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Art China Fortresses Hebei Shanxi Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

ILLUSTRATING GROOTAERS, or, the Principle Gods of Rural Xuan-Da and their Iconographies, Part 1

[Note that this post has been broken up into four parts; click to jump to part 2, part 3, and part 4.]



zhangjiakou old pictures

Images from the Xuanhua region in the early 20th century, taken from this blog.

Willem Grootaers (1911-1999) was a reverend father in the Congregatio Immaculati Cordis Mariae, a Belgian Catholic missionary organization that operated in East Asia and especially in northern China and Mongolia. Grootaers was posted to Datong in northern Shanxi and spent over ten years there, surviving through the civil war and the Japanese invasion of the ’30s, until he was finally expelled with the rest of the CICM missionaries at the Communist victory in 1951. He was a deeply intellectual man, whose abiding scientific fascination seems to have been the spread and flow of abstract traits across geographic space – beyond the mapping of village cults discussed below, he produced some of the first serious studies of Chinese and especially Japanese dialectology.

In the mid and late-1940s, with the Chinese civil war raging around him, Grootaers set out to produce a series of studies illustrating “the geographical method applied to folklore”. What this meant essentially was that he walked to every single village in three different counties of war-torn northern China and wrote down all of the temples that he could find in each one, noting any inscriptions or other interesting information he could acquire. The surveys were published in several volumes: (1945) Les Temples Villageois de la Region au Sud de Tat’ong (Chansi Nord): Leurs Inscriptions et Leur Histoire”, (1949) “Temples and the History of Wan-Ch’uan 萬全 (South Chahar): The Geographical Method Applied to Folklore”, (1951) “Rural Temples Around Hsuan-Hua (South Chahar), Their Iconography and History”. He also published a survey of the temples of Xuanhua City, “The Sanctuaries of a North-China City: A Complete Survey of the Cultic Buildings in the City of Hsuan-Hua (Chahar)” and a brilliant study of the movement of cultural traits between Chinese villages, “The Hagiography of the Chinese God Chen-Wu: The Transmission of Rural Traditions in Chahar”. These studies represent the most complete survey we have of the religious and cultural monuments of any chunk of the Chinese countryside, anywhere in China, before the Cultural Revolution wiped it all away.

grootaers young in xuanhua

Grootaers’ survey team in 1948 Xuanhua: Left to right, William A. Grootaers 賀登崧, Li Shiyu 李世瑜, a student named Delinger, and Wang Fushi 王輔世. Image from “Sanctuaries”, p.177.

grootaers old in tokyo

Left to right Wang Fushi 王輔世, Willem Grootaers 賀登崧, and Li Shiyu 李世瑜, reunited in Tokyo 1994. Image from “Sanctuaries”, p.235. Grootaers would pass away in his home in Japan five years later.

The villages that Grootaers saw have been changed totally in the last fifty years, and nearly none of the temples that he recorded now exist. That said, there is one place where the physical and religious culture he described can still be seen. Apparently due to a policy difference in building new villages starting from the 1970s, the three counties of Yu 蔚縣, Guangling 廣靈縣, and Yangyuan 陽原縣 have preserved in a somewhat intact state the original pre-Communist form of Xuan-Da villages. I spent nearly a year in 2014 surveying villages in this area, is adjacent to and more or less culturally coterminous with the areas that Grootaers worked in. Below is a map of our respective survey areas, in which my area is marked in ORANGE and Grootaers’ area is marked in BLUE.

Xuan Da Research Areas Map (small letters)

The temples in my research area were heavily impacted by the Cultural Revolution, and have been further decimated by neglect and looting since. I’m not aware of a single religious statue which survives from before the Chinese takeover, but in some cases frescoes have made it through wholly or partially intact. From these I’ve attempted to gather together here examples which can illustrate what Grootaers was talking about. The value of these is that they exist in archaeological situ – that is, with some minor regional variation, they can be securely tied to the cultural assemblage which Grootaers describes.

It’s also my opinion that Grootaers was wrong or at least confused about a bunch of things, and that later scholars haven’t understood him particularly well. To that end I’d like to offer a brief explanatory guide to both the works of Willem Grootaers and to the Xuan-Da villages and temples he was writing about, in the hopes that future scholars using him as a source will google this and find it useful. Those who aren’t interested can just skip down to the pictures.





Making Sense of Willem Grootaers:

1) The Villages and their History


inside the southern barbican of warm-springs fort

The villages surveyed by Willem Grootaers belonged to a specific cultural assemblage which was common to the whole area north of the Taihang Shan 太行山 and Yan Shan 燕山 in northern Shanxi and Hebei provinces. This area is known as Xuan-Da 宣大, referring to the cities of Xuanhua 宣化 and Datong 大同. The rural cultural assemblage was defined first by the existence of fortress walls around each village, and second by a specific package of temples which were built into and associated with these walls. (Unfortunately, Grootaers doesn’t really differentiate which settlements he visited were walled, although it’s clear from his descriptions that almost all of them were.) For all their emphasis on mapping regional variation, Grootaers’ studies clearly demonstrate that the form of these villages and the main religious figures worshiped within them were broadly common to villages across all of the areas he surveyed.

Although particular elements of this culture have existed all across China from antiquity, the cultural assemblage that Grootaers described essentially came into existence in the late fifteenth and the first half of the sixteenth century. This can be demonstrated simply enough by graphing the dates given in Grootaers’ surveys. Although Grootaers doesn’t provide a full range of all collected dates, for each different cult he gives a series of “earliest dates” found in temple epigraphy. These represent the earliest point from which he was able to establish the existence of a particular cult. The below graph represents all of these “rural” dates from the countryside of Datong, Wanquan, and Xuanhua. This omits dates from sites which Grootaers specifically notes were not villages, as well as dates from the small collection of stone dharani pillars found in Datong county. (If you want a detailed methodology, I suppose you can just email me.)

grootaers dates graph

The graph tells a fairly clear story: The religious landscape that Grootaers was describing came into existence basically out of nowhere in the second half of the fifteenth century and the first half of the sixteenth. The reason for this explosion of dates wasn’t clear to Grootaers; my research in Yu County and its surrounds can provide the answer. To make a long story short, it turns out that the villages themselves came into existence in the same period, or at least were destroyed and rebuilt en masse at this time. The below graph represents dates given on village fort gatehouses from my research area, which as we have seen in the map above lay adjacent to Grootaers areas in both the east and the west. These dates represent the year in which that particular walled village was constructed.

fortress dates from yu county

The reader will see that the two graphs match each other almost exactly. Historical records allow us to elaborate. After the Tumu Incident in 1449, the Ming dynasty gradually lost control of its northern borders and suffered repeated and destructive raids from the Mongols. Government policy during this period was to build walls – the present Great Wall system across northern China largely dates from this period. In the rural areas along the frontier, policy encouraged population consolidation and fortification. Even without this government encouragement, yearly Mongol raids made it imperative for villages to take defensive action. The result was the massive reshaping of the rural landscape over the course of roughly eighty years, and the large scale (re-)creation of villages and temples. The change was so complete that, as these graphs indicate, almost nothing remained from before the start of the fortification period.

Further, the religious culture Grootaers described physically could not have existed before the fifteenth century. These temples were built as structural and geomantic elements of the fortress, such that they could not have pre-existed it. Many of the most important cults were associated with the cardinal axis route of the fort (The Perfected Warrior 真武, the Jade Emperor 玉皇 and Avalokiteshvara 觀音), the fortress gate (Wenchang 文昌 and the Kui-Star 魁星), or crossroads within or without the fort (The God of the Five Ways 五道神). Even in cases where the temple habitually sat at some distance from the fort, the precise direction and distance from the walls could be strictly dictated by custom (The Dragon Kings 龍王). If the fortresses did not exist before 1475, then this culture of temple building could not have either, and the concurrence of the two graphs indicates that the fortresses and the temples came into existence hand in hand. Further, the epigraphy of these village temples strongly supports the idea that villagers were actively thinking about the geomantic relationship between temple and fort during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Out of the chaos of the Mongol wars in the mid-Ming, a new religious system was created in the villages of Xuan-Da. (The one important exception to this story is the existence of large Buddhist monasteries, which were often fortified in their own right and seem to have been spared the brunt of the Mongol attacks. These are the only type of structure in rural Xuan-Da which was sometimes able to persist through this period.)

So to summarize here, Grootaers’ temples belong to a very specific village culture which existed in the region along the Sino-Mongol frontier, characterized by fortified settlements and a specific set of gods worshiped in temples that were structurally connected to the fortresses. This culture came into being as result of Mongol raiding and population consolidation schemes in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. I would caution the reader on this basis to treat with extreme caution Grootaers’ attempts to push his geographic analysis back beyond the mid-fifteenth century. It’s also worthwhile to note here that this was a culture that tended to think spatially – these temples were intentionally set in particular relationships to the village walls and streets, often in ways that suggest interpretation. We will return to this point when we talk about the composition of the temple frescoes.

2) The Temples and the Gods


a ruined temple to the three officials outside of a fortress gate

When looking at Grootaers’ numbers it’s crucial to understand that he was not counting temples, he was counting instances of worship of a particular god. Grootaers refers to this as a “cultic unit”. The need for this term arises from the fact that in some cases a god might be worshiped in its own temple, which is known by that name to all of the villagers, and in other cases a god might be found worshiped in a lateral shrine or image in the temple officially devoted to another deity.

The “cultic unit” is actually a very useful and necessary concept, but organizing a survey on this basis also elides some extremely important differentiations. According to this method of counting, all temples are created equal. Massive Buddhist monasteries with recorded histories stretching into the Song or even Tang periods are unceremoniously lumped in with tiny one-room village shrines, simply because the deity worshiped therein is called “Buddha” 佛. Particular deities jump or dive in the ratings because of this. The God of the Five Ways 五道神, a minor deity worshiped at small crossroad shrines, is the second most important god when measured by number of “cultic units”. Meanwhile the Perfected Warrior 真武, who is worshiped on immense towers which loom over the Xuan-Da landscape even today, drops down to the sixth most important god according to this metric.

Nor does this type of tallying explain the spatial or compositional relationships between gods. To give an example, the Jade Emperor  玉皇 takes a place on a tall tower attached to the northern wall of the fort, identical to that of the Perfected Warrior. In rare cases other male gods (for instance the Three Officials 三官) can occupy this tower as well. These towers are nearly always connected with a temple to Avalokiteshvara 觀音 or the Grandmother 奶奶 at the southern end of an axial street which runs through the fort. From this we can deduce that there is a sort of meta-cult: that of a paternal, martial god who watches over the fort from a high northerly tower, axially connected to a maternal, merciful god located at the other end of the village. This particular “meta-cult” or composition of temples, when counted either by total numbers of “cultic units”, by the resources involved in building all of these structures, or by its centrality in organizing the physical space of the village, is undoubtedly the most important expression of Xuan-Da village religion. Nevertheless the reader would have to read Grootaers’ descriptions extremely closely to realize its existence.

All this is not to say that the tallying of “cultic units” isn’t useful and important, but to stress that it cannot be used as the sole or even the main metric of a given cult’s actual importance or function in Xuan-Da society. (Nor, to his credit, did Grootaers ever take it as such.)

With that said, here’s the list of Grootaers’ cults. These are compiled from the combined rural surveys of Wanquan and Xuanhua; at the time of the Datong survey Grootaers had not yet developed the idea of a “cultic unit” and thus does not give such numbers. I’ve attached a brief and extremely unscientific note as to what it seems to me that the cult was “about”; the reader should take these with a grain of salt.

  1. 龍王 The Dragon Kings: 202 units [including the Black Dragon Kings 黑龍王,  the White Dragon Kings 白龍王, the Eight Dragon Kings 八龍王, and the Dragon Kings of Wells and Springs 井泉龍王] – Granting rain, regulation of the weather, successful harvests. 
  2. 五道神 The God of the Five Ways: 197 units – Guarding travelers, guiding the souls of the dead to the underworld, the registry of events in the lives of people. 
  3. 觀音 Avalokiteshvara: 155 units – Maternal compassion, Buddhist miracle working and succor to those in need. 
  4. 馬王 The Horse King: 113 units – Care of horses, mules, and other livestock.
  5. 關公 Lord Guan: 107 units – Association with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and related folk traditions, embodiment of values such as martial strength, loyalty, etc.
  6. 真武 The Perfected Warrior: 104 units [including the Southern Perfected Warrior 南真武] – Father figure who watches over the fort from a high tower, guardian of the northern frontier against Mongol attack, center of a complex series of hagiographic tales.
  7. 河神 The River God: 72 units – Presumably regulation of irrigation and floods, although I’m not certain. Possibly synonymous with the cult of Erlang 二郎, a popular god in southern China who was known for great irrigation works.
  8. 三官 The Three Officials: 70 units – Bureaucratic Daoist deities who governed Heaven, Earth, and Water.
  9. 佛 The Buddha: 59 units – In some ways the center of two practices. In some cases the Buddha is simply another village “pusa” 菩薩 to whom incense is lit, and in other cases he is worshiped with the whole monastic and philosophical apparatus of the Buddhist religion.
  10. 胡神 The Barbarian God: 59 units – Unclear, but connected in some way with the bringing of rain and to the cult of the Dragon Kings.
  11. 文昌 Wenchang: 32 units – Ostensibly the god of Literature, although in practice this cult seems to be tied to that of the Kui-Star and be a god specifically associated with village gates. 
  12. 奶奶 The Grandmother: 27 units – The granting of children, mothership. This cult has been con-fused with that of Avalokiteshvara and also with the wives of the Jade Emperor, the Daoist deities referred to as the Empresses 娘娘.
  13. 玉皇 The Jade Emperor: 27 units – The Jade Emperor is ostensibly the head of all of the gods in the bureaucracy of heaven. In practice his cult is similar to that of the Perfected Warrior; a martial, paternal figure who sits on a tower overlooking the village.
  14. 魁星 The Kui Star: 20 units – Ostensibly astrology, in practice a sort of demon tied to the worship of Wenchang and set atop fortress gates.
  15. 地藏 Ksitigarbha: 20 units – The judgement of souls after death and the successful passage of the dead through the underworld, associated with the worship of the Ten Yamas 十閻王.
  16. 土地神 The God of the Soil: 19 units – A small god of specific localities.
  17. 大仙 The Great Saint: 17 units – According to Grootaers, the worship of fox spirits. 
  18. 火神 The Fire God: 16 units – Regulation of fire.
  19. 財神 The God of Wealth: 14 units – Accumulation of wealth. 
  20. 普明佛 The General-Enlightenment Buddha: 14 units – A recent (in Grootaers’ time) cult which involved the millenarian belief that a particular man named Li Bin 李賓 was the incarnation of Maitreya. 
  21. 玄壇 The Dark Altar: 13 units – According to Grootaers, protection against hail storms. 
  22. 蟲王 The King of Vermin: 13 units – Protection against vermin.
  23. 靈官 The Spiritual Official: 13 units – Protection against malicious geomantic influences.
  24. 彌勒佛 Maitreya: 11 units – The end of the world, and also being fat and happy, I’m not sure which variant.
  25. 山神 The Mountain Gods: 11 units – Mountains, and also the return of livestock lost there. 
  26. 三郎 The Three Youths / Sanlang: 9 units – Unclear. According to Grootaers, bringing rain, the cult of Yellow-Sheep Mountain 黃羊山, and a connection to secret societies. 
  27. 三皇 The Three Emperors: 7 units – According to Grootaers, this actually represents a confusion of two separate cults, one to the Holy Farmer 神農, Fu Xi 伏羲, and the Yellow Emperor 黃帝, and a second to the Emperor of Heaven 天皇, the Emperor of Earth 地皇, and the Emperor of Men 人皇
  28. 城隍神 The God of Walls and Moats: 7 units – A god of administratively designated cities, who holds a position in the heavenly bureaucracy analogous to that of the country magistrate on earth. Also involved in the judgement of souls after death. 
  29. 灶王 The King of the Hearth: 5 units – A hearth spirit which reports the doings of the household to the Jade Emperor, and therefore must be placated. 
  30. 達摩 Bodhidharma: 5 units – The original patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China, and the center of many legends.
  31. 三教 The Three Teachings: 4 units – Ecumenical respect for the Buddha, Confucius, and Laozi. 
  32. 韋馱 Weituo: 4 units – Guards the Dharma and Buddhist temples.
  33. 瘟神 The God of Disease: 3 units – Protects against disease. 
  34. 五穀 The Five Grains: 3 units – The god of cereals. 
  35. 三清 The Three Purities: 3 units – A trinity of philosophical Daoist deities. 
  36. 三星 The Three Stars: 2 units – The three stars are 福祿壽 “Happiness, Advancement, and Longevity”.
  37. 青苗 Green Shoots: 2 units – Apparently a harvest god.
  38. 眼光 Eye-Glow: 2 units – A Daoist goddess, according to Grootaers, worshiped in rural areas as a goddess of eyesight. 
  39. 黍神 The God of Millet: 1 unit – A harvest god.
  40. 倉官 The Granary Official: 1 unit – The god of granaries, and thus of plentiful food. 
  41. 牛王 The Ox King: 1 unit – Uncertain, possibly has some kind of tantric function due to his appearance and his association with the rite of the Great Feast of Water and Land. It’s not clear to me that this is even the correct name for the god Grootaers describes.
  42. 喜神 The God of Happiness: 1 unit – No idea, other than the name.
  43. 酒神 The God of Wine: 1 unit – No idea, other than the name.
  44. 老子 Laozi: 1 unit – The legendary founder of the Daoist religion. 
  45. 風神 The God of Wind: 1 unit – No idea, other than the name. 
  46. 北嶽 The Northern Peak: 1 unit – The worship of Mount Heng, located nearby in Shanxi province. 
  47. 譚公 Lord Tan: 1 unit – Lord Tan was a local hero who fought the Mongols in the early Ming. 

The reader will appreciate from this list that while a great number of gods might be worshiped, there was a small set which were obligatory and present in nearly every village. (Further, it could be pointed out that some gods were associated with the fort, while other gods were obligatory for the village, whether it consisted of one large fort or several smaller ones in close conurbation.) In any case, broadly speaking the sine qua non of village temples might be listed as the Dragon Kings, the Perfected Warrior, Avalokiteshvara, Lord Guan, and then a small shrine to the God of the Five Ways. Add to this an elective selection of a few more deities depending on means and inclination, and the village’s religious equipment is complete.

3) The Frescoes and their Compositions:


dragon king composition example

As noted above, rural Xuan-Da was a society which often expressed meaning through the composition of space. This was the case with the placement of temples around the village as it was with the interior accoutrement of the shrine rooms. Each temple was generally a square room with an altar on the main wall or stretching around on three walls. The walls would ideally be covered in frescoes, although some villages might have been too poor to afford this. In some cases statues would be set atop the altar with the frescoes as background, in other cases the room was devoid of statues and the images on the walls were the main object of devotion.

No religious statuary has survived the Cultural Revolution in my area, although many examples have been re-built more or less in traditional style. I also don’t have anything in particular to add to Grootaers’ comments on this subject, and so I won’t deal with the statues here. Rather, I will attempt here to define a general typology of Xuan-Da village temple frescoes. Of course there will be many exceptional cases. This typology will also need to be divided into those images found on the rear (ie. central 正) wall of the temple, upon which there is essentially only one composition, and those images found on the two lateral 側 walls of the temple, in which case we may define up to five different compositions.

We will begin with the rear wall of the temple, which faces the viewer directly as he enters:

The Front Court:



All of the rear temple walls contain essentially the same scene: the main god holds court facing the viewer. To his left and right stand civilian 文 and martial 武 attendants, palace ladies, generals, fan-and banner-bearers, and other supernatural flunkies as appropriate. The analogy to an imperial court is made clear by the throne upon which the main god sits and the hu 笏 (note-taking boards) held by the attending figures. In this case the human worshiper takes the spatial role of the supplicant approaching a king or magistrate in a palace or yamen hall. The statues which would have been commonly placed on the central altar and potentially the two lateral altars as well would only have accentuated the simile. 

We may point to one exceptional fresco on a lateral wall of a Temple to the Perfected Warrior 真武廟 which literally depicts this scene. In this case a supplicant has entered into the Palace of the Northern Polestar 北極宮, which is depicted as half-palace, half-fortress, and thrown himself upon the steps of the dais upon which the Perfected Warrior sits. Surrounding them in the court are the same collection of Primordial Generals 元帥 and palace ladies who surround the god in his depictions on the rear temple walls. (It should be noted here that the below fresco is in some sense an exception that proves a rule – it does not fall into any of our set categories below.)



A clear visual simile is being made of the rear wall of the temple as court, the god as emperor, magistrate or judge, and the worshiper as supplicant. We may also point out that the Perfected Warrior’s domain is depicted as being part fortress, and thus synonymous with the village itself. 

With respect to the compositions of the lateral walls flanking the rear one, we may define five different compositions. Of these the final two are somewhat conditional. These are numbered in rough order of commonality:

1) The Procession, or, The Pursuit of the Evil Ones: 


Grootaers uses the latter name, I prefer the former; anyway the two interpretations are not mutually exclusive. In this case the gods are seen to ride out along right-hand wall of the temple and ride back along the left-hand wall, usually accompanied by their many attendants, generals, warriors, mounts, etc. Grootaers states that peasants in his areas identified this to him as 拿八怪 “catching the eight monsters”, and indeed in some cases these monsters are visible being led back in chains. 

I would, however, point out that the object of the expedition is not always the capture of demons. In the case of the Dragon Kings it can be clearly seen that the gods are involved in dispensing water on the world below, and no demons are to be seen. Another important aspect of these drawings which Grootaers does not note (although it can be seen in his photographs) are the small images of common people going about their business beneath the main scene of the gods riding around in the sky. In many cases these scenes culminate with a religious procession arriving at a recursive drawing of the very temple in which the frescoes are housed. 

To me it seems that these drawings might be better understood as depicting a homology between the gods’ motions across the heavens and the motions of their devotees on earth. (The fact that the gods move clockwise around the space of the shrine room inevitably suggests the Tibetan practice of sKor Ra or circumambulation.) I myself have attended temple festivals in Yu County in which the entire village, led by a Daoist priest, processes with banners and instruments through the space of the fort, visiting each temple in turn. This scene is immediately familiar from the frescoes in the temples. The below images are dated to 1709, and depict a religious procession arriving at a Dragon King temple, which is accurately depicted down to the ancient pine tree 松樹 outside. The last scene was witnessed by the author in the village of Northern Gate 北門子村, during a temple fair in the summer of 2014:

temple process 001

temple process 002

temple process 003

temple process 004

For these reasons I’ve chosen to refer to this composition as “The Procession”, over Grootaers term “The Pursuit of the Evil Ones”. The procession in question can refer both to the procession of the gods across the temple walls and to the earthly processions which reflect this celestial motion. This seems like a useful and interesting analytical standpoint from which to understand these images. In any case this is probably the most common composition in Xuan-Da: it is found almost universally in temple to the Dragon Kings 龍王 and less frequently in those of the God of the Five Ways 五道神, the Three Officials 三官, the Grandmother 奶奶, and others. 

2) The Panel Series:

laoye miao lefthand wall full

The Panel Series is as described, a long sequence of “comic book” style images which either tell a story or visually portray a list. Grootaers refers to this as “illustrated biographies”; I would point out that while hagiographic content does predominate with these drawings, it is far from the only topic that can be portrayed this way, and some of these series are not even narratives. In some cases the content of the drawings is identified by small cartouches; in other case the viewer is assumed to know the story already or be able to understand it from the image. Grootaers produced an excellent study of the transmission of this type of paneled hagiography in “The Hagiography of the Chinese God Chen-Wu: The Transmission of Rural Traditions in Chahar”.

I have seen Panel Series in Yu County depicting the following topics: the hagiography of the Perfected Warrior; events in the life of Guan Yu, drawn from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms; the hagiography of Sakyamuni Buddha, drawn from various sources; scenes of Avalokiteshvara working miracles, in all cases that I’ve seen drawn from the Universal Gateway 普門 section of the Lotus Sutra; scenes from the Fifty Three Stations of Sudhana 善財童子五十三參 of the Entering the Dharma Realm 入佛界品 section of the Flower Garland Sutra; scenes of the “Hundred Trades” 百工, depicting various professions. These are the common topics in Yu County at least, and they seem to match well enough what Grootaers describes. I’ve also seen isolated examples of a few others: “The Old Gentleman’s Eighty One Transformations” 老君八十一化圖, a Daoist hagiography of Laozi; one heavily damaged set apparently to do with Wenchang 文昌 the god of literature. Grootaers mentions a few other examples of Panel Series; no doubt before the Cultural Revolution many more topics existed.

3) The Martial Array:


The Martial Array is in some ways simply a continuation of the images from the rear wall “Court” onto the two lateral walls. In all cases that I’ve seen this involves the retinue of some martial god, namely the Perfected Warrior 真武 or the Jade Emperor 玉皇. In this case the “Primordial Generals” 元帥 line both lateral walls, standing in a row facing the viewer, all striking martial poses. The effect is to accentuate the metaphor of the court on the rear wall and cause it to flank the worshiper on either side, with the added suggestion of a military drill. 

It’s also worth noting that even in temples which do not have this type of frescoes, the effect would frequently be replicated by the statues set on altar-tops along all three walls. This was the case in many temples dedicated to the Perfected Warrior, in which the Panel Series hagiographies simply provided background to a Martial Array of statues. So far as I know no intact pre-Revolution examples of this survive in Xuan-Da now, but Grootaers describes the scene, and I have seen analogous ones rebuilt since. 

4) The Judgement of Souls:

dizang full wall 01

This is some sense not truly a composition but more of a topic, which can be portrayed in a variety of ways. Nevertheless the format of some of these images matches none of the other tropes and so it must be included here. In this case the presiding god sits at a table surrounded by lackeys and yamen runners and judges the cases of souls brought before him. Underneath or on the flanking walls, we see scenes of the torture of souls. Grootaers notes that this scene is commonly found in temples dedicated to Ksitigarbha 地藏, and more occasionally in temples dedicated to the God of Walls and Moats 城隍神, the God of the Five Ways 五道神, the Three Officials 三官, and others.

5) The Feast of Water and Land:

taken from 故城寺壁畫, 16-17

[image from “Gucheng Monastery Frescoes” 故城寺壁畫]

Like the previous example, this both a composition and a topic. The argument could be made that the composition is some kind of very great elaboration and combination of the Panel Series and Procession themes. Images of the Feast of Water and Land are also found almost solely in large Buddhist monastic halls, in which the space is large enough that the statues can be set in the center of the room and all four walls be given to frescoes. In this sense it’s not truly a composition native to village shrines. Nevertheless it was an extremely popular theme in north Chinese Buddhist art (I’m aware of four examples in Yu County alone, and there were undoubtedly more before the Cultural Revolution), and the scene would certainly have been familiar to all villagers. The theme dates back to at least the Yuan Dynasty in Xuan-Da, and thus pre-dates the creation of most of the villages that concern us here. 

The image is that of a ritual titled, “The Great Feast of All on Water and Land” 水陸大齋. In this ritual a priest enumerates the names of the entire canon of Buddhist and Daoist gods and ghosts, in order that they descend to receive an offering and in the process be converted by the reading of scriptures. To this end, we see all of the luminaries of the heavens, earth and seas processing clockwise around the interior of the temple, often bearing long banners that identify each group. The cast is markedly textual, in that the members of the procession seem to have been drawn from some canonical list and many of the common deities worshiped in village shrines are not to be found. I have discussed this trope at length in previous posts

A few last comments can be made about the analytical use of this categorization. Gods can be depicted as doing something, (the Procession, the Judgement of Souls); as being associated with a particular story or list (the Panel Series); or as being positioned in a particular way (the Court, and especially its extension, the Martial Array). Generally speaking, the form of the depiction follows the function of the cult. The Dragon Kings do something; each year they either do or do not ride out to dispense rain, and so they are universally depicted via the Procession. Lord Guan is important because of a story, and the values associated with that story; he is universally depicted via the Panel Series narrating this story. The Perfected Warrior is important because of his position, the high tower from which he projects his axial, paternal, martial power; therefore he commonly has a Martial Array depicted either in frescoes or in statues.

And so, having got all this background down on paper, let us turn to the frescoes themselves.

Continued in Part Two, below:

Art China Fortresses Hebei Translation Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

ILLUSTRATING GROOTAERS, or, the Principal Gods of Rural Xuan-Da and their Iconographies, Part 2

Continued from Part 1:

1) THE DRAGON KINGS  龍王 – 201 Units:

dragon king temple


Temples to the Dragon Kings are most numerous in all of Xuan-Da, and therefore I have the most and the best preserved examples from this type of temple. In Yu County, these temples universally sit outside the village walls and at some distance. The direction of the temple with respect to the fort was governed by geomantic custom, to the extent that Grootaers was in some areas able to map the boundaries of particular cultural regions as defined by the angle to the fort at which the Dragon King temple sat. The Dragon Kings were aquatic deities, and hence in semi-arid Xuan-Da, their cult was mainly involved with the regulation of rain, and with rituals to that effect.

The images below come from a temple originally built in 1566, and then renovated again in 1709. The frescoes inside date from this later reconstruction, in which the name of the artist is given as Cui Wenxin 崔文新.

“(a) The back wall: It has the image of a female divinity, properly called Shui-mu 水母, “Mother of the Water,” by whose sides stand, first, some male Lung-wang, “Dragon kings,” secondly, the gods of Thunder and Lightning, having human shapes but with the beaked face of a bird of prey; finally, behind the main image is a numerous retinue of heavenly spirits, among them the spirits of Hours, Days, Months, and Years.

Whenever the temple is big enough, the western and eastern thirds of the central wall have frescoes of quite distinct gods, namely, of those who in still larger villages would have a separate sanctuary.”

Wan-Ch’uan, p.228

I’m not certain which the lateral gods are in this spread; they don’t seem to be the ones Grootaers suggests are most common.



Below are the “Four Officials of the Amounts” 四值功曹, who regulate the lengths of hours, days, months, and years, and thus presumably the timely passage of the seasons with their rains and harvests.



Who this colorful fellow is I’m not sure.


“(b) The lateral walls of the Lung-wang temple: The theme of both lateral walls of the Lung-wang temples is “The Pursuit of the Evil Ones”, as described in chapter 2, Wu-tao temples. Only temples too poor for elaborate frescoes have nothing on their walls; 56 Lung-wang temples have those frescoes, more than half of the total number (see map 1). A few peculiarities of this kind of fresco as represented in this type of temple ought to be noted: the “Mother of Waters” does not herself participate in the expedition but is shown seated under the archway of her palace Shui-ching kung 水晶宮, the “Crystal Palace”, surrounded by her female attendants; she either greets the leaving expedition (eastern wall) or welcomes it back (western wall). The members of the expedition are very numerous; they ride on dragons when going out (eastern wall), and on horseback when returning (western wall). The upper parts of the fresco show the heavenly spirits putting in action their instruments: the Thunder spirit rolling his thunder machine, the Rainbow spirit pouring a rainbow out of his urn, and so on. In the foreground of the Crystal Palace, two small figures are standing apart from the others, wishing godspeed to the expedition or making the ceremonial salute with both hands to welcome it back: they are the Wu-tao god and the Earth god (T’u-ti); at their sides stand the tiger and the wolf, which we find in the Wu-tao temple as companions of the two gods. In the upper right-hand corner of the western wall fresco a huge hand is thrust out of the clouds, to which a small figure on horseback presents a yellow scroll. This is the Yu piao 雨表 or “Report to Heaven on the Rain” (see photograph 11).”

Wan-chuan, p.229-230

The eastern lateral wall of the temple, in which the procession rides out from the Crystal Palace. Note the small figures of farmers and traders going about their business beneath the clouds.


A great flood bearing down from the upper left corner of the scene, bearing a red sun. Daoist depictions of the creation of the world tend to bear the image of red suns rising from water, although I’m not sure what the significance is.

sun wave

The Crystal Palace, with the Mother of Waters seeing off the procession.


On the way out, the riders are human and the mounts are dragons.






The central figure of each side of the composition is a palanquin being carried by draconic bearers. The occupant of the palanquin is always invisible behind the drapes. Grootaers states (Hsuan-hua, p.35) that in some of his areas the Mother of Waters remained within the palace, and in other areas she was visible sitting in the palanquin. In this case, it seems that the painter chose a compromise by depicting her in the palace and then hiding the palanquin’s precise occupant.


A thunder-drummer.


Meteorological scalies pour down rain.


Another thunder-cymbalist.


The western lateral wall of the temple, in which the procession returns to the Crystal Palace. On this side of the composition, the dragons have changed into horses.




This is the fellow who leads the palanquin.


The thunder-drummer from the western wall, having packed up his drums after the storm and carrying them back to the Crystal Palace.


The image of the Rain Report being presented to heaven in the upper right corner of the composition is the counterpart to the red sun being borne upon a flood on the opposite wall. This hint of a higher deity elicits some excitement from Grootaers:

“In the upper right hand corner of the western wall, a huge hand is thrust out of the clouds, to which a small figure on horseback presents a yellow scroll. This is the yupiao 雨表 Report to Heaven on the Rain. (fig. 15, top center, fig. 44, top left.) […]

There is a final personage whose importance must be stressed. If we ask ourselves to whom the “Rain Report” is destined, we see it must be a god higher placed than the Dragon Kings themselves. In the general description above, we found how a huge hand comes out of the clouds to receive the report. In fact more often than not, a moon-gate is painted in the upper corner of the western wall; this gate is called nan-t’ien-men 南天門 which could mean as well “Gate of the Southern Heaven” as “Southern Gate of Heaven”; the latter is more probable. We found a couple of times this name inscribed on the gate, as f.i. at DV 95. In some cases, all in the Liu-Ho plain (Dv 87, 95, 98, 122b, 125b, 125d), the hand of the unknown god is thrust through the half open gate, instead of through the clouds. But in most cases, a young being stands in front of the gate (fig. 44, top left), clothed in a checkered dress, with white and black squares; this dress is called ba-gua-i 八卦衣 “the dress of the eight hexagrams.” This youth standing in the southern gate of heaven sometimes sends a rainbow from his hands. As a corresponding feature on the opposite wall, in these cases where the Mother of Water joins the expedition, no Palace of Crystal is shown. Its place is taken by a youthful person (the same as in the Nan-t’ien-men?) from whose hand pour forth the clouds on which the expedition rides out. This is clearly shown in fig. 16. […]

The supreme god who lives behind this door is shown twice on the frescoes of the Lung-wang temples, at Dv 122b and Dv 125d; his head only peeps through the nan-t’ien-men. He wears a round cap with a semispheric ornaments jutting out above the ears; he has a small round beard in the center of the chin and a drooping moustache. No such god was noted elsewhere in our survey.”

– Rural Temples, p. 35-36

I don’t have any pictures of the South Gate of Heaven or the deity of heaven. In Yu County, these figures are represented by the giant hand reaching down from a flood to receive the report. Here they are:



Below are the God of the Soil 土地神 and the God of the Mountains 山神. Grootaers describes these as welcoming the expedition back at the Crystal Palace. In this temple this is not quite so; in fact they stand in the lower, “human” part of the image, behind a recursive image of the temple itself, welcoming the human participants of a religious procession which has arrived with music and offerings. I’ve not put up pictures of that procession here, since Grootaers doesn’t mention it and it’s interesting enough to deserve a full post of its own.


Here is the full set of photos from this temple:

Here’s a second set, from a different temple in a similar style, undated.



2) THE GOD OF THE FIVE WAYS 五道神 – 197 Units:



The relative importance of this cult can be overstated by the numbers of temples devoted to it. Unlike the other cults, all of the temples devoted to the God of the Five Ways are extremely small, being simple shrines set at crossroads, often no more than waist height. Despite its popularity, the precise purpose of this cult seems a little obscure. Grootaers points out two uses of the temples which might explain the iconography:

“In everyday life, the Wu-tao temple is used for the announcements which in a modern state are made at the registrar’s office: births, marriages, and especially deaths are called out loudly by the head of the family in front of the Wu-tao temple.

Another role still may be ascribed to this cult, i.e., that of the protector of the roads and of the people walking on them. This is implied by the name itself of the main god, Wu tao, “Five Roads”; this is even more clearly expressed by the vertical inscriptions referring to the person of the god; we have a great number of such inscriptions; here follows one typical example:

The body covered in golden armour, he wanders on all the roads;
The hand holding the precious sword, he patrols all the directions.”

Wanch’uan, p.238

These observations on the function of this cult are corroborated by Sidney Gamble in Ding County of southern Hebei. In this county, deaths in the family were reported with incense and paper money at the Temple of the Five Ways. Importantly, in the absence of such a temple nearby, the same announcement could just be made at the nearest crossroads. (Gamble, p.387)

With respect to interiors of the temples, it’s noted that the God of the Five Ways (wu-dao) is not always the central god worshiped in the Temples of the Five Ways (wu-dao miao). That said, there is more or less a set iconography:

“(a) The images of the northern wall: The main images (see photographs 4 and 5) are: In the center, the Wu-tao shen, “God of the Five (viz. all) Roads,” a benign, white-faced and black-bearded personage (most often having a three-pronged beard), wearing a military cap and a red coat under an armour, and holding a sword; in the east, the Shan-shen  山神, “God of the Mountain,” a fierce, blue- or black-bearded person, wearing a military cap and a blue-black coat under an armour, holding a sword or a whip; in the west, the T’u-ti shen 土地神, “God of the Earth,” a smiling, white-faced and white-bearded person, dressed like a scholar, with a yellow robe, holding a fan or simply having his hands in his sleeves.”

Wanch’uan, p.234

In total honesty, the inhabitants of the village in question identified the below temple as a being to the Three Officials 三官, not to the Five Ways 五道. However, it’s fairly clear from the iconography that this is a mis-attribution. It’s also one of only two good surviving example that I’m aware of, so it’s worth putting up:



“Finally, in front of the main images, two animals, a tiger and a wolf, are attached with iron chains to a stone pillar or a rock; the tiger is normally found in the east, and the wolf in the west. Their role will become clear when we describe the lateral frescoes.”

Wanch’uan, p.235

Here are the tiger and wolf, with a little statue of what I think is The Great Scholar of the Face 面然大士 or the King of Demons 鬼王.


“(b) The frescoes on the lateral walls: […] A narrow strip of territory in the west [of Wanquan County] has one theme that we may call “The Judgement of Souls”, whereas the whole region has another theme, found uniformly everywhere, viz., “The Pursuit of the Evil Ones”.

“The Judgement of Souls” represents Ch’eng-huang 城隍, the god of the city walls (on the eastern wall), and Yen-wang 閻王, the god of Hell (on the western wall), both sitting in judgement on the souls brought to them. The first step in the judgment is the torture of the souls before Ch’eng-huang – whether as a punishment or for extracting the truth is not clear. Subsequently they pass before Yen-wang, where the souls of the just are led across a bridge over Hell’s fire.

“The Pursuit of the Evil Ones” is a very important theme in the local iconography and with some variations is found in several types of temples (see Introduction, 4.). In the Wu-tao temples, this type of fresco pictures the three main gods of the temple (Wu-tao, Shan-shen, and T’u-ti) on horseback. On the eastern wall, we see them start on a punitive expedition with a great display of wrath; they are led by the Devil and the Judge (the two auxiliary figures in front of the main wall) and accompanied by the Tiger and the Wolf. They pursue evil spirits 捉妖, or, as local people say sometimes, na pa kuai 拿八怪, “catch the eight monsters”. These monsters – there are seldom eight of them on the walls – represent the powers of evil who lead people to sin and hell; one at least has always the head of a chicken, another that of a hare (both symbols of homosexuality), sometimes serpents are amongst them.

The western wall of the temple pictures the returning expedition, the three main gods cantering back in an orderly row, bearing a satisfied expression. The Tiger and Wolf carry between their teeth some of the vanquished foes, the Devil and the Judge lead a chained procession of captives (see photographs 4 and 5).”

Wanch’uan, p.236

The left wall, in which the procession rides out.


The right wall, in which it returns.


Some details of the riders and their attendants:






The capture of the monsters:



I’ve only seen one other surviving set, which has much the same basic arrangement. The front wall shows the God of the Five Ways flanked by his attendants:

The two side walls show the same procession scene.

There’s also this mammary-headed individual, giving us a thumbs up:




A gatehouse and a small temple

guanyin miao front flags

wushisancan panorama

In both Grootaers’ areas and in Yu County, temples to Avalokiteshvara are commonly found at the southern end of the fort, facing in (north), either outside the main gate or on top of it. The cult is in some cases confused with that of the Grandmother 奶奶, another female deity associated with mercy and the bearing of children. Grootaers says of the iconography:

“The Kuan-yin temple has almost everywhere the same interior decoration. On a central throne, made of a lotus flower, sits Kuan-yin, in the feminine shape found often in Buddhist iconography. The image has here always a bonnet made of cloth and a great mantle hanging from the shoulders. The lotus throne sometimes rests on the back of a red horse. It is only in a few cases that the Kuan-yin image is a fresco painted on the central wall.

In about fifteen Kuan-yin temples, irregularly scattered over the area, Kuan-yin has her two associates, Manjushri 文殊 and Samantabhadra 普雨 [sic], whose names are unknown to the people; those images are also sitting on lotus thrones, one resting on top of an elephant (western image), the other on top of a green lion (eastern image). This type of triple image was never found in painting. […]

The ceiling of the Kuan-yin temple disappears sometimes under a canopy of clouds, from which a multitude of heavenly spirits look down; among them and nearest to the main images, we find often the dove-like bird with a rosary in its bill that is a common companion of Kuan-yin.”

Wan-chuan, p.242-3

guanyin miao front

With respect to the lateral walls:

“On both sides of the temple, the 18 Arhat or Lo-han 羅漢 are disposed in two rows, either as images standing on the floor or as painted frescoes. Behind or above the Lo-hans a row of panels on the wall represents miracles wrought by Kuan-yin in favor of the people who invoke her: a drowning man is shown rescued out of the water by the hand of Kuan-yin thrust from the clouds; robbers attacking a traveler are driven off by her, and so on; the number of miracles represented is ordinarily 12 or 8, divided on the two walls.”

Wanch’uan, p.243

I have one partial example of the Eighteen Arhats; since this was found within a large multi-hall monastery 寺 I have put it in that section beneath, since Grootaers mentioned it was also occasionally found in that context in his areas. In both of the two cases where I have paneled images of miracle working, the source of the text is the Universal Gateway 普門品 section of the Lotus Sutra. I’ve already translated the best-surviving and most artistically attractive example in a previous post. The other intact example is translated below. The panels come from the heavily damaged temple building pictured below, in which the space was originally divided into two separate shrines, one to Lord Guan and the other to Avalokiteshvara. The text seems taken more or less at random from the sutra, so I’m not sure of the order.

guanyin miao panorama w guangong

guanyin panel 02

Or if three thousand great-thousand realms of Yakshas and Rakshasas wish to come and beset a person, if he calls out the name of Hears-the-Sounds, these evil demons will not even be able to turn their evil eyes upon that person, let alone do him harm.

guanyin panel 01

[Cartouche illegible; I’m guessing from the picture it’s probably this, or another passage like it:]

Or else if there is a person, whether he is innocent or guilty, if he has been put in chains or in the cangue, if he calls out the name of Hears-the-Sounds, then his restrains will be broken, and he will attain release.

guanyin panel 03

Or if you are floating upon a great water, cry out this name, and you will arrive at a dry place.

guanyin panel 04

[Cartouche illegible, I’m assuming from the picture it’s the following]

If you rely upon the name of Hears-the-Sounds, if you are thrown into a great fire, this fire will not be able to burn you.

guanyin panel 05

雲雷鼓掣電  降雹澍大雨  念彼觀音力  應時得消散
Amids clouds and the rumble of thunder and striking of lighting, as hail falls and a great rain pours down – think only of the power of Hears-The-Sounds, and in response right at that moment the clouds will all vanish and clear away.

guanyin panel 06

或在須彌峰  為人所推墮  念彼觀音力  如日虛空住
Or if upon the peak of Sumeru, you are pushed off by someone and fall – think only of the power of Hears-The-Sounds, and you will travel as the sun across the emptiness. 

guanyin panel 07

蚖蛇及蝮蝎  氣毒煙火然  念彼觀音力  尋聲自迴去
If you meet with vipers and scorpions, with evil vapors, smoke and fire – think only of the power of Hears-The-Sounds, and immediately hearing the sound they will flee back from where they came.

guanyin panel 08

或被惡人逐  墮落金剛山  念彼觀音力  不能損一毛
Or if you are thrust by someone evil, and fall from the Vajra Mountain – think only of the power of Hears-The-Sounds, and you cannot be diminished even by a single hair. 

guanyin panel 09

或遇惡羅剎  毒龍諸鬼等  念彼觀音力  時悉不敢害
Or if you meet an evil yaksha, or a poisonous dragon or any other demon – think only of the power of Hears-The-Sounds, and at all times they will not dare harm you. 

guanyin panel 10

若惡獸圍繞  利牙爪可怖  念彼觀音力  疾走無邊方
If you are encircled by evil beasts, with sharp teeth and claws so fearsome – think only of the power of Hears-The-Sounds, and you will be able to rapidly flee without any obstructions.

guanyin panel 11

[Cartouche illegible, I’m guessing the text might be this section, but maybe not:]

應以童男、童女身得度者,即現童男、童女身而為說法,應以天、龍、夜叉、乾闥婆、阿修羅、迦樓羅、緊那羅、摩 [目+侯] 羅伽、人非人等身得度者,即皆現之而為說法
For those who might be saved by a boy-child or a girl child, she will appear in the body of a boy-child or a girl-child and speak the Law. For those who might be saved by a heavenly being, a dragon, a yaksha, a gandharva, an asura, a garuda, a kinnara, a mahoraga, whether in human or in non-human form, she will appear in that shape and speak the Law.

guanyin panel 12

For those who might be saved by a spirit bearing a golden vajra, she will appear as a spirit bearing a golden vajra and speak the Law.

guanyin panel 13

And at that time, Hears-the-Sounds pitied the four assemblies as well as the beings of heaven, the dragons, people and non people, and received the necklace [from Limitless-Intentions]. He divided it into two, offering one part to the Buddha Sakyamuni, and the other to the Buddha-stupa of manifold treasures. 

guanyin panel 14

我為汝略說  聞名及見身  心念不空過  能滅諸有苦
假使興害意  推落大火坑  念彼觀音力  火坑變成池
I will explain it to you: if you hear her name or see her form,
if you think of her without idleness, then she can extinguish all suffering.
If a person has intent to harm you, and pushes you into a pit of fire,
Think only of the power of Hears-the-Sounds, and the pit of fire will become as a pool of water.

Grootaers says that in his areas, the main fresco subjects within temples to Avalokiteshvara were the figures of the Arhats and this miracle-working text of the Universal Gateway. As mentioned above, the Arhats are not in evidence in the surviving temples of Yu County (although they probably existed before the Cultural Revolution as statues along the altar-top). Further, a third iconographic topic, not mentioned by Grootaers, is common: the Fifty Three Stations of Sudhana 善財童子五十三參 from the “Entering the Buddha Realm” 入佛界品 section of the Gandavyuha Sutra. I’ve seen two or three examples of this, although unfortunately I neglected to completely photograph any of them. In any case the images are fairly repetitive: Sudhana, a small boy dressed in red, worships and studies at the feet of a series of Buddhas and other figures before eventually attaining enlightenment.

wushisancan detail 01

wushisancan detail 02

wushisancan detail 03

wushisancan detail 04




4) THE HORSE KING 馬王 – 113 Units:

mawang miao

qun miao

According to Grootaers, the Horse King (Ma Wang) seems to have been mainly associated with the worship of the Dragon Kings, being venerated as one of the lateral images in that shrines. I’ve not been able to securely identify him in that context, and in my research area only one temple specifically dedicated to the Horse King survives in even partially intact state. Nevertheless, the iconography is quite interesting.

“All representations of the god are unmistakable: he has three faces, one looking in front, the other two, to left and right, all identical, of a deep brown colour and with a fierce expression; his body is covered in armour; he has six arms, two in front and two on each side, brandishing a sword, a bell, a magic seal, or making a magic sign with his fingers. Among his attendants the principal ones are two generals, whose appearance varies a great deal in the different temples; the one at the right often leads a horse. On the whole, there seems to be a great liberty in the decor surrounding the main figure, and the local peasants are unable to give the names of most figures. One will get an idea through the description of the set-up as found in one place, Cz 254: Behind the usual image of the god, a boy and a girl similar to the chin-t’ung 金童 and yu-nv 玉女 found in burial ceremonies; at his left, a devil with a benign white face, at his right an old tribunal official with a black beard; in front, two generals, the one at the left holding a stone, the other at the right leading a horse. […]

Wanch’uan, p.256

I have one example of this frontal iconography, from the same late-Qing shrine as the second God of the Five Ways iconography above.

The two flanking walls show the six-armed Horse King riding out in procession with his generals. Grootaers describes this briefly:

The lateral walls of the few Ma-wang temples sometimes have frescoes. In three of them (Cz 315a, 353c, 278a) the theme is the Pursuit of the Evil Spirits (see ch. 2), with of course Ma-wang as the leader of the heavenly procession. In one instance, a small-sized temple at Dv 163, the frescoes represent two men, one on each wall, leading one horse by the bridle; the man on the western wall carries a headdress in the shape of a lion head; on the eastern wall, the man has an elephant in his headdress. We cannot identify these personages, but similar headdresses were found for the attendants of the God of the Fire (ch.13). At Dv 124, Ma-wang has the God of the Fire and Lao-tzu (ch. 24).

Hsuan-hua, p.57

These are from a different shrine. The right wall:


And the left wall:




The rather Indian or Central Asian appearance of this god (multi-armed, mounted, bearing banners and weapons) prompts Grootaers to speculate on a relationship to the Indic deity Hayagriva, “The Horse-Headed”.


In the first shrine above, there’s also this interesting horse with tendrils of fire coming out of it:

The remainder of the images from the first shrine:



5) LORD GUAN 關公 – 107 Units:

guan gong miao outside 03

axial guan gong miao

guan gong miao outside

Lord Guan is the late Han-dynasty general, Guan Yu 關羽 or Guan Di 關帝 “Emperor Guan”, hero of the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” 三國演義. He’s also called “The Grandfather” 老爺, presumably in complement to the “Grandmother” 奶奶, another common village god. Grootaers says of the iconography:

“We found only three temples where the central image of Kuan-ti was painted on the wall. All the others have statues. These now may be of two different types: the military type, showing Kuan-ti as an army general, with full armour, either standing (seven cases) or on horseback (five cases); another type is that of Kuan-ti as a literate, sitting on a throne (29 cases). There is the possibility of a combination of the two types, one type of statue standing in front of the other; Dv 97 for instance has Kuan-ti as a literate, in front of which he is represented on horseback, and more to the front yet another smaller statue as a literate. The Kuan-ti on horseback has a special name in the spoken language, Le-ma Kuan-ti 勒馬關帝 ‘Guan-ti restraining a horse.'” […]

Hsuan-hua, p.64

Below is the only temple I’m aware of where back-wall frescoes of Lord Guan survive. Grootaers identifies the standard list of generals flanking the main image as Zhou Cang 周倉, Liu Hua 劉化, Wang Fu 王甫, Guan Ping 關平, and in one case Zhao Lei 趙累.

laoye miao front

guan gong miao interior panorama

The latter image comes from a different temple than the one examined below; although it’s heavily damaged the reader may get an idea of what the layout might have looked like in Grootaers’ time.

With respect to the flanking walls:

“Another important part of the set-up of the Kuan-ti temples are the frescoes of the lateral walls. There are a few themes less often found, as the horses of Kuan-ti (see above) or the two genii of wealth Tz’u-t’ung 梓潼 and Ts’ai-shen 財神 (ch.11) at Cz 279a. But most of the Kuan-ti temples have their lateral walls covered with a great number of panels depicting incidents from Kuan-ti’s life, without a doubt according to the same novel San-kuo-chih yen-i […]. We found these panels in 26 temples; in a few cases there were as many as 72 (Dv 87) or 48 (Dv 176a) of them. But in no case did we find titles along each panel as is the case for the Chen-wu temples. We had therefore no possibility of taking down a detailed description of each panel.”

Hsuan-hua, p.66

In Yu County, it was in fact quite common for these paneled stories to have titles. The right wall:

Frescoes narrating the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (1)

The left wall:

laoye miao lefthand wall full

I’ve translated the upper three rows of the left wall. The order is in bottom-to-top boustrophedon:

laoye 3.6

大戰周公瑾 – A Great Battle with Zhou Gongjin

laoye 3.5

鎮守荊州府 – Taking Control of the Government of Ji zhou

laoye 3.4

單刀驚魯肅 – Startling Lu Su with a Single Blade

laoye 3.3

胡班投降 – Hu Ban Makes his Surrender

laoye 3.2

興帥伐曹操 – Raising an Army to Campaign Against Cao Cao

laoye 3.1

用計取襄陽 – Taking Xiangyang by Stratagem 

laoye 2.1

立斬夏侯存 – Immediately Beheading Xia Houcun

laoye 2.2

進兵攻樊城 – The Army Advances to Attack the City of Fan

laoye 2.3

大戰龐令名 – A Great Battle with Pang Lingming

laoye 2.4

決水淹七軍 – Damming the Waters to Drown Seven Armies

laoye 2.5

于禁乞性命 – Yu Jin Pleads for his Life

laoye 2.6

箭射成何將 – Shooting General Cheng He with an Arrow

laoye 1.6

周倉擒龐德 – Zhou Cang Seizes Pang De

laoye 1.5

怒斬龐令名 – Beheading Pang Lingming in Anger

laoye 1.4

用水淹樊城 – Using Water to Submerge the City of Fan

laoye 1.3

大戰徐公明 – A Great Battle with Xu Gongming

laoye 1.2

活捉呂子明 – Capturing Lu Ziming Alive

laoye 1.1

 玉泉山顯聖 – A Saint Manifests Upon Jade-Springs Mountain

Here’s the full set from this temple:

Another late-Qing set from a different temple, now partially collapsed. (There’s a stele text saying when these were made, but I can’t be bothered to go hunting for it right now.)

Continued in Part Three, below:

Art China Fortresses Hebei Translation Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

ILLUSTRATING GROOTAERS, or, the Principal Gods of Rural Xuan-Da and their Iconographies, Part 3

(Continued from Part 2)

6) THE PERFECTED WARRIOR 真武 – 104 Units:

temple tower multi level


In Grootaers’ areas as well as mine, temples to the Perfected Warrior are almost universally built upon tall towers attached to the northern wall of the fort. In villages where for whatever reason this is not possible, some form of artificial mound is usually devised. Often these towers would also have held bell and drum pavilions for signaling to those outside the fort in the fields. As Grootaers comments, “The Chen-wu temple with its high tower is a pronounced feature of the Wanch’uan landscape.”

(a) The central image and attendants: Chen-wu is round faced, wearing a round cap, a thin mustache and small pointed beard. His body is covered with an elaborately decorated armour, his feet are bare. He holds nearly always a sword in his right hand, while his left is forming a kind of magic sign, his thumb touching the third finger with the little finger extended and the two remaining fingers intricately knotted above the third finger. He is sitting on a low throne; on both sides, half turned towards him are two standing images: the eastern one is that of a young girl, T’ao-hua nü 桃花女, “peach-blossom girl,” who is carrying a seal on a piece of cloth, held by both hands; the corresponding image in the west is that of an old man, Chou kung 周公, the Duke of Chou. Both are favorite in popular legends.”

Wanch’uan, p.251


“The central gangway of the temple is lined on both sides by twelve statues, facing each other in a double row. In a few smaller and poorer temples their number is not complete, and only four or six are present. On the other hand, they are sometimes represented by wall paintings, instead of by statues…”

Wanch’uan, p.251

No such statues survive in Yu County, but frescoes do. From the style, the below appears to have been created by the same artist who was responsible for the Temple of the Five Ways presented previously. The right wall:


The left wall:


It should be noted that these people have great shoes.




In other cases the twelve generals are depicted on the back wall, flanking the Perfected Warrior to either side.


(b) The lateral walls: The Chen-wu temple has often frescoes on its lateral walls; we have already seen seven villages where the 12 attendants of the god are depicted on those walls. This seems to be a make-shift; a great number of Chen-wu temples, 25 in all, have on those walls an illustrated biography of the god. The whole wall is divided into small panels, between which a separation is made by some ornamental rocks with trees; those panels sometimes are even continued on narrow strips on both sides of the central image on the back wall. The sequence of the panels varies considerably, the tale unfolding itself horizontally or vertically, starting on the eastern wall or on the western one. The panels carry each a title (having 4 to 10 words), except in seven cases in which no titles are given, and of which we therefore can say nothing. Of the eighteen remaining two are practically undecipherable. The sixteen complete frescoes with their 756 panels give us a highly interesting account of the legend of the god, the number of panels running as high as 88 in one place (Cz 250). A detailed study of these inscriptions ought to be made, with due attention to their many differences; it would, however, take too much space here, and we limit ourselves to a general outline of the legend, which runs as follows: born after his mother swallowed the sun in a dream, and with the accompaniment of miracles, the Imperial Heir studies a while, then leaves his family to practice holiness. Yü-huang, the Jade emperor, gives him a sword with which he fights devils and subdues other spirits, who become his attendants; (among them we find Chou kung, Tao-hua nü, and the 12 attendants standing before the image in the temple). The rest of the account is taken up by miracles, in which many popular deities are involved, as Lung-wang, Kuan-yin, Kuan-ti, and others.”

Wanch’uan, p.252-253

A few semi intact sets of this hagiography exist in Yu County. The best preserved is an early 20th century set on the northern temple tower of the Northern Quarters Fort 北坊城. Visitors are disallowed from photographing this and anyway it’s been anthologized in “Yu County Temple Frescoes” 蔚州寺廟壁畫, so I shan’t bother with it here. Below is the left wall of a different temple, undated:

zhenwu left wall full

As alluded to in the above passage, Grootaers produced a long and very interesting study on this particular type of narrative fresco, titled “The Hagiography of the Chinese God Chen-wu: The Transmission of Rural Traditions in Chahar”. I quote here from the conclusion, which is very relevant to understanding the creation and transmission of all of the iconographies dealt with here:

“The frescoes of Chen-wu’s life in the various villages of South Chahar not only present some similarities by which one may trace the influence of the same painter, their differences are much more striking. No two frescoes could be written in parallel columns and have any number of episodes in one column matching a good number of similar episodes in the other column. The stories are mixed up and some artists have lost the thread of the story. One may even find Chen-wu leaving his parents long after his asceticism on the mountain is finished. 

On the other hand, it is undeniable that the villages of the same neighborhood use the talent of the same local artist. I have spoken with two of them during my exploration in the Wan-ch’iian region. One of them living at Cz 276 was kept sufficiently busy in the large city itself, but the other at Cz 284 accepted orders from at least half a dozen villages of the vicinity. However, he explained to me that he could fulfil any order presented by the customers.

In conclusion, we should like to venture an hypothesis. The legend of Chen-wu as found in these rural temples is painted by local artists who decide freely the subtitles of the panels when executing an order. They rely on traditional themes handed down by their masters or transmitted by the story tellers. Since the Chen-wu temple needs a new coat of paint only every hundred years, if at all, we find now the story of Chen-wu in different stages of its evolution and also in various stages of its corruption by oral transmission. There is, furthermore, the lower or the higher grade of skill one may expect from each painter-farmer. Finally when repolishing a fresco partly in need of repair, the artist may be following the older text found on the wall, improvising more or less aptly when a few words have become undecipherable.”

Hagiography, p.180-181

To this we may add a few additional comments. The first is that in many temples we can see spaces left for subtitles which have not been filled in. This suggests that the probably illiterate painter and the author of the titles were often not the same person, and that a village may first have had its frescoes painted and only later filled in the captions when a suitable writer could be found. This may explain some of the discrepancy and generally garbled state of the paintings and captions.

A second point to be made is that there certainly were textual sources for the hagiography of the Perfected Warrior available to Xuan-Da villagers, and these sources were demonstrably used for the image captions. These sources turn up easily enough just by googling the captions given in Grootaers text. This only seems to complicate the situation though, since not all of the captions Grootaers records seem drawn from one particular text, and in some cases one temple will have some captions which seem to be drawn from a particular written source and other captions which apparently are not. There are also captions which seem to be truly captions – i.e., they explain the content of the image – and other captions which seem to be more titles – i.e., they refer to a story in a textual or other source. In this latter case the accompanying picture on the wall is simply one scene from a long text, and the meaning of neither the caption nor the picture is comprehensible without this story. This difference between captions and titles seems to me to correspond very broadly to images which are part of the core hagiography of the Perfected Warrior (more likely to be familiar to villagers, and thus depicted explicitly and captioned) and to images which come from an extended body of sundry miracle tales associated with the god (more likely to be drawn from some external textual source, and thus titled.)

Grootaers took the length of a long paper to unravel part of this mess and I shan’t try to improve upon him. Nevertheless I’ve set up here one set of panels which I have fairly intact, translating the titles from the upper two lines of the left wall. The titles turn out to be mostly drawn from a text called”The Record of Achieving Sagehood of the High Emperor of the Dark Heavens” 玄天上帝啟聖錄, a hagiography of unclear provenance which probably (according to Baidu Baike) originated in the Yuan period (1271-1368). This text seems to have been the main source for the frescoes below and provided one important source for the panels Grootaers examined. Of my text given below, the texts given in Grootaers study, and the text of this book, all overlap to a considerable degree, but none are exactly in accordance with the others.

The book is divided into eight volumes (juan), of which the first is an account of the life and ascension of the Perfected Warrior and the latter seven are filled with sundry miracle tales. These miracle tales are short, typically not more than a thousand characters long. Each one accounts a formulaic little story, in which the Perfected Warrior intercedes on the behalf of some beset upper-class individual, and which almost always end pointedly with ceremonies and monetary offerings made to temples in thanks for these intercessions. Each story has a four character title, the meaning of which cannot usually be understood without first reading the accompanying tale. These titles are the source of the cartouche texts in the Yu County temple; some of what Grootaers identifies in his paper as mistaken characters are actually correct readings which are simply incomprehensible without the stories in this book.

Interestingly, what at first appear to be unconnected miracle stories are not precisely so. Characters and places re-appear unexpectedly throughout the book, to the extent that there appear to be little story cycles scattered through the text, at times linking to other cycles by a shared name or location. There’s also thematic connections between the stories – the wars and diplomacy of the Song Dynasty against the Khitan, Jurchen, and Tanguts appear repeatedly as story elements, and the Perfected Warrior is often associated with particular geographical locations along this frontier.

I’ve translated a couple episodes from this book which appear in my or Grootaers’ lists of titles and which seem interesting to me. In light of the Perfected Warrior’s later importance as probably the most important god of these border fortresses, I’ve picked stories which stress his role as an arbiter of the frontier, and a defender of the Chinese against foreign attack from the north. The first two stories are not illustrated in my selection, although they do appear in Grootaers lists. I should also say that these stories are surprisingly annoying to translate. They seem slightly garbled with many mistaken characters in the version I have (from, and the storytelling at times is rather disconnected and hard to follow. I’ve done my best and provided the Chinese if you want to read it yourself.


Lü Dafang was a scholar of the Pavilion of Dragon Images. He was sent as an emissary to the Western Barbarians [ie. the Tangut or the Tibetans]. As he was crossing over a river in the midst of a forest, he suddenly was beset by wind and lightning along with pelting rain. The waves became mad and the billows angry, and the entire river was darkened, to the point where Lü Dafang was extremely terrified.

At this place there was the remains of a holy altar where the gods had been worshiped by people of both nations. The households that belonged to the place told him that directly to the north there was a mountain, which was called Blue Net Cave Heaven. This mountain sat on the side of the border which belonged to the Great Song Dynasty. Upon this mountain could frequently be seen a light, and frequently there was also wind, fog, rain and hail there. The common people from both sides of the border would cut firewood in this place, and at a distance from the mountain they could hear the sounds of holy men speaking there. If one climbed to the top of the mountain and gazed in the four directions, one would see jade clouds covered all things like topknots and bristles of hair. There in the clouds sat a man, with his hair hanging down, golden armor, and a black robe. This man was nearly a hundred meters tall, seated on a great stone. Before him were a turtle and a snake, and behind him was unfurled a black flag. and before him were more banners, canopies, and resplendent coverings. It was known that this was the Perfected Warrior descended to earth.

On this day the envoy Lü Dafang was passing this place, and not only that but it was the first day of the new year. He wished to see for himself the Perfected Warrior descending to earth, but the place was covered in clouds and rain. Lü Dafang waited until the wind and rain lifted, and then prepared some incense and started towards this Blue Net Mountain. When he reached a place distantly across from where the Perfected Warrior descended, he made offerings and burned incense, hoping that his journey into the foreign lands would be without worry, that he would soon be on the road home, and pleading that no harm befall him and that all would be auspicious.

Thereafter he took his leave, and continued on to meet the king of the barbarians, Li Chengye. His mission was to make peace in the region of the Fan River by creating two thousand border markers. At the start, the border was at the fort called Barbarian’s Rope. During the time when this was divided up there had been unrest, but now all was peaceful. Afterwards an envoy from the western barbarians was received, stating that they intended to seize back the land up to the Fan River, in full two thousand li of border. Our court had ordered that the villagers be concentrated into settlements [for defense], set in places where the agriculture was advantageous. It was decided that a return envoy should be sent back across the border to the barbarian regions, and this was how Lü Dafang found himself entering the foreign country. [But now he discovered that] Li Chengye the king of the barbarians wished to have peaceful relations with the Song, and that he had already given an order that there should be no hostilities between them.

The next morning Zhang Yanzu [this is apparently a name?] and all the other barbarian ministers saw Lü Dafang off. When they had gone about fifteen li, a scattered cloud of all the colors came fluttering over the sky. When they tossed things up into it [?], these things all transformed into sweet dew. They tasted this dew and it was as delicious as yogurt. After a little while, a miraculous red light gradually spread over them. Lü Dafang arrived once again at the Blue Net Mountain, and made a ceremony to thank the Perfected Warrior. In this place all the flowers on the mountains were dead, but the branches of the trees had burst into bloom, a truly wild forest. Lü Dafang picked these flowers, and held them in his hands [as an offering] of his thanks.

Lü Dafang returned to the Song, and reported in person to the emperor, who outlined the program ahead. Lü Dafang was sent back to Blue Net Mountain and to make rituals to the Perfected Warrior. The emperor especially commanded that on the roads to the left and right of the mountain, Daoist priests by stationed, and that when emissaries passed the place they should make their respects. He also commanded that a Golden Dragon Jade Letter be set up at the place, marking it as the spot which bore the traces of where the Perfected Warrior had descended his perfect spirit. 

This second story is from a cycle of three stories to do with a place called Ying County 瀛州, a place on the North China Plain which lay on the Song-Khitan border during the early part of that dynasty. (Ying County 瀛州 is not to be confused with the famous Daoist paradise called Ying Island 瀛洲.) The story below is actually chronologically last in the cycle. The first story (“The High Sage Lets Down a Sail” 高聖降凡) relates the arrival of a barbarian in Ying County named Yin Shouxian. Yin Shouxian and his six brothers are actually incarnations of the sun, the moon, and the five visible planets. They create a temple south of the Ying County seat, which was named after them. I haven’t translated this because it’s super long and not actually that interesting. The second story (“The Song Dynasty is United” 宋國一統) relates the miraculous role of this temple in inducing the Perfected Warrior to aid the founder of that dynasty. This story does turn up in my temple panels so I’ve translated it further down. The final story, below, relates another miracle related to this temple and its miraculous defense of the dynasty’s borders.


During the Tianxi era (AD 1017-1021), Fang Zhicai, an officer of the department of military affairs took up the position of the superintendent of Horses and Soldiers at the Gaoyang Border Station of Ying County. He humbly reported to the emperor that he had assumed the position. After three months, the captain of Duckweed Fort of the Shallow Barbarians, Lu Jicheng, and two thousand others invaded across the border on the night of the sixteenth day of the eighth month of the first year of that era. They plundered the grain of the Blue-Wood Fort up to five hundred thousand kilos. After an inspection, the fourth general of the border station Zou Shu and the official Liu Yi led two thousand soldiers out to the barbarian border to demand an explanation.

The next day an army of the barbarians ten thousand strong appeared. A general arrived from them and said, “I am an official from Yan, the Lord of Yan in the north, Nie Huxi. Because the Blue-Wood Fort every year receives military rations of grain and beans in the tens of thousands, I have raised an army of twenty thousand to steal it. In the night when we arrived at Duckweed Fort, the captain of the fort Lu Jicheng presented us a plan. He told us that Blue-Wood Fort was not prepared for an attack, and that in the night on the sixteenth, we should cross the border and steal the military rations.”

Zou Shu replied, “We are now at peace with the Son of Heaven of Great Yan. This Lord of Yan in the north Nie Huxi, does he dare like this to raise soldiers and plunder us? I do not wish to have to write to our court, and have an emissary sent into the country of Yan and demand that the stolen grain be returned to Blue-Wood Fort.”

The official from Yan did not agree to these demands. The situation came to war, and the barbarian army inflicted [?] a great defeat. Following on its heals, Nie Huxi led an army of two hundred thousand to the two gates of Ying County from the north-west. They surrounded the moat at the distance of about half a li, and for six days did not retreat. On the seventh day, which was precisely the ninth day of the ninth month, suddenly a wild wind came scraping the earth, with a great confusion of cloud and rain. You could only hear the barbarian army shouting, and then their formations were overthrown and they fled running.

Soldiers were collected to pursue. Under Zou Shu and the others they were able to capture several wounded barbarians on the paths through the grassland. Fang Zhicai gathered them together and questioned them. One of them said, “We didn’t know which god’s Dao it was inside that city. We only saw that from the north-west gates there came a wild wind that shook the ground, throwing up dust and sand, striking at our eyes. We did hear the sound of arrow-feathers pelting down like a rain, and countless serpents pursuing and biting men and horses. Nie Huxi was on his horse, gave a single shout, then gathered the army and quickly fled. Many of us suffered from various snake bites and arrow wounds, and when it was time to flee we could not move, and so we were captured here.”

At this time they examined the wounds of the captured men, and saw that they were indeed the marks of snake teeth and the scars of bites, as well as the wounds made by arrows. And yet there were no tracks or markings of how these things came and went – it was clearly the work of a god’s power.

After a few days, the patrols on the border found two officers of the barbarians, who had been entrusted with a message in a leather tube. Within it was written: “To be opened by, the Great Fixing Dynasty, Ying County Gaoyang Border Station superintendent Fang Zhicai: We announce that from today onward we will not dare to send out horses and soldiers against you. Nie Huxi took an arrow in his right eye. When the arrowhead was pulled out, in his hands it transformed into dusty powder as if from the paint of a fresco. And through inner alchemy, this wind and dust transformed into poisonous snakes and godly monsters, which defeated and set to flight our barbarian army of two hundred thousand. We do not know what god was worshiped in this border station, which could be as powerful as this. Today we have sent an offering of one of this God’s arrows; all of our generals [wish that you place it?] in a famous shrine, in order to repay our responsibility, and in prayer for peace and that Nie Huxi’s eye will recover.”

Fang Zhicai closely examined the arrows, and saw that they were truly as the paint from a wall. Therefore he went to the abbeys, monasteries, and temples of the place and saw that there were no such frescoes as this. After this he went to a shrine which has been newly built south of the county seat, called Shouxian’s Temple. On the central wall here was drawn the Great Emperor of the Purple Infinitesimal Northern Polestar [the Perfected Warrior]. On the two sides were drawn the Four Sages, all standing in golden armor, each with a quiver full of arrows. In the quiver of the Perfected Warrior, there was one arrow missing. The color of the painted arrows was exactly the same as that which had been brought by the barbarians.

Fang Zhicai burned incense. With his own hand pasted the arrow onto the place where one was missing from the quiver, and in accordance with the fresco made it as it had been, although you could still faintly see the lines of it as evidence of what had happened. The whole department no longer had any problems after this. The emissaries returned to the barbarians, and diplomatic notes were sent over. The court granted imperial incense to the temple, and held a ceremony at Shouxian’s Temple in Ying County. Thereafter it was decreed that all monasteries under heaven, if they did not already have a hall dedicated to the Perfected Warrior, should build one. Gaoyang Border Station was given a reward.

Here are the upper two rows of the left wall of one temple. I’ve translated two more stories from the Record of Achieving Sagehood with the accompanying images below.

zhenwu 3.8

玉京較功 – In the Jade Realm He Weighs the Merits

zhenwu 3.7

天賜票麥 – Heaven Grants Millet and Wheat

zhenwu 3.6


zhenwu 3.5

施經救災 – Granting Scriptures to Avert Disaster

zhenwu 3.4

鬼船退散 – The Demon Boats Retreat and Scatter

zhenwu 3.3

天降青棗 – A Blue Date Falls from Heaven

zhenwu 3.2

瓢傾三萬 – Distributing Thirty Thousand Ladles [Worth of Provisions]

zhenwu 3.1

助國一統 – He Assists in Uniting the Nation

In the Record of Achieving Sagehood, this is titled “The Song Dynasty is United” 宋朝一統. I’m assuming this is the same story, just that the paintings were made probably six hundred years after the fall of the Song (AD 960 – 1279) and so the author changed it to the generic “nation”. This is an earlier chunk of the cycle in Record of Achieving Sagehood about Yin Shouxian’s temple in Ying County. Parts of this story are hard for me to understand, and so some of the below is a guess; if anyone wants to point out the correct readings please do so. Nevertheless the connection between the Perfected Warrior, locations on the northern border, and the establishment of imperial power is interesting to me.

The Song Dynasty was established, and the vertical pole descended [sic]. Afterwards the founding emperor Taizu granted a gift of fifty thousand strings of cash to the Gaoyang Border Station in Ying County in thanks for the benevolence of the Perfected Warrior. [掛念于此?] It was also reported that a barbarian traveler had arrived in Ying County. His name was called Yin Shouxian, and he was travelling together with his brothers, altogether seven of them. Yin Shouxian was the head of a temple on the border with the barbarians. The seven of them were in fact the spirits of the moon, sun, and five planets, descended to earth. It was only their surname Yin which was not known [sic]. Therefore they descended to Ying County and chose a plot of land on which to build this Northern Polestar Seven Primordials and Four Saints Temple. When the paintings of these heavenly ministers [on the temple walls] were finished, officials intimate with the emperor were sent to burn his personal incense as an offering.

One morning, all of the officials were accompanying the imperial carriage to the Hall of Brilliant Rectitude [in the imperial palace]. This day they intended to consider grants of land and estates for all of the various lords and kings of each region and the local magistrates. At this time, unexpectedly fog and rain, wind and hail came down, and all of the officials backed away and scattered. Only the highest minister Zhao Jin remained with the sagely imperial carriage. The two of them were beckoned into the Hall of Filial Achievements by a child. The emperor remained in the carriage for some time, in the fog in front of the hall. Then he glimpsed the glow of a god – the god was wearing a crown of stars, draped with a golden scarf carved with gold, holding a board for taking orders and bowing his body in obeisance to the emperor.

The god began to speak: “Grand foundations, the nation granted prosperity, perpetual renewal and flourishing! May the sage emperors Yao and Shun support you, admire you, and protect you. No future inheritor of your throne will commit excess, nor will anything contrary, debased, faulty, or disordered be carried out. I am the Capital of Heaven Northern Polestar Perfected Warrior Miraculous Response Perfected Gentleman. I have humbly received the report that you granted a gift to a temple in Ying County, and even that you sent a messenger to hold a ceremony there in thanks. Today I was passing by this place, and arrived here to express my gratitude. I have heard that the lords and kings who hold dominion in your land, as well as those who simply control one place, have not held dear the orders of your ministers. Recently I myself met the Emperor On High to find the truth, and you will unite the whole country under the Song Dynasty, and your imperial works will flourish for ten thousand generations. Beyond the regions along the Huai and Han rivers which you have already taken back into your possession, the remaining places are predestined to fall to you and their years are limited. Their pasts and futures are already set, and none will last longer than a score of years. You will take the region east of the Yellow River as your capital, and from there you will reach Tang in the south, Shu in the east, Guangdong, Fujian, then the two Zhe provinces, and in that order take all of them.”

The Perfected Warrior then took his departure, and returned to the palaces of heaven. The emperor returned with the minister Zhao Jin, and met the guards who stood on his left and right. The officials took up their places in the Hall of Brilliant Rectitude and awaited orders, and then followed the emperor’s wishes with delight. A day was chosen, and in the inner halls a ceremony was held, in order to receive and respond to the holy muscles. [sic] From then on, all things turned out just as the sage had taught.

zhenwu 2.8

風霖鄒遷 – Moving Away the Downpour

zhenwu 2.7

符吏借兵 – The Messengers Borrow an Army

This is just another nice story on the theme of, the Perfected Warrior upholds the borders of China against the barbarians. The figure of Fu Bi 富弼 was a historical official in the northern Song dynasty, who was active in trying to achieve peace between the Chinese, the Khitan, and the Tangut. He reappears as a character in several other tales within the Record of Achieving Sagehood.

Lu Shoucong was an official charged with carrying out the orders of the Inner Court. He was sent out to the Three Borders region of Hebei to inspect the state of affairs along the frontier with the Khitan. While on the west bank of the Yellow River, he met two men who each were carrying written orders with verified seals. Lu Shoucong asked them about this, and they told him: “We two were out travelling amidst the world, when today we arrived at Ding County. There we suddenly met that soldier, the Northern Polestar Perfected Warrior Miraculous Response Perfect Gentleman. He told us, ‘The soldiers of the northern Barbarians have gradually increased into the tens of thousands. Because the horses and men of the Song Dynasty are few, they are not able to repel this enemy. When I descended this time into the common world, I did not bring with me my heavenly soldiers and knights. Therefore I am searching for two men with which to entrust an urgent order. In the flash of a eye, I will send you galloping to the Eastern Peak of Mount Hua to meet the god called Lord Bright Spirit. From him you will borrow ten thousand ghost soldiers and godly generals in emergency. In the ren zi month on the wu zi Day and at the bing zi hour, they will all gather in formation. They will aid the southern dynasty in destroying the barbarians, and pacify the border regions’.”

The two messengers bearing the seal finished their tale and crossed over the Yellow River [to the east]. Lu Shoucong returned to the court and met with the emperor to report. The emperor ordered that a record be made of his oral deposition. Afterwards the high official Fu Bi from the Board of Punishments, who was the superintendent of the Three Borders region in the north, arrived at the court to receive a commendation. He made the following memorial: “Recently the northern barbarians, the Khitan, have all suffered a great disaster. They have no ability now to raise an army with intent of war. We captured the Lord of the Masses of Yan. He offered to us documents of surrender, and so we released him back to the barbarian side.”

They asked Fu Bi at what time this victory was achieved. He told them that it was in the geng wu year, in the ren zi month on the wu zi day at the bing zi hour. This was exactly the same as the prediction given by the official of the inner court, Lu Shoucong. Therefore the court not only granted rewards to all soldiers and generals, but they also held performances of ritual music and pardoned all crimes. Then they built the Abbey of Sagely Assistance in Ding County and proclaimed a holy day, as well as issued an imperial edict of appreciation [?] in order to express gratitude.

zhenwu 2.6

七從借名 – The Seven Followers Use His Name
(Not in the Record of Attaining Sagehood.)

zhenwu 2.5

陳妻附魂 – The Wife Chen is Possessed by a Spirit

zhenwu 2.4

魅纏安仁 – Anren is Ensnared by a Demon

zhenwu 2.3

當殿諒法 – Facing the Throne, He Comprehends the Law

zhenwu 2.2

洞真認厭 – Tongzhen Perceives the Evil Influence

zhenwu 2.1

朱氏金磚 – The Zhu Family [Receives] a Brick of Gold

zhenwu 1.8

華氏殺魚 – The Hua Family Kills a Fish

zhenwu 1.7

火煉金經 – In the Fire He Smelts a Golden Scripture
(Not in the Record of Attaining Sagehood.)

zhenwu 1.6

荊王雙美 – The King of Jing’s [Wife and Child] are Both Healthy

zhenwu 1.5

玉伟中計 – [Unclear]
The literal meaning of the title is “Plotting Amidst the Jade Greatness”, but I’m guessing it’s a typo for the title given in Record of Achieving Sagehood as 王虎中計 “Wang Hu Plots Amidst [the Darkness?]”. What this title should mean isn’t entirely clear from the attached story either, although Wang Hu does indeed plot.

zhenwu 1.4

陸傳招誣 – Lu Chuan Confesses his Mistakes

zhenwu 1.3

守榔懷蟲 – Shou Xiang Cherishes the Vermin
Record of Attaining Sagehood has the much more comprehensible 守卿禳蟲 “Shou Qing Exorcises the Vermin”

zhenwu 1.2

柯誠識奸 – He Cheng Perceives the Corruption

zhenwu 1.1

降伏青龍 – A Blue Dragon Submits To Him
(Not in the Record of Attaining Sagehood.)

To sum this all up, we can quote one last paragraph from Grootaers’ study of the Perfected Warrior hagiographies:

We really have no clear evidence from which to decide whether the oral tradition or the written tradition is predominant in the transmission of the Chen-wu legend in the rural communities of Chahar. To tell the truth, we are rather inclined to accept a third or intermediary solution. There must have been a huge body of popular legends, both the oral in the repertory of itinerant theatrical troopers and the written in devotional pamphlets and in the case of temple restorations, the text of the previous frescoes which are done over by a later artist.

Hagiography, p.175

From all of the above we can adduce that this is basically accurate, but also that it’s possible to learn more about the immediate textual sources of these panels than Grootaers himself was able to. One could probably produce a paper revising Grootaers’ conclusions on this and identifying other textual sources than the Record of Achieving Sagehood; the question is who exactly would read it. Below are images from another temple to the Perfected Warrior with faded but legible panels:

7) THE RIVER GOD 河神 – 72 Units:

No extant examples. In fact, this cult seems to have been almost entirely absent in Yu County. Grootaers describes the iconography briefly:

We have already said that the main personage represents Yang Chien. He is shown as a young man, sitting on a chair, wearing a yellow robe and a yellow cloth cap without ornaments. At his feet sits a dog, which is the main reason why we identify this figure with Yang Chien. This identification gets a confirmation through the inscription found on a fresco in one of the grottoes in the P’u-fo ssú 普佛寺 (see chapter 16) at Cu 775: Yang Chien Erh-lang 楊戩二郎. The popular tradition of Hopeh province seems to link with Yang Chien the designation Erh-lang. This would then be a feature of the cult of the river in North China, whereas the god called Erh- lang in Southwest China, especially in Szechwan, is the son of Li Ping, the Han dynasty official.

In the Ho-shen temple at Cz 284, besides the main image we found a statue with a lance and a loincloth made out of leaves, prob- ably representing Na Cha 哪吒, one of the sons of Li T’ien-wang 李天王 (with Mu Cha 木吒 and Chin Cha 金吒), who is commonly associated with Yang Chien.

Wanch’uan, p.263

8) THE THREE OFFICIALS 三官 – 70 Units:

khram sanguana dva

The Three Officials (San Guan) are the Official of Heaven 天官, the Official of Water 水官, and the Official of Earth 地官. On the iconography:

The San Kuan are represented mostly by statues, seldom by paintings. The three gods are shown as three scholars with a literate’s mortar-board cap. The Shui-kuan 水官 Official of the Water is always on the western side, and has a black face.

Our photograph taken at Cz 320 shows two female attendants near the central god (see fig. 37),the female attendants with elongated body found in Wanch’iian were not noted in this area. On both extremities of the main wall, two smaller attendants seem to be the Shan-shen 山神 Mountain God (in the west) and the Wu-tao 五道 God of the Roads (in the east). 

In front of the main images, one finds often one or more pairs of the heavenly attendants who belong also to the Chen-wu cult (ch. 5,section 4). We found three times four of them, viz. Wen, Liu, Chao and Ma, once only painted on the lateral walls; there again we found three times four of them, and twice a larger number, 10 or even 28. As there were no names indicated, and as the fancy of the local artists had brought many variations in these representations, we could not identify them.

The lateral walls of.the San Kuan temple, when not showing the heavenly attendants, show two other themes. Three temples have the “ Pursuit of the Evil Ones•” Indirectly belonging to this type are the frescoes at Dv 133 with the genii of the Days and the Hours, Jih-ts’ao 日曹 and Shih-ts’ao 時曹 (on the western wall) and these of the Months and the Years, Yueh-ts’ao 月曹,Nien-ts’ao 年曹(see p. 33 and note 19).

A different type of frescoes is represented by the ‘‘ biographies ’’ of the San-kuan, on the model of these of Chen-wu. The walls are divided in small panels, each depicting some incident of their legends, or some miracle attributed to them. Four villages have such frescoes: Cz 353,Cz 307a, Cz 315a, Dv 139.

Hsuan-hua, p.69

I’m not aware of any fully intact temple to the Three Officials surviving, but there are a few with partially preserved frescoes. The below matches Grootaers’ description of the iconography, although the village in question was abandoned and so there was nobody with whom I could confirm the identification of the temple.

san guan back wall

The below temple to the Three Officials is very unusual in that it sits on an axial tower at the northern end of a fort, in the spot usually occupied by the Perfected Warrior. The frescoes are faded but broadly legible.

The back wall, with the trinity of Officials:

sanguan set 03 trinity


They are flanked on either side of the back wall by fierce generals and beautiful palace ladies. To the right:



And to the left:




In the rear are these earnest-looking young people bearing platters with miniature animals on them.




Another strange element are the one-legged chicken and hare with fire in their bellies, standing to either side of the trinity of officials. I don’t know what these represent:

hare and chicken



The left wall, showing a procession with chariots.


And the right wall:


Here are a few more from a different temple, which has more heavily damaged but sort-of-legible drawings.


Art China Fortresses Hebei Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

ILLUSTRATING GROOTAERS, or, the Principal Gods of Rural Xuan-Da and their Iconographies, Part 4

Continued from Part 3:

9) THE BUDDHA 佛 – 59 Units:

fo si and mountains

fodian another try

By “The Buddha”, Grootaers means both what is referred to in Chinese as a “monastery” (si, 寺), and the type of village shrine which in Xuan-Da is called a “Buddha Hall” (fo dian 佛殿). This conflation is obviously not a safe one. I’m not sure if I have any examples from small village shrines to the Buddha, but many examples in varying degrees of preservation survive from larger Buddhist monasteries.

“The central image of Buddha has no distinct features; it has the traditional Buddhist shape and is accompanied almost everywhere by the two smaller statues of Ananda and Kasyapa. When three images were noted, Wen-shu and P’u-hsien are the most commonly found. Twice, (Dv 85a and Dv 133) we found the Buddhist Triad, Sakyamuni, Loshana and Vairocana. One informant at Cz 315a saw in the three images: ‘the Past, Present and Future Buddha.’ […]

The lateral frescoes of the Buddha temples show mostly scenes from the life of Sakyamuni. We found three times paintings of the ‘Twelve Bodhisattvas’ (see above p. 53) at Cz 315a, Dv 85a and Dv 96a. The first one identifies some of them: Hsiang-hua-ti 香花帝, Kuan-shih-yin 觀世音, Ming-chao-t’ien 明照天, Yueh-kuang-kung 月光宫, Ti-tsang. The 18 Arhats, commonly found in the Kuan-yin temples, were noted once at Dv 96a. The oldest Buddha temple at Cz 278a has frescoes of the 18 Heavenly Generals Shih-pa tien-chiang 十八天將.”

Hsuan-hua, p.76

Here are some examples of the life of Sakyamuni told in story-panel form. Both of these sets are anthologized in “Yu County Temple Frescoes” 蔚州寺廟壁畫. Also the lighting was bad and so I haven’t taken them down in terribly organized form. The statues in the photographs are recent creations.

The right wall:

shijiamoni fo zhuan 01

The left wall:

shijiamoni fo zhuan 02

These are all from the left wall. Somewhat randomly:

fozhuan 1 di 005

第五仙人占象 – The Fifth: A Holy Man Casts a Fortune

fozhuan 1 di 013

第十三路覩死屍 – The Thirteenth: On the Road he Sees a Dead Corpse

fozhuan 1 di 014

第十四耶輸兆夢 – The Fourteenth: In the Night he Has a Prophetic Dream

fozhuan 1 di 015

第十五初啟出家 – The Fifteenth: For the First Time He Leaves His Home

fozhuan 1 di 016

第十六夜半逾城 – In the Middle of the Night He Climbs the Walls

fozhuan 1 di 022

第二十二魔軍拒戰 – The Twenty Second: An Army of Demons Makes War to Resist Him

fozhuan 1 di 023

第二十三魔眾拽瓶 – The Twenty Third: The Masses of Devils Pull Upon a Bottle

Here are the rest of these and some sundry details:

Here’s another set. As above, I didn’t take these down in a systematic way and didn’t always photograph the cartouches for the ones I do have, so I’m not going to try to translate these. I believe both the above and below sets are covered in “Temple Frescoes from Yu County” 蔚州寺廟壁畫, if the reader is interested.

shijiamoni fo zhuan 03

fozhuan 2 xi men

fozhuan 2 worship

fozhuan 2 wang tai zi

fozhuan 2 wang tai zi li ju shi xiang

fozhuan 2 walking on lotuses

fozhuan 2 sha men

fozhuan 2 nan men

fozhuan 2 gu er

fozhuan 2 dong men

fozhuan 2 death

fozhuan 2 ancient astronauts

Here is another damaged set, which has some nice details:

In a final set, one wall survives which preserves images of the Eighteen Arhats 十八羅漢 crossing over the ocean to reach some distant shore, probably Mount Penglai 蓬萊山. This crossing 渡 is a well known Buddhist theme. Originally there would presumably have been another wall opposite to it depicting the other nine Arhats, but this has been destroyed. It may be pointed out here that this is one of the images which does not precisely correspond to any of the themes enumerated at the start, although it seems to draw from more than one.


upper buddhas

The Arhats cross over the water, borne up by various turtles and lotuses, accompanied by disciples carrying supplies. I’ve ordered these images from right to left.






I like this one dude’s technicolor dreamcoat:


Of course, added to this it may be pointed out that many large Buddhist monasteries also have frescoes depicting the Feast of Water and Land. This was either not present in Grootaers’ areas or he failed to mention it. I’ve put up most of my good photographs of this in previous posts, so I’ll leave that for now.

10) THE BARBARIAN SPIRIT 胡神 – 59 Units:

No extant frescoes. This cult seems not to have existed in Yu County, as I have never heard mention of it there.

In the temples of the Hu-shen we found five principal statues sitting in a row on a brick altar (but none at Cz 76). The central one, that of the Hu-shen, is a dark-faced, crowned man, not differing from the Black Dragon, Hei-lung-wang. On both sides are sitting gods who have some relation to agriculture…

In four instances (Cz 75, 76, 268, 269), the lateral walls are covered with frescoes representing the “Pursuit of the Evil Ones” (see map 1 and chapter 2 paragr. 4).

Wanch’uan, 274

11) WENCHANG 文昌 – 32 Units:

village wenchang ge 01 the structure

village wenchang ge 03 the view

I’ve not got any really intact frescoes. Wenchang is traditionally paired with the Kui-Star 魁星, and their temples situated on top of the fortress gate or, less commonly, on a special tower within the fort. The above is one such tower, along with the view from the top on a spring day before the rain.

“Wen-ch’ang is represented as an official of the civil class, white-faced and with a small beard; on both sides stand two youths, mostly carrying a book, a writing brush or some other emblem of the literary life. K’ui-hsing is an ugly apparition: a half-naked devil, with a fierce green or blue face; brandishing an arrow, he stands tiptoe on a ball of fire; no attendants stand near him. Although both of them are traditionally invoked by people with a literary career, the cult, like so many others, has lost its specific objective in the explored area.”

Wanch’uan, p.268

Inside the tower above you can see the remains of heavily damaged panels:

village wenchang ge 02 the frescoes

12) THE GRANDMOTHER 奶奶 – 27 Units:

niangniang dian

niangniang miao ruined interior

The worship of the Nai-Nai 奶奶 “Grandmothers” is the center of a confusion of cults. The Nai-Nai are sometimes referred to as Niang-Niang 娘娘 “Empresses”; many dialects north of the Yan Mountains tend to drop engmas in the final position anyway, so the difference is between Nai-Nai and Nia-Nia.  These “Empresses” are the daughters or wives of the Jade Emperor and reside with him on the peak of Mount Tai, and for this reason Grandmother Temples are often called Mount Tai Temples 泰山廟. It may just be that the Niang-Niang became Nai-Nai on the analogy to Lord Guan, who is often called Laoye 老爺 “Grandfather”. This would give the set of village temples a pleasingly filial symmetry. To add to the confusion, the cult of the Empresses or Grandmothers has been mixed-up with that of Avalokiteshvara 觀音 (who is a similarly merciful, feminine, maternal deity), and some villages do not recognize the difference between the two cults.

“The Nai-nai temple has normally three statues in front of the main wall, and from two to ten images aligned along the side walls. The three principal images are those of standing goddesses, with sumptuous clothes and crowns, each holding a child. They are normally white-faced, except the central statue, which is sometimes gilded. A couple of young girls are often standing near to them, one bearing a seal and the other a box covered with a cloth.

Characteristic of this type of temple is the fact that the first image on each side of the lateral row is standing or sitting on a raised platform slightly lower than that of the main statues. The temple described here is that at Cz 75, where the greatest number of statues was found. We now give the description of those lateral images, pair by pair, beginning from the interior and going towards the door. The first pair represents two goddesses feeding babies. The most noticeable thing about them is the suspender-like belt they wear, which leaves the breasts free. This garment is an exact copy of what the women in South Chahar and North Shansi wear in sum- mer time; in those areas, after her first child, every woman has the right to go around everywhere with uncovered breasts (see photograph 17). The use of the local garment on the statues does not preclude highly stylised clothes and hairdo.

The next pair represents goddesses with a crown and holding ceremonial tablet, hu 笏; they wear some coat of mail. The third pair does not consist of identical images. The one at the left (west) is a man wearing a military cap, the eastern one is an old lady carrying a baby. The fourth pair is, at the left, the god of small- pox, called Tou ko-ko 痘哥哥, ‘Elder brother of the smallpox’ and at the right a female figure in armour and, sometimes, holding an ax. The last pair is the devil and the tribunal official one finds in so many temples.

A lot of small clay figures of babies are standing or lying every- where on the floor of the temple, among the statues and even on top of them. These are ex votos brought by mothers expecting a baby or praying for his recovery from some illness.

The Nai-nai temple has always plain walls, at the most covered with some flower motifs. Two exceptions to this rule:

1. At Cz 306a, the lateral walls represent the classical theme of the “Pursuit of the Evil Ones” (see map 1). Strange to note that on these frescoes the crowd of heavenly spirits is not welcomed by the Wu-tao god and the T’u-ti god (see chapter 1). Their absence is remarkable, as the very next building, consecrated to the Lung-wang cult, has the same frescoes, this time, however, with the two gods.

2. At Cz 249a, the walls are covered with the representation of the Ch’i-shih-er ssu 七十二司, “Seventy -two tribunals,” which elsewhere seem to be a well known feature of the T’ai-shan temples; e.g., in Peking, the Tung-yueh miao 東岳廟 “Temple of the Eastern mountain” (or T’ai-shan) in the eastern suburb has the same representation.”

Wanch’uan, p.270-271

I don’t have any intact examples of this. The best I’ve got is below, in which the images of the procession of the Grandmothers can be seen. The inspiration from the Dragon King murals is clearly evident. I photographed this in vertical strips so if the reader is really curious he can zoom up on the pictures below and take a look.

nainai miao partially effed up interior

nainai miao 01 02 retry

nainai miao 03 04 retry

nainai miao 05 06 retry

On another wall of the same disintegrating building can be found the damaged images of these odd creatures, which I haven’t seen elsewhere.

nainai miao beaked things

13) THE JADE EMPEROR 玉皇 – 27 Units:



The cult of the Jade Emperor is related to that of the Perfected Warrior 真武, in that both are martial, paternal gods who take their place on high towers at the northern part of the village fort. Both Grootaers and I were able to assemble circumstantial evidence that the worship of the Jade Emperor represents an early stage of Xuan-Da religion, which was later replaced in the newly proliferating village forts during the early sixteenth century by the cult of the Perfected Warrior.

“The main image of the Yü-huang temple is never painted bn the main wall, except at Cz 259. Yü-huang is mostly represented by the statue of a man with gilded face, black beard, wearing an imperial crown, sitting on a high throne. He has two young girls at his sides.

On both sides six statues stand on the floor; the first pair, counting from Yü-huang, are two old men with white faces and black beards, wearing ceremonial caps similar to that of Taoist monks; the eastern one is the Mu-hsing 木星, “Star of the Element Wood,” the western one is the Chin-hsing 金星, “Star of the Element Metal.”

The second pair looks like a couple of Ma-wang; wearing an armour, they have three faces and six arms; the one in the east has a vertical eye in the middle of his forehead; we heard only the name of the western image – Tien-p’eng ta-shih 天蓬大士.

The third pair is Chen-wu (west) and Nan Chen-wu (east) the last one having also a vertical eye in his forehead (see chapter 5 par. 4, and 5a) .

The number of statues in two rows varies from two to six. One important difference was noted at Cz 72, where the first pair represents naked and winged gods with claws and beaks, similar to the god of Thunder in the Chen-wu temple. Their name sounded like yin(g) hung and yin(g) chiao (characters unknown).”

Wanch’uan, p.276-277

Extant frescoes survive in the Jade Emperor Pavilion 玉皇閣 in the Yu County seat, but I don’t have pictures of this. The only surviving images from a village temple portray the unique phenomenon of a “Feast of Water and Land” 水陸齋 procession in a context other than a large Buddhist monastery. As suggested above, these may be survivals from a period early in the fortification process when the standard cults and depictions of Xuan-Da religions had not yet been set. Excuse the bad quality of the below photos:

yu huang 001

yu huang 002

yu huang 003

14) KSITIGARBHA 地藏 – 20 Units:


dizang panorama

Ksitigarbha is a Buddha who made a vow never to pass on into enlightenment until all the beings of the hell realms have been saved. For this reason he is worshiped (perhaps perversely) as a sort of god of the underworld, to whom prayers for the souls of the dead can be addressed. His cult is closely associated with that of the Yama Kings 閻王, to the extent that in Yu County at least these temples are referred to interchangeably as Ksitigarbha Temples 地藏廟 and Yama Temples 閻王廟. One very good example survives in Yu County, along with fragments of other ones.

“The statue of Ti-tsang is sitting on a high throne. He is always of more than human size, with a Buddhist monk’s dress and ceremonial head gear. On both sides of his stand two figures, similar to Kâsyapa and Ananda, the old and young companions of Sâkyamuni (see chapter 7 par. 4). The “Ten kings of hell,” Shih tien yen-wang 十殿閻王, among which Ti-tsang is the fifth, are often represented in his temple.”

Wanch’uan, p.278

The frescoes below are numbered with the names of each of the Ten Yama Kings. For some reason I missed number two, the “Yama Gentleman of the Second Hall, the Rivers of Chu King” 二殿閻王楚江王:

The right wall:

dizang full wall 02

01 tai guang wang

一殿閻君泰廣王 – The Yama Gentleman of the First Hall, The Peaceful and Broad King

03 song di wang

三殿閻君宋帝王 – The Yama Gentleman of the Third Hall, the Song Dynasty Emperor King

04 wu guan wang

四殿閻君五官王 – The Yama Gentleman of the Fourth Hall, the Five Officials King

05 yan luo tian zi

五殿閻君閻羅天子 – The Yama Gentleman of the Fifth Hall, Yamaraja the Son of Heaven

The left wall:

dizang full wall 01

06 xia cheng wang

六殿閻王下城王 – The Yama Gentleman of the Sixth Hall, the Lesser Cities King

07 tai shan wang

七殿閻君泰山王 – The Yama Gentleman of the Seventh Hall, the Mount Tai King

08 du shi wang

八殿閻君都市王 – The Yama Gentleman of the Eighth Hall, the Capital City King

09 ping deng wang

九殿閻君平等王 – The Yama Gentleman of the Ninth Hall, the Equality King

10 zhuan lun wang

十殿閻君轉輪王 – The Yama Gentleman of the Tenth Hall, the Wheel-Turning King

The piles of paperwork and the various horrid psychopomps surrounding the tribunal give a good idea of how a bureaucratized hell looks.

book rack

dizang psychopomps 01

dizang psychopomps 02

On the rear walls on either side of the door are these interesting scenes, I’m not sure what’s taking place here.

dizang side panorama 02

dizang side wall

Meanwhile beneath the main images of the judgement of souls we can see the entrance of souls to hell, their torture, and their eventual rebirth. Souls are first dragged before the tribunal:

dizang tortures of hell 05

And then horrifically tortured, either as punishment or as a means to extract the truth.

dizang tortures of hell 03

dizang tortures of hell 04

dizang tortures of hell 06

dizang tortures of hell 07

dizang tortures of hell 08

dizang tortures of hell 01

dizang tortures of hell 02

Finally souls go on to the next life, on what looks like a giant roulette wheel which uses centrifugal force to fling them off to the various states of being.

dizang roulette wheel of reincarnation





And that about raps it up. There are more types of temples in Xuan-Da, obviously, but I don’t have pictures of any of their iconographies. More stuff could also be added about opera stage drawings, which I’ve talked about before, and about drawings in ancestral shrines, which is a topic that Grootaers doesn’t touch. I am officially sick of this right now though so I won’t get into it. Below are some photos of temple rafters from these various places, which I think are pretty.




Works Cited:

Inoue, Fumio. “Works in Dialectology by Reverend Grootaers.” Web. 7 Feb. 2016. unpublished article

Gamble, Sidney D. Ting Hsien; a North China Rural Community. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1968. Print.

Grootaers, Willem A:

  • “Catholic University Expedition to Wanch’üan (South Chahar), Preliminary Report.” Monumenta Serica 12 (1947): 236-242. JSTOR. Web.

  • “Catholic University Expedition to Hsuanhua (South Chahar), Preliminary Report.” Folklore Studies 7 (1948): 135-138. JSTOR. Web.

  • “The Hagiography of the Chinese God Chen-wu. (The Transmission of Rural Traditions in Chahar).” Folklore Studies 11 (1952): 139-181. JSTOR. Web.

  • with Li Shih-Yu and Wang Fu-Shih. “The Sanctuaries in a North-China city: a Complete Survey of the Cultic Buildings in the City of Hsuan-hua (Chahar).” Melanges Chinois et Bouddhiques 26 (1995). Print.

  • “Les Temples Villageois De La Région Au Sudest De Tat’ong (Chansi Nord), Leurs Inscriptions Et Leur Histoire (The Village Temples in the Southeast of Tatung (Shansi), Their Inscriptions and Their History).” Folklore Studies 4 (1945): 161-212. JSTOR. Web.

  • “Rural Temples around Hsüan-Hua (South Chahar), Their Iconography and Their History.” Folklore Studies 10 (1951): 1-116. JSTOR. Web.

  • “Temples and History of Wanch’uan 萬全 (Chahar), The Geographical Method Applied to History.” Monumenta Serica 13 (1948): 209-316. JSTOR. Web.

蔚縣博物館 [Yu County Museum]:

  • 故城寺壁畫. 北京: 科學出版社, 2010. Print. [The Frescoes of Stubborn-Fort Monastery. Beijing. Scientific Press. 2013. Print.]
  • 蔚州寺廟壁畫. 北京: 科學出版社, 2013. Print. [Yu County Temple Frescoes. Beijing. Scientific Press. 2013. Print.]
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: