The Dongyue Temple ‘Departments’ in Beijing

One of the “departments” of the Dongyue Temple, Beijing

The Dongyue Temple in Beijing — one of the most astonishing things I’ve come across in my years living in Asia.

I was overjoyed when I first entered and saw it and its “departments” on my first visit. This is exactly the kind of thing I hope to find, and in exactly the kind of way: without trying. This place is right next to the apartment compound where I live. I had no idea it was there until after I’d moved there almost two years ago. A two-minute walk, $1.50 entrance fee, and I can enjoy an ancient, thoughtfully-designed creation for the spirit. No exhaustive planning, no daylong bus tour full of stops for unsatisfyingly short viewings. Right outside my apartment.

It’s an active Taoist temple, first built in 1319. (This article has good background information on the site.) People come there to burn incense and pray, if that’s the correct word for it. I first visited on a perfect September day. These photos are from then, plus many more are from the following spring. A beautiful day in early fall or spring, the quiet, the trees, the striking lines everywhere you look, the incense in the air — the very picture of peace.

It took two visits to get the photos I wanted because there are so many “departments”. These are little rooms, open on side, containing full-size figures representing an impressively thorough range of human activities, with very direct names applied to them. There are about 70 of these departments. I meticulously went from room to room taking photos of the sign for each and then the room.

The names are a treasure. It’s easy to look at these and have a laugh, which I certainly encourage, but don’t stop there. They’re more valuable than that. There is probably nothing else on Earth like this array of labels and the strange descriptions of them. They represent deeply developed, ornate ideas, however bizarre or awkwardly translated.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Here’s the full gallery: