Ep. 035: Wonderful Wuhan!

Two terrific temples in the most populous city in Central China

The Central Chinese city of Wuhan has been much in the news lately. I've been to Wuhan twice, and came dangerously close to becoming a resident. Let me share my experiences to sort of "round out" for you the picture some newsies may have of the capital of Hubei, and Central China's largest city, in this episode of


Let me just spit out a few random facts about the city before we get into my fascinating personal reminiscences.

  • Evidence of settlement in the area goes back 3,500 years.

  • Part of the city wall was built in 223 BCE.

  • The city's best-known landmark, Yellow Crane Tower, stands on the banks of the Yangtze in Wuchang District, and was first built in 223 CE; the current version was built in 1981, over a half-mile from the original site.

  • The city sits at the confluence of two rivers: The Yangtze (the world's third-longest, and the longest in China) and the Han (the Yangtze's longest tributary).

  • Until 1927, it was actually three cities. Imagine a "T" on its side, top (the Yangtze) to the right and the leg (the Han) sticking out to the left. Wuchang is on the right side (above the top); this is considered the "south" bank of the Yangtze. Hankou is on the left, above the leg, and Hanyang below the leg. This puts them on the "north" bank of the Yangtze, and on opposite sides of the Han.

  • The "Wu" of the modern city's name comes from "Wuchang"; the "Han" from the other two.

  • Its manufacturing and trading prowess caused Collier's magazine to call it "the Chicago of China" in 1900.

  • The rebellion against the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, started in Wuhan in 1911.

  • The Wuhan Yangtze Great Bridge, completed in 1957, was the easternmost crossing of the Yangtze--some 600 miles from the river's mouth--and is thus called the "First Bridge of the Yangtze."

  • Its metro population of 19 million is roughly equal to the populations of America's five largest cities--New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix--and its urban area is only the seventh largest in China!

How I Met Wuhan

It started the way it always starts: with a dame.

I had returned from Japan in late 2001 and, amidst the rampant xenophobia, took a job at a language school in Glendora, California. The benefits were many: I worked for a great guy who also had Japan experience (Hi, Mike!), and spent my days with mostly-Asian kids who had come to learn not only English, but also American culture. Through the summer of 2002, we entertained numerous "package" groups from all over the world--including a group from Shenzhen, China.

I hit it off especially well with one of the chaperones for that group. After she went back to China, we kept in touch, and when I left that job and was doing doctoral studies in Buddhism, she came back on another junket (guiding a group of Chinese doctors, as I recall) and, after we saw each other again, we started making plans for me to come to Shenzhen.

Some members of the Shenzhen group on a summer beach trip. The job wasn't usually this much fun.

Which I did, for a visit, in May of 2003--when SARS was at its worst, with major outbreaks in Hong Kong and Taiwan, through both of which I traveled. (It was the first time--but now, not the last--I wore a mask and established a hand-cleansing regimen.) We were supposed to have gone to Wuhan, where I would have met her dad and step-mom, and things would presumably develop from there. But the government had shut down travel out of Shenzhen (was I being protected supernaturally?) and I never met Daddy.

In February of 2004, having finished my coursework and--I thought--entering the dissertation stage (which as it turned out ended up in administrative hell and never happened), I moved to Shenzhen, where the relationship lasted only five months. And where I lasted for eleven years, and met my wife, and got married (in Hong Kong). And here we are.

"The English Hand"

Fast-forward to early 2007. After nearly three years at the college where I was teaching, I had a couple of interesting job opportunities, and took a swing. The first one was with a company run by a guy from Hong Kong who had spent his life manufacturing things like tank-type water heaters, and wanted to do something "sexier" before he retired. He wanted to try retail.

So he "reverse engineered" (copied) a little repeater device for people learning a language: the device throws you a word or sentence, it records as you repeat it, and it plays it back side-by-side with the original so you can improve your pronunciation. This little device was called (cleverly!) "The English Hand." His "gimmick" was that he opened shops where these doodads were sold, and had foreigners managing the shops and offering "free" lessons for anyone who made a purchase.

The sterile, boxy "English Hand" shop

His business model, quite frankly, sucked. Among other things, he had no curriculum for the so-called "lessons." So I was brought in to create curriculum and manage the managers. After about a week, he decided that I should manage the Shenzhen store. A week after that, he sent me off on a whirlwind tour of his shops in Wuhan, Xi'an, Chongqing, and Chengdu--one day each. (I skipped the store in Nanchang.) A week after that, I tendered my one-week notice, and a week after that I was out on my ear. (Or my feet, actually, because I made a lot of money as a free-lance teacher, until I went off to Yangzhou that autumn to teach monks in a temple for a year. Another delightful failure I'll tell you about sometime.)

Anyway, the first stop was Wuhan. I was traveling with a "handler," and as he was busy each night (doing what I never knew), I managed to get away either evening or early morning to see a temple in three of the four towns (no chance in Chengdu). This was a miniature foreshadowing of my future pilgrimage.

Guiyuan Temple gate at night, on my first (abortive) visit

In Wuhan, my target was the famed Guiyuan Temple, about which I'll tell you more in a moment. But this visit took me by taxi past the Yellow Crane Tower and across the Yangtze Bridge to a temple that was--predictably given that it was around 8 p.m.--closed.

Despite being famous as one of China's original "three furnaces" (along with Chongqing and Nanjing, called such because of their oppressive summer heat), Wuhan is a pretty bleak place in early February. The internet tells me it got down to the high 30s that night.

Although the front gate was as far as I got that time, it was still something of a fortunate experience.

A photo of Master Changming posted on a signboard outside the temple

Well, fortunate for me, but not so fortunate for Master Changming, the temple's late abbot who had served for over 40 years until he died at age 90 just a few days before I arrived. I saw people passing in and out of the temple's smaller gate to pay their respects, and tried to join them--but was gently turned away as clearly not belonging. (Maybe it was the camera hanging around my neck?) An English-speaking high school girl working in her family's flower shop across the street filled me in on what was happening, though.

These flower-shop girls filled me in on what was happening.

Then, back to my hotel, and on to three more cities in as many days (four, including my return to Shenzhen).

I Made It Inside!

Whenever I traveled on pilgrimage, I tried my best to find the most advantageously-situated hotel I could. In Wuhan on August 4, 2012, I really hit the jackpot: my digs were about a football field away from the front gate of Guiyuan Temple; I could see it as I stepped off the curb in front of the hotel! The gate was at the end of my pleasant, tree-lined street of two lanes, an oasis in a busy part of the city and a real treat to stroll along.

And so, before lunch, I ambled on down to the temple and took a gander.

When you've visited as many temples as I have, you look for the things that are different. Let me tell you about a few of those at Guiyuan Temple. I won't say much about the "usual" things, but will point out that the explanatory signs were in pretty-good English--and that's unusual. (Though I'm pretty sure that one sign's assertion that "The total area [of the temple] is 100000 square kilometers" is somewhat inaccurate.) Today the temple is said to have more than 200 halls, rooms, and temple buildings. Don't worry, we'll only visit a few.

A few of Guiyuan Temple's 500 Arhats

The temple dates back to 1658, and has a fascinating founding legend. It's said that two brothers who had become monks--named Baiguang and Zhufong--came here early in the Qing Dynasty, and learned that the area where the temple is now located had recently been the site of a great battle between Ming and Qing forces. With the help of the local people, they gathered the remains of dead warriors, buried them, and built a hut on the site where they recited prayers for them. This was the beginning of the temple, known as "Paying Back Temple," although sometimes it's translated "Original Nature."

Today, the complex can be divided into three courtyards side-by-side. In the left-hand (south) courtyard, Guiyuan boasts a Hall of 500 Arhats--not a unique feature, but this one dates to 1850, and the 500 occupants were sculpted of clay by a father-and-son team over a nine-year period. The hall itself is in the common tian (田) shape, representing fields (hinting at the idea of "cultivation").

The striking Sutra Repository

The central courtyard is fairly standard, with "free life" ponds in the center, drum and bell towers flanking it, and a Buddha Hall on the far side. The right-hand courtyard, though, has one of the loveliest Sutra Repositories I've seen, with a peculiar central tower over the entrance.

A new tower rises next to a new 70-foot statue of Guanyin with two faces

A final feature of note is the (then) recently-added colossal "double-sided" statue of Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara) in the "back 40," with another new hall--a "Yuantong Hall," celebrating Guanyin's renowned compassion--being built nearby. I haven't been able to find a raison for these two-faced figures, more of which we'll see in a moment. There must be a "hidden" significance, but for the life of me, I can't divine what it might be. Anyway, this one is over 70 feet tall, impressive for its sheer size.

A closer-up of Guanyin's two faces

On to Baotong

My visit to Guiyuan Temple lasted a couple of hours, lunch included (which I took in the temple's pricey, noisy vegetarian restaurant). When I left, I took a city bus past the famed Yellow Crane Tower (does every route in the city pass this dang thing?) to the "south" side of the Yangtze (which runs virtually north/south here) via the famed Wuhan Yangtze Great Bridge, to the not-so-famed Baotong Temple. For some reason I had a heck of a time locating this place (in the bad old days eight years ago, before the easy availability of GPS) and ended up debussing several blocks away. I had to triangulate by asking directions.

Baotong, like Guiyuan, is one of "the Four [Great?] Buddhist Monasteries of Wuhan." It really is nice, but the last thing I saw, up the mountainside, was spectacular.

This exquisite compound was originally built around 1600 years ago, but, like the Yellow Crane Tower, it has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times. (Wuhan has always been something of a hotspot.)

This two-faced Guanyin is surrounded by a double set of zodiac animals; an identical set-up can be seen on the other side of the bridge.

In contrast to that history--and to the crowds at Guiyuan--Baotong Temple was remarkably peaceful. I was charmed by the two "free release" ponds near the front, each with another two-faced Guanyin statue (four faces in total). Around each Guanyin there were doubled figures of the twelve zodiac animals--four of each again, with 48 in total.

One of many colorful halls at Baotong Temple

The temple climbs quite sharply; one brightly-painted hall after another sits at the top of each steep flight of stairs. Compared to Guiyuan's black-over-white motif, Baotong was downright colorful. Buildings were typically swathed in large areas of the "Buddhist primary colors"--maroon, gold, and peacock blue--with tons of detail work.

Inside the "Treasure Myriad-Buddha Palace," with small Buddha figures lining the walls

Two of the halls had unusual names: The "Treasure Myriad-Buddha Palace" (with 10,000 Buddha figures inside) and the "Island Arhat Palace," where the 500 Arhats are displayed--unfortunately, behind cheap Plexiglas that detracted from the viewing.

One of the few decent shots I managed to get of the "Island Arhats" through the cheap Plexiglas

At the top of the hill is the temple's most striking feature: a pagoda dating to 1280. Originally called Lingji, it is now called Hongshan Pagoda, after the mountain where it--and the temple--reside. The octagonal pagoda was 11 years in the making, and stands about 150 feet tall. I love to find unrestored structures like this, untouched by the polishing hand of modernity. That I was alone on a wooded hillside next to this revered relic for 20 minutes or so just added to the pleasure experienced.

The Hongshan Pagoda at Baotong Temple


And that, dear friends, brings the tale of my Wuhan wanderings to a close. I did stay another night, but spent the day venturing by train, bus, and "black taxi" to another temple in far-away Dangyang, and then returning by the same means to my hotel--another story for another time.

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

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: Get the gist of my five-week ramble down Japan's Old Tokaido Highway, the one-time lifeline between the Emperor in Kyoto and the Shogun in Edo/Tokyo. And thrill to the idea of me walking around 500 kilometers!