Ep. 062: Friday Photo Essay: Ancient Temples of Dapeng

Starting this week, Fridays will be dedicated more to pictures than to words. I'll still be recording many of these words in the Podcast, but really: view the pictures!

Let's take a look at a handful of small but fascinating temples across Mirs Bay from Hong Kong in an outlying district of the modern metropolis of Shenzhen, in this episode of


The place is called Dapeng, a word referring to a gigantic mythical bird. It could be the roc: you may remember Sinbad escaping an island by tying himself to one with his turban; Marco Polo wrote that rocs could pick up an elephant and soar to a great height, whence they would drop it and eat its smashed remains. It's also associated with the Indian garuda, whom the Hindus consider the mount of the god Vishnu, and the Buddhists consider a dharma protector.

Now, standing in Dapeng Town on Dapeng Peninsula, one can see Hong Kong across Dapeng Bay, which used to be daringly swum by those escaping the Commies in the bad old days. (The bay is also inexplicably called "Mirs" in English. It took some digging, but I think this is an Anglicization of an old Chinese name for the bay, ma shi, meaning something like "horsemaster," or a knight.)

The main gateway to Dapeng Fortress with a costumed "guard"

And that could be because, as you're standing in that town on that peninsula near that bay, you're not far from Dapeng Fortress, a walled village built in 1394 as a defense against pirates. Although it withstood a 40-day siege back in 1571, you won't find scaling ladders or siege engines today. But you will find an excellent museum, numerous wells still in use, ancient store houses, three fine gates (reminiscent to the tourist's eye of "Great Wall"-type architecture), and--most importantly for us--several small temples, because it was and is a village, with all the amenities appropriate thereto.

We'll be visiting two temples within the walls, one larger and one smaller; another a short walk to the east; and a fourth and final one on a hill across town to the west.

Let's go!

Two Temples in the Fort

Dapeng was essentially a naval fort, and features the home of an admiral named Lai Enjue. The way the Chinese tell it, he beat the British in the 1839 naval Battle of Kowloon, the first engagement in the First Opium War. (More neutral sources declare the outcome a stalemate.)

The Tianhou Temple inside Dapeng Fortress

It's no surprise, then, that the primary temple inside the walled village is dedicated to Tian Hou, Goddess of the Sea. It's a modern reconstruction--the original almost certainly having been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution--with shiny new statues, but still, it feels "right" in this setting.

For more background on this goddess and her temples, check out Episode 033, "Tracking Tianhou Temples in Nanshan, Shenzhen."

The ornate Main Altar in the Tianhou Temple
Usually painted right on the doors, the Menshen (Door Gods) in this temple are represented as small statues standing on tables inside the doors.
These are half of the twelve goddesses who assist in childbirth and child-rearing. Note the ornately-carved cabinet.


Also in the fort, as with every proper piece of ground from cities to villages to individual buildings, is the presence of Tu Di Gong, the wrongly-called "Earth God," along with his wife, Tu Di Po, whom I call Mrs. Tu Di. Again, it's a modern tiled temple, and very small, but it is nevertheless fitting that a traditional village should have such a traditional temple.

The small Tu Di Temple (actually labeled "Fu De," not Tu Di)

Incidentally, there is no single earth god: there is a genius loci, or "spirit of the place" for each locale in a celestial hierarchy reflective of the system of Imperial government, with the Jade Emperor at the top.

Mr. and Mrs. Fu Di at home. I don't have the faintest idea who the little (bearded) guy between them is; he wasn't there on the previous visit.

Although the couple are sometimes represented by nothing more than two upright stones, here they're new statues; actually, sometime between my 2004 and 2006 visits they were upgraded!

The Tu Di "platform" outside of the Fortress’s main gate holds a tablet instead of a statue. Note the incinerator on the right for burning offerings to the ancestors.

This temple is actually named for Fu De, God of Luck and Virtue--in fact, a god of wealth. Most accept that this is just another guise of Tu Di, but others insist he is loftier than the Earth Guy. To keep everybody happy, there is also a Tu Di tablet in a very, very small (like, the size of a doghouse) shelter outside the main gate, complete with an incinerator for burning offerings to the ancestors.

Dongshan, the "Lost Temple"

Exit the East Gate of the Fort, walk past the "Wishing Tree," and in a third of a mile you'll reach the Lost Temple of Dongshan.

"Lost, you say? But there's a temple here! Named Dongshan!"

Three of the demolished temple's four halls march up the hillside (the front entry hall is out of shot).
An ornate roof is a common feature at Daoist/folk temples.
Detail of the temple's roof. Temple decorations often contain scenes from stories; sadly, I don't recognize this one, but it's clearly about a war or battle.

There certainly is: a big, new, shiny, showcase of a Buddhist temple with all the right elements to draw in the pious tourists. But look closely, and you'll see vestiges of a previous temple, a not-so-flashy place with illustrations (180 by one count) from folk stories painted on its wall tiles and folk gods seated on its altars.

Pretty sure these are the "three friends"--Zhang Fei, Liu Bei, and Guan Yu--in the Peach Grove where they swore an oath in Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Three more painted tile illustrations: Journey to the West (top left); Fu, the Lucky Star Star God (top right); and the Eight Immortals (bottom). See Episodes 017, 024, and 023, respectively.
Guan Di (also Guan Yu of the"Three Friends," whom I think are serving as his attendants) on an altar (left); and an unknown (perhaps a star?) god (right)

All that's left of that funky old place, as far as I could find on a 2015 visit, was a pagoda to the left of the new compound holding the remains of the first abbot, Master Penghai (the pagoda is said to have the power to suppress evil spirits); and outside the front gate a mobile-home-sized building housing plastic-y Buddhist statues that used to be the "Buddha Hall" of what was clearly a Daoist-like temple.

The pagoda of Master Penghai, next to the temple; it's nicknamed "The Demon Suppressing Pagoda."

In fact, that was the temple's third incarnation. The first was built in 1394, and rebuilt in 1854. This was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. The temple I first knew was built in 1993 with donations from overseas Chinese. (Some sources say 1995, but anyway, well after the madness was over.) It was a four-hall three-courtyard affair, with an Entry Hall; one dedicated to Guan Di, an extremely popular martial god; the third with the Sanbao ("Three Treasures") Buddha and the eighteen Arhats; and at the back, a Guanyin Hall.

Simple Arhats on a side shelf (above); plastic-looking Buddhas on the Main Altar (below) of the old Main Hall that looks like a trailer

The garish new one, the fourth, was started in 2009, as my photos attest, and the quaint one was demolished over the last three days of August in 2010.

The new temple's Heavenly Kings Hall, under construction (left) and completed (right). The temple has an elevator on the right side!
The shiny new Buddhas on the Main Altar of the new temple; imagine these (and the 500 Arhats on the wall to their left) fitting inside the old Main Hall (inset).

Guanyin's Mountain and the Dragon Stone Temple

Finally, let's head back through Dapeng Town for 3.5 miles and turn south for the short climb along the base of Guanyin Mountain (actually a hill) named for Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion--but at this temple better understood as the Daoist Goddess of Mercy. Here we find tiny Longyan Temple--or at least it was tiny when last I was there, but announcements had been posted for another Buddhapalooza, with a giant statue of Guanyin on top of her hill. I'm not seeing it on Google Satellite View, though, so maybe all is still well.

Entry to the Guanyin Hall and the wonders inside. Note the ornate folk-temple-style roof, and the small pagoda to the left of the door.

Longyan means "Dragon Stone," and it's named for a truly unique feature, one I've never seen anywhere else.

The enormous “Dragon Stone" that serves as part of the temple's roof and hovers over the Main Altar
A spring pours out from under the temple's left-front corner. Further back, that side wall is built around the giant "dragon stone."

The hillside is a jumble of giant boulders, but one of them protrudes from the mountainside like a giant Frisbee. It is reportedly 10 feet thick and over 65 feet in diameter; its angle is suggestive of a dragon's head sticking out of the ground. The temple was built around it, with its main altar located directly beneath this monolith, which also forms part of the temple's roof. There's also a natural fresh-water spring bursting from under the front of the temple, said to have been flowing without interruption since the temple's founding.

A tile image of Guanyin inside the temple. Though she is usually a Buddhist Bodhisattva, in the context of this temple she is better seen as a Daoist goddess.
Wall hangings of the last two of the 18 Arhats, the one with the tiger and the one with the dragon, whom we met in Episode 058

The first temple was built in 1862, but was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution; the one we see today is a restoration built with overseas money in 1985. (Seems like the Red Guard was really active in what was then a remote backwater.) A statue of Guanyin standing in a pond was added in 1993, and a 13-foot pagoda has been added near the temple door.

A separate hall at the temple houses mostly discarded statues.
Discarded statues of Guan Yu. (Why is he seen so often in this episode? Perhaps because he's a guardian deity of soldiers, and we're near a fort?)

A separate hall closer to the entry road seems to hold mostly discarded statues of Mile'fo, the "Laughing Buddha," and Guanyin herself, and Guanyu. These are most often brought to the temple by people who can no longer keep them, as when the family member whose altar they were on passes away.


Well, that'll be about that. Look for more photos next Friday!

Until next time, then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


  1. For most of us, temples such as these are quite foreign to our experience., Do any of these sites strike you as particularly unusual? Why?

  2. Do you finda ny of these images particularly intriguing? If so, which one(s), and why?

  3. There's an interesting dynamic underlying many of these temples' histories: Mao’s Red Guard destroyed most or all of the ones described here between 1966 and 1976. Once the horror had passed and rebuilding could begin, much of the money to do so came from communities of Chinese citizens who had moved overseas (and perhaps their descendants), sometimes long before the Cultural Revolution took place. Do you have any thoughts on this?

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In the next episode: I had to teach my spell-checker that "Buddha" can be plural. Come join me for a survey of the range of Buddhas available.