Ancient Buildings in the Puning Temple
The Puning Temple was the first temple that Emperor Qianlong (reign: 1735–1796) established in Chengde, Hebei Province. The temple was constructed to commemorate a battle. Its huge wooden Buddhist statue makes it stand out.
The colourful and magnificent Puning Temple is nestled on the hillside northeast of the Mountain Resort in Chengde, Hebei, exemplifying the blending of Han, Mongolian and Tibetan cultures. If the Mountain Resort is considered a witness to the rise and decline of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), the eight temples surrounding the resort should be regarded as monuments marking national solidarity and unity.
The Puning Temple was the first temple that Emperor Qianlong (reign: 1735–1796) established in Chengde. It was constructed at a special moment, which made the temple stand out from the other temples in the area.
Construction of the Temple to Mark a Historic Event
During the early Qing Dynasty period, Dzungar Mongols’ upper class suffered frequent and fierce conflicts regarding Khan’s position. After Galdan Tseren, the Khong Tayiji of Dzungar Khanate, died in 1745, his three sons and their followers battled each other to claim succession to his position.
In 1754, Amursan (1723–1757) led 20,000 soldiers and civilians to surrender to the Qing Dynasty after losing his foothold in northwestern China. Emperor Qianlong met with him at the Mountain Resort and learned of Dawachi’s atrocious ruling and rebellion against the Qing Dynasty from Amursan, who persuaded the emperor into quelling the rebellion. The emperor also had plans to conquer regional Dzungar forces and appointed Bandi as North Pacification General, Amursan as Left Vice General and Yongning as West Pacification General in 1755 to put down the rebellion. With support of some Mongol tribes, the Qing troops pacified the rebels quickly. Emperor Qianlong was delighted by the victory in the northwest and accepted the rebels’ surrender at the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Afterwards, he held a banquet at the Mountain Resort in honour of the aristocracy of four Mongol tribes and conferred noble ranks on them.
To commemorate the victory, Emperor Qianlong copied Emperor Kangxi’s (reign: 1661–1722) solution of building the Huizong Temple in Duolunnuoer after resolving disputes of the Xalxa Mongols to construct the Puning Temple. It was modelled after the Samye Monastery, which was said to have been built by Dhama King Trisong Detsen (reign: 755–794), who played a pivotal role in the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet. It took four years to construct the Puning Temple. Puning means “universal peace” in Chinese.
Emperor Qianlong wrote inscriptions for two stone steles in 1755 and 1758, which were erected in Ili and at the Puning Temple, respectively, to record the conquering of the Dzungar rebels. Both the temple and the steles were milestones for the Qing Government’s pacification operations in border areas and marked the formation of an empire with multiple ethnic groups, symbolising the Qing Government’s advocacy of ethnic and cultural fusion and support of harmonious coexistence of all ethnic groups.
The Puning Temple also impresses people with its architectural design and aesthetic value.
Charming Architectural Style
In the early 20th century, the Qing Dynasty was forced to open its door to the rest of the world. Some Western scholars were attracted to China. In 1902, the German architect Ernst
Boerschmann (1873–1949) arrived in China by ship via India. After setting foot on the ancient civilisation, he immediately set eyes on ancient buildings in Chengde. The Mountain Resort and its neighbouring eight temples impressed him deeply and were etched in his brain.
When he revisited Chengde in 1906, he toured towers, pavilions and terraces in temples and took numerous photos, which are still well-preserved and have become important historical documents.
After returning to Germany following his second visit to Chengde, Ernst Boerschmann sorted out materials he collected from China and published three books: Chinesische Architektur (Chinese Architecture), Baukunst und Landschaft in China (Architecture and Landscape in China) and Chinesische Pagoden (Chinese Pagodas), which were considered important documents on ancient Chinese architecture and caused a stir in international architectural circles at the time.
He vividly depicted the beautiful architecture in the Puning Temple in his books. In Chinese Architecture, Ernst indicated the Dacheng Pavilion of the Puning Temple had four storeys, but some parts had five levels, which each had different heights. He described the fact that the structure is increasingly narrow from the first floor, to the fifth floor and five gilded bronze spires are featured on top of the pavilion in a layout in which four lower ones encircle a higher one. The main Buddha sculpture in the pavilion impressed Ernst a lot as well. Sunlight lights up the upper part of the sculpture through windows on the pavilion, in contrast to its dim lower section. The Buddha’s head looks bright and even brilliant, creating a solemn image. He believed Chinese architectural forms often correlated with their functions.
Golden Lacquer, Wooden Sculptures and Ancient Temple
The Dacheng Pavilion is still popular among Buddhists and visitors, as it houses the world’s tallest wooden sculpture of Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, which measures 23.51 metres (m) tall and features a “thousand” different eyes and a “thousand” different arms stretched out from its frame. In reality, it has two main arms and 40 more arms. Each arm represents 25 Buddhist-style retributions, so 40 arms symbolise a thousand retributions and a thousand arms.
The sculpture was built during the Qianlong period (1736–1795), so it is more than 200 years old. It is symmetrical and is embellished with various motifs on its wrists and chest. The sculpture is seated on a lotus pedestal and is made from five kinds of wood, including pine, cypress, elm, fir and linden. Its surface is coated with golden paint, which remains bright and fresh after all these years.
Two palms are placed together in front its chest, with the rest of the arms each holding a tool or accessory and corresponding with an eye. The tools include symbols of the moon and sun, Buddhist prayer beads, lotuses, knives, swords, umbrellas and canes, which each were made separately and later attached to the hands.
Experts estimated the large Buddha sculpture was made from about 120 cubic metres of wood. This takes into account the sculpture’s hollow torso. If its torso was solid, more wood would have been consumed. There is a one-m-high door on the back of the sculpture, which was speculated to be for maintenance. In 1998, some experts opened the door and found a sophisticated wooden structure inside.
Experts studied the structure and found there were three wooden floors and a colossal wooden backbone in the sculpture. The backbone is about 24 m high and 66 centimetres (cm) in diameter. It stands from the bottom to the head. The backbone’s lower part runs 3.63 m into the lotus pedestal. Four supporting props are attached to the backbone. They are 15.7 m long and 40.5 cm in diameter each and stand between the second floor and the third floor. The ridge beams of the first floor are supported by 10 pillars, which are 13 m long and 33 cm in diameter, respectively. Four layers of horizontal, wooden pillars are situated between two of the 10 pillars, which are embellished with carvings and paintings. There are four square pillars on the third floor, which are used to connect the sculpture’s 42 arms. Ancient workers used the three-level wooden structure to support the sculpture’s arms and consolidate the sculpture.
The sculpture still stands intact at the Dacheng Pavilion and is worshipped by visitors. The ancient temple, its structures and remains reflect Chinese wisdom and the craftsmanship of its time period. They are also symbols of Chinese civilisation.