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).
The 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”.