Easter 1984: My First Visit To The Tan Zhe Si Temple

Tanzhe_TempleTan Zhe Si Temple

During the early part of my stay in China, I met and befriended a very outgoing and talented American lady, Karin Malmstrom. She helped me on several occasions with translations during meetings with Beijing Municipal Government officials and we used to spend time on weekends together exploring Beijing and its surroundings. Karin is very interested in nature conservation and environment in general. I initially met her when she went to visit a friend of hers who was also staying at the Beijing Hotel and was affectionately called Miss Panda as she was very much interested in the protection of pandas.

On Easter weekend 1985, Miss Panda, Karin and I  decided to go to Tan Zhe Si Temple about 30 km to the west of Beijing. This Buddhist Temple, built some 1,600 years ago, is one of the oldest in China. It is surrounded by nine peaks on the east, west and north sides and, in old times, people used to describe it as a “pearl played by nine dragons”. We met on Easter Sunday in the hotel lobby. Each of us had prepared some snacks and we had purchased a bottle of Champagne at the Friendship Store to toast the Easter holidays. At that time, the Friendship Store was not open to Chinese people but only to foreigners. To mark this special trip, we decided to wear bright red jackets with traditional animals patterns similar to the design of the blanket I had bought in Xian. In a three-color environment (at that time, people would only have the choice of wearing three colours, grey, dark green and dark blue) we were obviously not going to travel incognito.

I had read two books by Ann Bridge describing the trips that foreigners living in the Legation Quarters in Beijing at the end of the 19th century used to make to various temples and places of interest around the city. Families used to go out for several days and everything had to be brought from the Legations, not only food and drinks but also equipment, beds, bedding and the rest. Quite an undertaking considering that transportation had to be done by carriages and that it would take a good part of one day just to cover 30 km.

Driving westwards, we were all talking about how it was at that time. We could imagine how the ladies would look in their long dresses and gents in full business attire and how elegant such affairs were ……… We finally arrived at the majestic Tan Zhi Si (Temple of Black Pool and Wild Mulberry Tree). As we were approaching the ticketing office, Chinese visitors were quite amazed to see three foreign “ladies in red”. It appears that many of them actually thought we were Muslim because of the pattern of our jackets (Xian has a large Muslim community dating from the Silk Road).

Floating cupThe Floating Cup Pavilion

The entire ground of the temple covers an area of 7 hectares. Along the central axis are prayer halls; on the east are living quarters for high-ranking monks and visiting court officials and imperial family members when they came to the temple; on the west side are smaller compounds and prayer halls with the intriguing “Floating Cups Pavilion”. A ten-centimeter wide winding canal is cut into the floor, like a coiling dragon. Water flows into the trough from the dragon’s mouth on the east of the pavilion and out to the west. People used to sit around the trough and float a wine cup in it. Whoever the wine cup stopped in front of would then drink the wine and recite a poem. Then the cup would be refilled and the “contest” would go on.

The daughter of Kublai Khan, first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, entered the nunnery at Tan Zhe Si in 13th century and it is said that two indentations from kneeling and praying at the Guanyin Hall are those made by her as she always prayed there. She was supposedly buried at the temple in the Upper and Lower pagoda compounds outside of the front gate where there are 75 stupas in which remains of high-ranking monks are kept.

Trees were spectacular as well. It is said that the two gingko trees called the “Emperor tree and the Empress tree” by the Hall of Three Sages were planted during the Liao Dynasty over 1,000 years ago. The Emperor tree, named by Emperor Qianlong during his first visit to the Temple, is 30 meters high with a diameter of more than 4 meters.

We had our picnic and sipped champagne in the shadow of a large pine tree, the only people doing so among the visitors. We attracted some attention but our minds were far away; in the beginning of the 20th century, wondering who had been under this particular tree and how they had spent their time in such a unique setting as described by Ann Bridge in her book, “The Peking Picnic”.



Easter Egg Tradition

Collection of Easter Eggs

Easter, the most significant Christian holiday, comes with many different ancient traditions and customs that vary from country to country.

In Slovakia, Easter egg decoration goes far beyond simple painting and also includes dying, carving and cutting, depending on people’s skills and talents. Some decorate them with lace and fabrics or create elaborate patterns with wax pencils.

These eggs are actually works of art in their own right even if they obviously cannot compare with the exquisite jewelled eggs made by goldsmith Peter Carl Fabergé at the Imperial Russian Court.

Nowadays, people hang them at home before the Easter week or give them as gifts to family members and friends. In the old days, coloured eggs were exchanged as an ancient rite of spring, centuries before the early Christians celebrated Easter.

The Saxons, who regarded the egg as proof of the renewal of life, used eggs in festivals dedicated to Easter, the goddess of fertility. With the advent of Christianity, these festivals were incorporated into the observance of the Resurrection of Christ, and the holiday’s name eventually evolved into ‘Easter.’

I have in my personal collection, 34 Slovak-decorated Easter eggs carefully hand-carried to Beijing from my home country (in addition, there are a few acquired in Beijing, these are with the ladybird painted on them).

In China, before Easter weekend comes around, I hang the coloured eggs on ‘bahniatka‘ or pussy willow branches and I also put some in a traditional Slovak-decorated plate from home.

This practice always brings me fond memories of happy family gatherings and festive dining, sometimes very simple, as it is at our home on Saturday before Easter, in the late afternoon and early evening, like potato salad, cooked ham on the bone and hard-boiled eggs.

Sometimes the dining is more elaborate as it is on Easter Sunday lunch, with leg of lamb (please click here for recipe) or roasted young goat as the main course, and plenty of cookies and traditional pastries to end the meal.

I also found in China, a water splashing festival in Yunnan Province that is similar to the “water pouring” festivities we have on Easter Monday in Slovakia. On this day young male adults visit their female relatives and friends and pour water on them or spray them with perfume, and whip them gently with special whips made of braided young willow branches.

According to tradition, pouring water on women will guarantee her good health throughout the year. Once the water dousing and whipping are over, the women reward men with sweets, fruit, or painted Easter eggs. In the old days, the pouring of water had a rejuvenating meaning and was said to wash away all the evils and diseases from the body.



Easter Boneless Leg of Lamb

With Easter just around the corner, I would like to share my family’s recipe for the Easter Lamb Sunday lunch. Although the original recipe that my Mother passed down to me was for a small goat, I substituted the small goat with a small lamb. Here is the recipe:

Easter Boneless Leg of Lamb

Easter Boneless Leg of Lamb

For lamb:

1 leg of lamb (about 1.25 to 2.25 kg) de-boned if preferred

10 to 12 slices of smoked bacon

2 whole heads of garlic cut horizontally

8 garlic sliced

5 sprigs of rosemary

3 sprigs of thyme

young, small carrots peeled

young, new potatoes well cleaned

salt and pepper

For sauce:

1 clove garlic

4 tbsp of olive oil

bunch of Italian parsley leaves only (the one with flat leaves is more fragrant than the one with curly leaves)

500 ml of red wine

salt and pepper


1. Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees C.

2. Make slits all over the lamb and insert rosemary, sliced garlic and part of the bacon.

3. Season lamb all over with pepper, rosemary and thyme.

4. Pour olive oil over the lamb and in a skillet, fry to seal the juices in.

5. Transfer to roasting pan, add the cut up two heads of garlic, the rest of the bacon, sprigs of rosemary and thyme. Roast in the oven for 15 minutes, turn on the other side and return to oven for one hour.

6. Add potatoes and carrots and roast for another 45 minutes, basting two or three times with pan juices.

7. Remove from roasting pan and let it sit for about 15 minutes while preparing the sauce.

8. To the pan add 500 ml of red wine, the parsley, salt and pepper and boil on top of the stove. If there is too much oil or fat, remove with spoon and discard.

9. Slice the lamb, arrange with the potatoes and carrots. Pour the sauce over the meat and serve.

Bon appetit!

Spinach and Endive Salad with Figs, Walnuts and Feta Cheese

Salad copy

As I got a little tired of eating spinach salad using the same old recipe, I came up with the following alternative recently. This is easy, fast to prepare, tasty and most of all, HEALTHY!


Ingredients for 4 people:

1/2 red onion, sliced thinly

1 Tbspn of apple cider vinegar for the onion

1 bunch of spinach

2 or 3 endives to add crunchiness to the salad (or use a small Chinese cabbage)

6 to 8 dried figs (depending on size), sliced in medium-sized pieces

2 Tbspns of walnuts chopped into large pieces

A slice of Feta cheese per person (cut in small bits)

For the dressing:

2 Tbspns of apple cider vinegar

2 Tbspns of olive oil (cold pressed)

1 Tbspn of honey

Salt and pepper for seasoning


1. Slice the red onion in small pieces and sauté in a frying pan with a touch of olive oil for 2 minutes (to take away the sharpness that does not fit all palates).

2. Take the onion out of the pan to cool down and add one Tbspn of apple vinegar to marinate it.

3. Rinse and dry the spinach and the endives carefully and slice roughly.

4. Finish preparing your mise-en-place (sliced figs, chopped walnuts, marinated red onion, feta cheese).

5. Prepare the dressing.

6. Put all ingredients in a salad bowl (except the onion and feta cheese), add the dressing and toss.

7. Place the red onion in the centre and sprinkle the feta cheese.