describe other than by necessarily unsatisfactory enumeration. “List” can be further differentiated from “Catalog”: a list is potentially infinite, while a catalog delineates the entirety of a set, and thus limiting it and giving it form. These distinctions apply in literature as they do in art. They can even apply to buildings and cities:


“The homology with the rhizome obliges us to think also of territorial and architectonic lists. Earlier we remarked how difficult it is to imagine a pictorial list given that the picture frame limits space and, so to speak, prevents us from thinking of an “et-cetera”; but we did grant that it is possible to suggest (and we have seen how) an incalculable continuity beyond the limits of the frame.

Likewise we ought to say that there is no architectonic “et-cetera”, since every architectonic edifice circumscribes and delimits its own space, and exists precisely because it separates an internal living space from the space surrounding it. This holds not only for buildings but also for cities delimited by walls, or those that spread out in a star shape from a central square (like the ideal cities of the 16th century). But it was the same with the form of the Roman castrum, a square subdivided by vertical and horizontal lines, and in fact we commonly talk of city and outskirts, city and district, city and surrounding territory.

Yet when we leave the city built around a central square and move on to the American city that spreads out from “Main Street”, we find that this spinal column of the city can be infinitely prolonged, and gradually cities spring up where the centre fades seamlessly into suburbs that get bigger day by day so that sometimes it is difficult to say where the city ends and the rest of the territory begins. This eventually leads us to the “city-territory”, the main example of which is Los Angeles, which has no centre and is practically the outskirts of itself. Los Angeles is an “et-cetera” city and so, if we wish to accept the metaphor, it is a “list-city” rather than a “form-city”.

A “list-city” is shaped like an open maze. Certainly, the classical structure of the maze is that of delimited space. But it is a closed space structured in such a way that those who enter it feel that it is impossible to find a way out. The maze is form, but for those who enter one it represents the experience of impossibility of getting out and hence of endless wandering – and this is the source of its appeal and of the fear it can strike into people. Paradoxically, the maze is a non-linear list, which rewinds itself like a ball of wool, and again the homology with the structure of a rhizome tells us something about this Achilles’ shield as infinite as the catalog of ships.”

 – “The Infinity of Lists”, p.240-241


If ever there was a place and society which built “form-cities” rather than “list-cities”, it was, par-excellence, Yu County in the Ming Dynasty. By the year 1600, Yu County was a world in which every single settlement had been enclosed in square walls. Hundreds of mud-walled “form-fortresses” rose over the fields, oblong and monotonous, each with its own slight variation on the template but all bearing the same essential, ordered components, the same cardinal orientations, the same street plans, the same temple towers, the same gates, the same opera stages, the same temples at the same geomantically appropriate places. It was a place in which all space had form. (One is tempted to quote the Heart Sutra on Form and Emptiness here, but this is maybe too off-topic.)

And yet for all that, Yu County was also a society obsessed with catalogs, and arguably lists in Eco’s sense as well. Almost every temple in Yu County had some kind of fabulous series running across the walls: either paneled comic-book style illustrations of popular epics and the histories of the gods, the Life of Sakyamuni, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Journey to the North, the Fifty-Three Stations of Sudhana, or  great complicated scenes of buildings, deeds, beasts, men, battles, sages, the whole variegated and monstrous hosts of the Dragon Kings riding out from the Crystal Palace amidst sturm und drang, dispensing lighting and rain, all of the different Buddhas of this or that sutra, visual and written lists of donors, magistrates, villagers, and more besides.

Below, I’m going to introduce two particular sets of lists or catalogs which are found in Yu County, neither of which I can reproduce entirely here for various reasons. The first set of list comes from the Buddhist ceremony called “The Great Feast of All on Water and Land” (水陸大齋), sometimes referred to in English sources as the “Shuilu Ceremony”. In this ceremony the names of all of the inhabitants of heaven, earth, and hell are read out and called to attend the offering of food, where they can gather numinously about and listen to the Buddhist teachings being chanted in the temple. To this end, the images of these beings are drawn on silk hangings or, in Yu County, directly on the walls of the temple, in massive everyone-and-the-kitchen-sink processions of monstrous, mythical, and mundane entities that wrap about the main prayer halls in huge motley parades. The second type of list is that of the “Images of the Hundred Trades” (百工圖). These images depict men engaged in all of the myriad trades available in pre-modern China. These two types of lists or catalogs are interesting because, together, they present an unmatched visual panorama of the spiritual and economic world of Yu County, both divine, infernal, and material in the good Marxist sense.


Images of the Great Feast of All on Water and Land are not limited to Yu County. According to Dan Stevenson, the ceremony originated in Sichuan in the first millennium AD and involved images or paper effigies from an early date. The most famous published set of Water-and-Land drawings are those from Baoning Monastery in Youyu County, Shanxi (山西朔州市右玉縣寶寧寺). These were originally painted on silks scrolls, and have been published in full by the Beijing Cultural Relics Press (文物出版社) under the title The Ming-Dynasty Water-and-Land Paintings of Baoning Temple (寶寧寺明代水陸畫). There’s also a collection from the White Cloud Temple (白雲觀) in Beijing published under the title The Compendium of Spirits on Water and Land: Historical Water-and-Land Paintings from the Repository of Beijing’s White Cloud Temple (水陸神全: 北京白雲觀藏歷代道教水陸畫). I haven’t looked at this yet.

The only other published collection that I’m aware of comes from Yu County, under the title of The Frescoes of the Stubborn-Fort Monastery (故城寺壁畫), edited by the Cultural Relics Research Bureau of Hebei Province (河北省文物研究所) and the Yu County Museum (蔚縣博物館) and published by the Beijing Scientific Press (北京科學出版社). This is where I got the image at the top of this post. This is also the only one of these sets which can be securely dated. According to plaques still hung on the prayer-hall rafters, the monastery was built in the second year of the Zhengde Reign or 1507. The abbot who oversaw the process was named De Jun (得俊). The money came from members of the Jia (賈) family and the Fan (范) family. The painter was named Li Han (李漢). There are 112 groups of figures and 539 individuals. The identity of the figures and the specific individual or village that paid for that piece of painting are written in cartouche nearby. The whole thing is reproduced in the book, so if you’re really interested in this and can’t go to Yu County, or you can but the dimwitted monk who keeps the Stubborn-Fortress Monastery is out all the time and can’t seem to afford a real lightbulb for the prayer hall, I recommend just going and finding this in a library.

Besides the set in Stubborn-Fort Monastery, there are several sets of Water-and-Land frescoes around the Yu County area which have never been reproduced or published in full. The Monastery of Redoubled Peace (重泰寺) in the northern part of Yu County has a massive set, which is very partially reproduced in Yu County Temple Frescoes (蔚州寺廟壁畫), also by the Beijing Scientific Press. There is another beautifully preserved set located in the Monastery of the Peaceful Sage (安賢寺) in neighboring Guangling County (廣靈縣). This is the most wonderfully intricate and zany of the lot, although whoever drew it never got around to filling in the cartouches. There’s another set, which I’ve never been to, in the main hall of the Monastery of Perfect Enlightenment in the Hunyuan County Seat (渾源縣圓覺寺) over the mountains from the basin of Yu and Guangling. Finally, there’s a mostly effaced set in the main hall of the Lower Jade Springs Monastery (下玉泉寺) in Yu County and a newly-painted set in the main hall of the Dharma Ornament Monastery in Datong City (大同市區法華寺). There’s probably more that I don’t know about too, and even more than that before the Cultural Revolution. The point of all this being that water-and-land spirit catalogs were an extremely widespread decorative trope on the main prayer halls of Buddhist monasteries along the Xuanhua-Datong-Shuozhou frontier.

Here’s some from the Monastery of Redoubled Peace in Yu County:


The place sits on the rim of a canyon that cuts through high, sloping plains in the north of Yu County. The monastery was built expecting an attack. To the south it borders unscalable precipices on two sides. To the north a thick wall of pounded mud blocks off the compound. Standing on the buttresses there you can see north up to the walls of Xian and Zhou Family Fort. To the south, twin fortresses called the Yan Family Stockade and the Fort of the Gao and Li Families’ Temple stand on either rim of the gorge, connected by a wall across the canyon floor that guards the way up to the monastery.

I’d spent the night before I got there sleeping in a cherry orchard, in a haze of pink blossoms. Then I walked over brown fields as the sun bloomed out over the Lesser Five-Peak Mountains in the far south. As I walked I began to meet little parties of people heading the same way. “Where are you going!” I’d call. “To the Monastery of Redoubled Peace!,” they’d shout back. “A temple fair today!”

In the canyon beneath the monastery walls, cars were pulling in. Vendors had set out carts selling clothes, toys, balloons, tools. I sat on a stool and had some fried dough for breakfast as the crowd grew. Villagers were pulling up by motorcycle and minibus and mule cart, trickling down by narrow paths over the red canyon walls on foot. I bought some incense from an old woman at the foot of the stairs. Then I climbed up onto the cliff top and went into the monastery. Note for the below that you could take issue with some of the following translations and also that it was dark in there.



The Treasure-Banner of the King Who Governs Sickness and the Senders of the Five Illnesses


The Treasure-Banner of All the Ghosts who Dwell Idly on Water and Land among the Reeds, and Those Devils of the Stagnant [ ] [ ] Wood


The Treasure-Banner of the King who Opens the Teachings, the Great Scholar of the Face


[The cartouche is illegible]


The Treasure-Banner of All Those Ghosts who were Overly Punished Without Committing a Crime, and who Hold Hatred against the Magistrate’s Wrongs


The Treasure-Banner of the Eight Hot Hells

More from the Monastery of the Peaceful Sage in Guangling County. It snowed the night before I came here. I ate hand-worked noodles on the street in the Guangling County seat and then set out walking through the snow-covered fields. In a village I saw a poster about how not to electrocute yourself. Sheep blocked the snowy road and a woman on a bicycle gave me a pamphlet for a forbidden cult. A man invited me into a house by a little shrine and poured me tea. I gave him peanuts but he had no teeth to chew them with. The whole world was white with snow and gold with cornstalks scattered across the fields. Later on some old men brought me into this monastery.



Note that these images don’t have cartouches so your guess is as good as mine about who these are.




So that’s that. All the sets I’ve seen seem to have some core figures but they also contain figures that are unique. There’s probably a grad thesis in comparing them all and working out who’s who and when it was all drawn and why, but as the Russians would say, not my hemorrhoid, слава богу.




People in Yu County would have you believe that there is only one set of Images of the Hundred Trades. In fact there are at least three. There’s one on the walls of the Pavilion of the Water Spirit (水神堂) in Guangling County next-door to Yu. The Pavilion of the Water Spirit is a nice little temple on an island in the center of a circular lake. The lake is located in a grove outside of the southern walls of Guangling. It’s one of the most eminently pleasant places in the whole valley and I recommend a visit. So far as I can tell, the Images of the Hundred Trades there is just as complete as the one in Yu County except less well publicized and also lacking cartouches. I have all these photographed and I may put them up at some point. There was also a set on the walls of the Temple of the God of Wealth (財神廟) in the township of the Royal City of Dai (代王城鎮) back in Yu County, but these are too effaced to be really legible, and also the Daoist who lives there is an ornery individual.

Yu County’s famous set of Images of the Hundred Trades however is located in the village called The Origin of Summer (夏源村), in a temple to Lord Guan there. The temple is composed of three halls, a main one in the north and two flanking ones (配殿) on the east and west. The side walls of the two flanking halls have square paneled murals depicting the Hundred Trades, of which there are sixty four. I would have translated all of these and posted them ages ago except that the temple is kept locked, and the people who run the party committee in The Origin of Summer village won’t give me the keys. However, they’ve been partially published now in Yu County Temple Frescoes (蔚州寺廟壁畫) and there’s even a little book about them, The Hundred Trades in City, County, and Village: The Frescoes of the Temple to Lord Guan in the Origin of Summer Village in Yu County, (附縣鄉裏百工:蔚縣夏源關帝廟壁畫) by one Dai Jianbing (戴建兵). If I ever get into that temple I’ll publish the lot right here, but for now here’s a few from the pages of Yu County Temple Frescoes, p.162-165.


The southern wall of the eastern flanking hall at Xiayuan.

Each of the little panels has a picture of a different trade, and a poetical cartouche identifying it. I’ve translated these directly; you can look at the picture yourself and tell more or less what they mean.

shu qian louThe House of Coining Moneyjing xuan mu cai

Choicest Quality Wood Materialsmei jiu hong hang  The House of Jars of Beautiful Liquorren zhi yi fu

Benevolent Quality and Righteous Wealthdu shu lin

The Forest of Reading Books

geng lv ye

Plowing the Green Wilderness



So that’s that. Whether Umberto Eco would count these as “lists” in his technical sense or just “catalogs”, I’m not sure. These images do suggest, I think, infinity, arbitrarily subdivided. Consider again the Water-and-Land images in the Stubborn-Fort Monastery. Besides the great processions flanking the eastern and western walls of the prayer hall, there are smaller sets of figures on the lower parts of the southern wall. One set of these contains a little list of the potential deaths, or of the dead. The titles are, in full: “The Ghosts of Those Who Died From Sickness, Disease, or Hunger, etc.” (疾病餓鬼等眾). “The Society of the Ghosts who Died Unnaturally, etc.” (橫死鬼社等眾). “Those who Died Unnaturally By Their Own Works, etc.” (自作橫死等眾). “Those who Create Evil Karma by Killing and Wounding with Knives, etc.” (冤孽刀傷殺害等眾) “Those who Unjustly Died a Bitter Death, etc.” (冤枉苦死等眾). “Those who Perish By Stabbing Their Own Bodies, etc.” (自刺身亡等眾). “Those Who Die by Carts or Rickshaws, etc.” (車輦身亡等眾). “Those who From Ancient Times have been Harmed by Medicine” (往古藥傷等眾). And a final panel on which the cartouche has been erased. Surely these are not all of the potential deaths worth memorializing on a wall? Add to this the fact that many of these images are painted so high up, in a hall lit presumably only by candles and scant daylight through lattice-and-paper windows, that nobody would ever have been able to examine them or read the cartouches. The effect, if not the intent, was one of dizzying, un-exhausted profusion.

Then there’s the category of “various”. Next to the curiously specific list of deaths we find the following image:

qiao zui“Those with Clever Mouths, Big Tongues, Bad Breath, and Large Stomachs.” Image from 故城寺壁畫, p.248.

Which seems like an infinitude to me.




Works Cited:

戴建兵. 附縣鄉裏百工:蔚縣夏源關帝廟壁畫. 天津: 天津古籍出版社, 2013. Print. [Dai Jianbing. The Hundred Trades in City, County, and Village: The Frescoes of the Temple to Lord Guan in the Origin of Summer Village in Yu County. Tianjin: Tianjin Classics Press, 2013. Print.]

李信軍, 白雲觀管理委員會. 水陸神全: 北京白雲觀藏歷代道教水陸畫. 杭州: 西泠印社出版社, 2011. Print. [Li Xinjun, the Governance Committee of White Cloud Temple.  The Compendium of Spirits on Water and Land: Historical Water-and-Land Paintings from the Repository of Beijing’s White Cloud Temple. Hangzhou, Xiling Seal Engraver’s Society Publishing House. 2011. Print. ]

山西省博物館. 寶寧寺明代水陸畫. 北京 : 文物出版社, 1985. Print. [The Shanxi Provincial Museum. The Ming-Dynasty Water-and-Land Paintings of Baoning Monastery. Beijing: Cultural Relics Press, 1985. Print.]

Stevenson, Dan. “Text, Image, and Transformation in the History of Shuilu Fahui, the Buddhist Rite for Deliverance of Creatures of Water and Land.” Cultural Intersections in Later Chinese Buddhism. Ed. Marsha Weidner. Honolulu: U of Hawaii, 2001. Print.

蔚縣博物館. 故城寺壁畫. 北京: 科學出版社, 2010. Print. [Yu County Museum. The Frescoes of Stubborn-Fort Monastery. Beijing. Scientific Press. 2013. Print.]

蔚縣博物館. 蔚州寺廟壁畫. 北京: 科學出版社, 2013. Print. [Yu County Museum. Yu County Temple Frescoes. Beijing. Scientific Press. 2013. Print.]

chou kou

Art China Inner Mongolia Translation

Inner Mongolian Village Governance Comics

The Great Wall on the Mongolian border near Old Garrison


Around December during a dip into Inner Mongolia along the Great Walls I found myself begging around for water in a little village there. Some Hanzu farmers, with uncharacteristic niceness, invited me in for lunch. The above is the inside of their house, which consisted of three arched cave rooms cut into a loess hillside. On the wall around the sleeping platform they had the following cool posters:



These are apparently the illustrations from a little comic book-style booklet on village governance ordinances in Inner Mongolia.  It seems like an unusual thing to make a comic book about and some of these drawings are actually surprisingly well done. (They have a nice color scheme, don’t they? And kind of an ’80s aesthetic, except trippily transplanted into rural, communist Inner Mongolia.) So I thought I’d translate the whole thing. There’s obviously a lot of gaps, as half of both posters were hidden; I suppose if you want to know more about Inner Mongolian village governance, you can go to there and find out more yourself. This goes along with my general interest in vernacular visual cultures of all types. For those of you who care about rural jurisdictional pyramids, I’m translating 村 and 嘎查 as “village”, 鄉 as “villageship”, 蘇木 as “arrow”, and 鎮 as “township”. 



I) In accordance with the “Legal Code for the Organization of Village Committees of the People’s Republic of China” and incorporating the realities of the [Inner Mongolian] Autonomous Region, the following methods will be used.


[The sign on the wall says, “The Village Committee”]


II) The village committee is the the base-level collective self-governing organization for the self governance, self education, and self service of the village people. It puts into motion democratic elections, democratic decision making, democratic governance, and democratic supervision.


[The sign on the gate says, “The People’s Government of Bayan Sumu”]

III) The people’s governments at the arrow, villageship and township levels give guidance, support, and help to the work of the village committee of Gacha, but they cannot interfere with affairs that in accordance with the law fall within the realm of the self-governance of the village. The village committee will partner with the people’s governments at the arrow, villageship, and township levels in launching new projects.

IV) The village committee will be instituted in accordance with principles that are convenient for mass governance, and in accordance with the living situation of the people, their historical preferences, the size of the population, etc. The creation, dispersal, and jurisdictional adjustments of the village committee will be suggested by the people’s governments at the arrow, villageship, and township levels. After being discussed and agreed upon by a meeting of the village people, it will be reported to the people’s government at the arrow level in order to be approved.


V) The village committee is formed from the chairman, the vice-chairman, and three to seven members of the committee. These are chosen by direct election from the village people. The precise number of posts will be suggested by the arrow, villageship, and township level people’s governments in accordance with the specific situation of the village, and will be decided by discussion during a meeting of the people of village or a meeting of their representatives. Among the committee members of village, there should be a quota of an appropriate number of female candidates. If the village is inhabited by multiple nationalities, there should be committee members who belong to whichever nationalities represent a minority. Among the members of the committee, there should be none who are spouses or are close relatives. The chairman and vice chairman of the committee are not permitted to be in charge of the financial affairs of the village. Those who are spouses or close relatives of members of the village committee members are also not permitted to be in charge of financial affairs of the village.

VI) The village committee can establish subordinate committees in accordance with need. If the population of the village is small, the committee can also not establish subordinate committees, and just divide their work between the committee members.

VII) The village committee can, in accordance with the specific situation and the wishes of the villagers, divide up to form smaller groups. The leaders of these smaller groups will be decided by group meeting. The groups can launch projects under the direction of the village committee.


[The sign says, “The Main Responsibilities of the Village Committee”.]

VIII) The village committee receives its responsibility from the assembly of the people of the village. The main tasks of this responsibility are as follows:

  1. To organize both herding and farming people to develop a multi-faceted economy. It has the task of serving and coordinating the production of the village.
  2. To protect the two-level system of using household contracts as a basis and simultaneously centralizing and decentralizing, in order to prevent the legal rights and benefits of collective economic groups, the village people, and other economic groups from being harmed.
  3. In accordance with the law, to manage, protect, and use in accordance with reason the land, prairie areas, mountain forests as well as the electrical, irrigation, and other facilities which collectively belong to the herders and farmers.
  4. To manage the financial affairs of the village.
  5. In accordance with the economic development needs of the villages and pastoral areas, to draw up and implement a building plan for the village, setting up public works and develoments to the general benefit in the agricultural fields and pastoral areas, as well as in forestry, irrigation, roads, electricity, communications, education, technology, culture, sports, and social security.
  6. To educate the people of the village to take care of public property, protect and improve the natural environment, and develop and make use of natural resources in accordance with the law and with reason.
  7. To propogate and implement the constitution, laws, regulations, and national policies. To educate and urge the village people to take part in payment of taxes, military service, volunteer education, and other tasks as defined by law, as well as to uphold the basic national policy on family planning.
  8. To develop cultural education and basic level technological knowledge, and to launch different forms of activities to develop civilized spirit.
  9. To mediate quarrels among the people, to promote family harmony, to encourage the unity of the village people and to promote the unity and mutual assistance of hamlets within the villageship.
  10. To mutually assist in acheiving a secure society, and to protect the normal order of production and life. To assist relevant agencies, and to educate, assist, and manage any members of the village who have been stripped of their political rights in accordance with the law.
  11. To convene the assembly of the people of the village and the assembly of the representatives of the village, to make work reports, and carry out their decisions and suggestions.
  12. To reflect the comments, needs, and advice of the village people to the sumu, villageship, and township level people’s governments. To guard the rights and interests of the village people in accordance with the law.


IX) When the village committee discusses and decides upon issues, it must fully carry out the democratic process, and support the principle of the minority serving the majority.

X) The committee members of the village committee are not required to separate themselves from production, and they can enjoy an appropriate subsidy for missed work.


[The sign says, “The Great Assembly of Villagers”]

XI) The village assembly is composed of all the members of the village who are over eighteen years of age.

XII) The village assembly is convened by the village committee. The assembly is headed by the chairman of the committee, or the chairman can entrust it to the vice-chairman. The assembly must be called at least once a year. It should be attended by at least half of the residents of  the village over eighteen years of age, or representatives from at least two thirds of the families. All of its decisions must be agreed upon by over half of the assembly. If over one tenth of the villagers or over one half of the representatives of the village families make a proposal, then the village assembly should be called in a timely fashion.


XIII) The assembly of the village can decide by discussion the following matters:

  1. The assembly can elect, recall or by-elect members of the village committee. It can consider and make decisions upon the resignation of members of the committee.
  2. The assembly can hear and consider the work reports of the village committee, reports on financial income and expenditure. It can consider and make decisions on important affairs of the building projects in the village, economic and social development plans, annual plans, and related public affairs or public welfare works.
  3. The assembly can consider and make decisions on setting up collective economic projects, contractual cases, and contractual cases dealing with building public welfare works. The assembly can decide on the use of collective economic profits.
  4. The assembly can consider and make decisions on how to pay money to the arrow, villageship, and township level fundraising projects, as well as methods for deducting and retaining funds for the village use and raising money for public welfare works.
  5. The assembly can consider and make decisions on cases to do with contract management, the uses of compensation money for requisitioned lands, the allocation of land for building houses, and arrangements for meeting targets on family planning.
  6. The assembly can evaluate the work of the members of the village committee, as well as decide which village members can receive subsidies and the standard of the subsidy.
  7. With the precondition that it does not contradict the constitution, laws, regulations or policies, the assembly can create self-governing regulations, a village contract, or other regulatory systems.
  8. The assembly can alter or reverse inappropriate decisions of the the village committee.
  9. The assembly can alter or reverse inappropriate decisions of the the village representative assembly.
  10. The assembly can discuss and decide on other major issues that affect the common wellfare of the village.


XVII) The village committee should create a democratic financial management group organized out of the village people. The democratic financial management group will be composed of three to five people, elected out of the the village assembly or the village representative assembly. Members of the village committee, their spouses, and those directly related to them are not allowed to become members of the democratic financial management group.  The democratic financial management group represents the masses at a fixed date to look up […] financial items of account, and with respect to financial affairs publicly […] to relevant organs of the people’s governments reflect financial […]


[The text for this one is hidden. The board says, “Village Tasks Public Board”, with two charts, “income situation” and “expenditure situation”.]


[The sign says (I think, I don’t read Mongol), “Olji Moron County People’s Government”]

XLI) The results of the election of the village committee members will be reported by the newly elected members to the arrow, villageship, and township people’s governments to be put on record. If the people of the village have objections to the process or results of the elections, they can register a written appeal to the arrow, villageship, township level assemblies of people’s representatives or the people’s government, or to the arrow or county level standing committee of the assembly of people’s representatives and to relevent government bureaus. The relevant bureaus should take responsability for making an inquiry and dealing with the situation in accordance with the law.


[The paper says, “Request for Dismissal”]

XLII) The village assembly has the power to dismiss members of the village committee. One fifth or above of the voting-eligible population of the village can jointly sign their names to request that a member of the village committee be dismissed. The request for dismissal should be made in written form to the village committee, as well as filed in the records of the local arrow, villageship and township level people’s governments, explaining the reasons for the request for dismissal. The local people’s governments at the arrow, villageship, and township levels should undertake an investigation to determine whether or not the reasons for dismissal and the joint signatures are in accordance with the truth. The work of the investigation should be completed within three months.


XLIII) In response to a joint-signed request for dismissal made in accordance with laws and regulations, the village committee should convene an assembly of the village people within three months to vote on the issue. If the village committee does not convene the village assembly within the three month period, then the arrow, villageship, and township level people’s governments can convene the assembly and being the voting. The chairman of the committee will preside over the assembly for dismissing a member of the village committee. In the case that the villagers wish to dismiss the committee chairman or the majority of the members of the committee, the someone in charge from the arrow, villageship, or township level people’s governments can officiate.

XLIV) When the village assembly convenes to discuss the dismissal of a committee member, a representative of those who made the request for dismissal should make an explanation to the assembly and answer relevent questions. The person who is to be dismissed has the right to attend the assembly and to make objections in his own defence.


[The sign says: “Total number of voters: 458. Those in agreement with the dismissal: 346. This is over half; the dismissal is in effect.”]

XLV) In order for a member of the village committee to be dismissed, over half of the population eligible to vote in the village must vote in favor. The voting and procedure will use the same methods for normal voting and procedure as outlined here. The results of the vote will be reported by the village committee to the arrow, villageship, and township level people’s governments.


[The piece of paper in the guy’s hands says, “resignation”.]

XLVI) If a member of the village committee requests to resign his post, he should submit his request in written form to the village committee. The committee should then convoke the village assembly or the village representative assembly and achieve more than half of the votes in favor. If a person is elected as a member of the village committee and his spouse or direct relative is also a member of the committee, the spouse or relative should then resign. If a member of the village committee in accordance with the law comes under investigation for responsibility in a criminal affair or is sentenced to labor reeducation, then his or her position will be accordingly terminated.


XLVII) If there are not enough members of the village committee, whether because not enough were voted upon, they were dismissed, resigned, were transferred away, their employment was terminated, they died, their residence permit was moved away, or a lack caused by any other reason, then a by-election should be held within three months. The election will be presided over by the chairman of the village committee. The election will use the election procedures and methods found here.


[The above is the inspirational calligraphy of Li Peng. It says, immortally, “Village Self Governance Is Good!”]