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The Summer’s Catch

Above: The mountain-top temple and resident Daoist priest of Yellow Flower Mountain 黃華山, where I spent a very pleasant night in June.

In this post I’m just going to stick up a few of the more interesting frescoes I was able to collect this summer. In light of recent fundraising efforts, this should hopefully give folk a better idea of what I spend my time doing and photographing when out in the field. There’s not space here (nor would it be interesting to anyone) for me to put up everything I got this summer, so these are just some highlights.


1) A Goddesses Temple 娘娘廟, in Late-Qing Style

Previously I had only got one, heavily damaged side-wall iconography for the Goddesses, even though they are one of the most common of the Xuan-Da cults. It’s also possibly one of the most ancient – I haven’t actually tallied this up, but many of the oldest buildings sitting around in Yu County are Goddess Temples.

On the advice of the Director of the Yu County Museum, however, I was able to locate and photograph an iconography which has two out of three walls intact. The place though was very sad to be in. The temple is located within the grounds of a chicken farm, the ground is covered in feces both human and avian, and the air is abuzz with flies. The building is disintegrating to the point where it’s literally dangerous to be photographing inside; I kept bumping my head on the collapsing beams and sending little cataracts of dust down onto the floor.

Below: The Front Wall, showing three Goddesses and their attendants.

Below: The left wall, showing the Goddesses processing out, I believe to grant children to women. The Goddesses are the only Xuan-Da gods that habitually travel by horse-drawn cart; one wonders if there’s a connection to the old depictions of the Queen Mother of the West in her chariot…

I’m not going to post a gallery link or a location, as these things are vulnerable to theft. If you want to see all the photos, you can email me I suppose. Here are some other details:


2) A Second Goddesses Temple 娘娘廟, at Cock’s-Crow Station 雞鳴驛

I had the chance to look at a second Goddesses iconography, this time well-preserved in the eponymous temple at the Cock’s Crow Postal Station 雞鳴驛 just south of Xuanhua. This is a first attempt at seriously fresco-ing and fortress-ing outside of Yu County and its immediate surrounds. The main hall has something I didn’t even know existed: a paneled iconography showing the apotheosis of the main Goddess, the Jade Mist Primordial Worthy 碧霞元君. By bribing the Daoist with 200 kuai in the collection box I was able to take pictures of this. The room was quite dark so the quality of the pictures is bad, but I believe I got the main events of the story and the cartouches. At some point I’ll try to work out what the textual source is. All the frescoes from Cock’s-Crow Station are located here; these are reasonably well protected in an entrance-fee charging tourist site, so it doesn’t seem like a problem to stick them up online.

Below: The left wall.

Below: The right wall.

Below: The Goddess at an early stage in her career, where she seems to possess only a robe and a parasol. Here she is meditating in the forest and receiving gifts and teachings from a sage.

Below: A detail from one of the later panels, showing the Goddess again on her cart or chariot, being drawn by a phoenix 鳳凰.

Much more attractive though were the flanking halls. According to the explanatory plaque there, these frescoes are late-Ming or early-Qing, although the Cultural Bureau people I talked to there admitted that there wasn’t firm proof of this. I’d prefer to remain agnostic since the style doesn’t closely line up with other things I’ve seen; Qing generally would seem like a safe bet.

Below: The left wall.

Below: The right wall.

Below: Details from both sides.

Below: The Goddesses again in their phoenix-pulled chariots.

The opposite flanking hall is devoted to a god which I’d never encountered before: the “God [Surnamed] Zhang” 張仙. According to Baidu Baike, the God [Surnamed] Zhang is a common attendant of the Goddesses who fulfills a similar function – traveling through the world to grant children.

Below: The left wall.

Below: The right wall.

Below: Some details; I’m not sure who all of these characters are or what they’re doing precisely.

As above, since these are reasonably well protected, you can check out the whole gallery from Cock’s-Crow Station here. Hopefully I’ll be able to return there at some point in the future with a better camera to get the images in the dark, but for now it’s enough to have basic documentary photos.


3) The Temple of the Six Gods 六神廟

This temple is located south-east of the Yu County seat. It’s also a gov’t protected site and has been anthologized in “Temple Frescoes from Yu County” 蔚縣寺廟壁畫, so I’ll make the whole set available here. A lot of the images seem notably unattractive to me (a sort of beige-green color scheme prevails), but it certainly is a uniquely well-preserved set of frescoes. The really special ones among them are the two halls which preserve western-influenced images. The first is the Hall of the God of Wealth:

Below: The God of Wealth hall, left wall.

Below: The God of Wealth hall, right wall.

The second Western-influenced depiction is from the Kui-Star hall 魁星殿. Besides the interesting depictions of the Mansions of the Western Seas 西洋樓, I’ve also never seen a clear surviving image of the Kui-Star in Yu County, and only one other image of Wenchang 文昌.

Below: The Kui-Star hall, left wall.

Below: The Kui-Star hall, right wall.

Below: Kui-Star 魁星, the many-armed demon treading on the left, and Wenchang 文昌, the green-clothed official riding on the right.

As stated above, you can look through the entire gallery of the Six Gods’ Temple here.


4) More Western-Influenced Perspectival Drawings

Apropos to my perennial attempts to produce a paper about this, I spent some time, effort, and car-hire money getting around Yu County to take photos of Western-influenced frescoes in various places. Some of these are new to me, while others are places that I’d been before but due to access or inexperience hadn’t taken good photos. Almost all of these are in vulnerable situations so I’m not going to link to galleries or give the locations of any.

Below: Two walls of an opera stage, showing the Mansions of the Western Seas 西洋樓.

Below: A ruined building which locals claimed was a Goddesses Temple 娘娘廟, although it looks more like a stage to me. The walls are mostly destroyed but a few pretty details in the upper part of each side remain:

Below: A Ming dynasty opera stage, now sadly damaged. I’d never managed to go inside of this before; previously it had always been locked and the frescoes could only be photographed by sticking a hand in through a gap in the boards. This time when myself and a friend visited, the back door was hanging open. The images inside show the Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions 四望亭 and the Mansions of the Western Seas 西洋樓.

Below: A very unusual Temple to the Three Purities 三清寺. It’s possible that the frescoes were painted even after the Cultural Revolution, the style is quite odd to me. Nevertheless the “science fiction” scenes on either side of the entrance-way are fun.

Below: This was actually photographed by some of my volunteers, Hannah Theaker and Becky Davis, last winter. Nevertheless it’s cool; in the course of renovating the below opera stage, the workers pealed back the plaster and mud on the walls and revealed the two beautiful frescoes below. When another one of my volunteers, Alex Chavarria, visited this July, the images had already been vandalized with a spray-paint bottle.


5) Opera Stage Drawings of the Romance of the Investiture of the Gods

In late July I paid a student named Alex Chavarria, originally from LA but studying in Beijing, to head up to Yu County with a tripod and a good camera and photograph a few things for me. Mostly he was working on gatehouse inscriptions, but he also did some very nice work taking pictures of frescoes as well. I’d seen and photographed the below images before, but I hadn’t been able to actually get into the stage where they were (it’s kept fenced off), and so Alex’s photos represent the first detailed images I’ve got of this.

The image depicts all of the heroes of the Romance of the Investiture of the Gods 封神演義, dueling amidst storm and strife. These are not nearly so well protected as they could be, so I’m not going to give the location. As always, if you want to see the full gallery, please email me.

Below: The left wall.

Below: The right wall.

Below: Details from both walls:


5) One More Late-Qing Dragon King Temple 龍王廟

This is from the same village as the above images, and probably the hand of the same artist as well. It’s not that different from other Dragon King processions, but it’s very well preserved, and these things are not so common that one isn’t always happy to have another one. According to Alex, the temple-keeper told him that one wall was in danger of collapse, and for this reason a great deal of things had to be kept piled against it.

Below: The structure looks Ming-dynasty to me, although the images inside are certainly not.

Below: Left wall, left side.

Below: Left wall, right side.

Below: Details. Note the lovely Qing-dynasty shawm-band procession at the base.


5) Other Things

There are a few other interesting highlights that I won’t stick up here now, mainly because they’re too complicated and I want to post fully about them later on when I have time.

  1. I went back to gNyan Thog dGon in Rebgong and got better photos of both the Maitreya Hall (focusing on the few cartouches) and the ceiling images of the Earth-Subduing Chapel. These are both for a paper I’m hoping to write this fall, based on previous posts here.
  2. With the introduction of the head of the Yu County Museum, I was able to get in and photograph the Images of the Hundred Trades 百工圖 held in the Lord Guan Temple 關公廟 of Xiayuan Village 夏原村. I’m going to edit these, translate the cartouches and steles, and put them all up here at some point, but if you want to see the gallery you can look at it here.
  3. This didn’t actually happen this summer, but. Last winter in January my volunteers Hannah Theaker and Becky Davis got permission to photograph the walls of the Monastery of the Peaceful Sage 安賢寺 in Guangling. I’d done a bit of this before but never completely. This is an incredibly dense and detailed set of Water-and-Land 水陸 murals which have no cartouches, so it’s very hard to tell what’s what. There are also a large number of side-chapels with other topics that are sometimes hard to determine.The rooms unlit so it’s often difficult to photograph in there; they did a much better job than I would have. You can check out the galleries here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Plus of course a huge amount of damaged material and inscriptions etc., which I won’t bother sticking up here now. So, as I stated at the start, if you want me to continue funding volunteers and ultimately to go back there myself to do this full time for a while, please consider donating at the Gofundme page!


Radio Interviews at WPKN and maybe China Radio International

In other news, I recently did a radio interview about walking across Asia with Valerie Richardson on her show “Radio Something” on Bridgeport, CT’s WPKN. You can listen to it at, and I’ll try to get ahold of a MP3 file and post it here.

Very indefinitely, I may also be doing another radio interview / regular interview for some folks at Beijing’s Central Radio International (CRI) English Channel. I’ve recently been hanging out with some reporters from there, including a monumentally surreal evening at a song-and-dance-show in DPRK-run hotel-restaurant in near Chaoyang Park. (Who knew indentured North Korean girls were so amazing at the accordion?) In any case the highlight of the evening was the chance to meet up with the epic Central Asian wanderer and photographer Agustinus Wibowo. Strangely enough, I’d met Agustinus once before when I was sixteen in a hostel in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Agustinus is from Indonesia and speaks twelve languages, including Chinese, Farsi, Pashto, Russian, Kyrgyz and Uzbek. He’s a great photographer, wrote two books in Indonesian on Afghanistan and Central Asia, and has generally done some amazing things, my own favorite being a particularly epic trip hitchhiking on military horse-caravans up the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan. He is also just a really nice guy and I recommend a look through his pictures and stories.

In any case, some or none of these people may or may not interview me at some point. I’ll update about that here when I have a better idea of whether it’s going to happen and when.