A former Shaxi village nunnery is beautifully restored in Diantou
The Sheltered Mercy Nunnery (慈荫庵) in Shaxi Yunnan China (also known as the Shaxi Pear Orchard Temple), is one of the largest and most important Shaxi village folk temples surviving today. In 2011, longtime American entrepreneur in China, Chris Barclay came here with his wife for a visit from Thailand. As the couple was trying without success to conceive a child after their only child had died, Chris’s wife, a devout Buddhist, prayed to the Guan Yin fertility goddess in this temple’s main shrine and soon after was pregnant. Their daughter Hannah Alisala was born in 2012 and the Barclays committed to restore the temple, which was in an advanced state of disrepair.
The Barclay’s engaged Mr. Yang Liu Yi, one of the most experienced and knowledgeable master carpenters working with Bai vernacular building in Northwest Yunnan. The project has taken over three years of meticulous restoration work covering every aspect of the temple complex.
Sheltered Mercy Nunnery project is a comprehensive cultural building restoration as well as a means to promote Shaxi village culture. It serves as a model for cultural heritage conservation in the promotion of sustainable development. At the temple you will find:
- Dining at the Pear Blossom Organic Restaurant, with an an upper terrace overlooking the Shaxi valley (weather permitting)
- Galleries with videos featuring the ancient Tea Horse Road and Shaxi Culture
- Meditation and quiet reading space
- Classroom and multi-purpose space for small groups
- Active shrines to local Buddhist and Taoist gods
- Free WiFi
- International wine and spirits selection
- Horse trekking to Shibaoshan temples
- Info on Shaxi low carbon tourism
More about the Shaxi village temple project
There is no complete documented history of the nunnery, other than an inscribed marble tablet found during restoration, which describe the introduction of Buddhism into China and the history of the Shaxi Valley from ancient times. It is unclear how much of this history is legend versus actual historical record, though it does state that the temple dates to at least the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and was built as a nunnery, primarily as a shrine to pray for children. The tablet reads that the original settlers to Shaxi arrived from Henan in the Ming Dynasty and first established Diantou Village where they built a shrine that became the Sheltered Mercy Nunnery.
The tablet inscription notes that the original Ming Dynasty temple was relocated twice times before being rebuilt in the current location. This is evidenced by what appear to be much older stone foundations for the main hall platform. During our rebuilding of the upper shrine spirit wall, we uncovered a foundation stone that local people believe predates any other artefact in the village. The temple was most recently rebuilt in 1917 according to inscriptions on the underside of the ridge beam in the Jade Emperor building. To date, it remains the largest folk temple in the Shaxi Valley and is an important religious and cultural centre for Diantou Village. There are currently no other such temples of this size and complexity surviving in the region.
Shrines and altars
At is custom in Northwest Yunnan, every village has its own benzhu miao (本主庙) or temple for the local god. Each temple is different and may pay homage to specific gods, depending on which the village deems most important. Sheltered Mercy, given its size, key location at the entrance to the valley and the collective wealth of its benefactors, has four distinct shrines, some with multiple altars, with images of several important deities in Bai culture.
The principal shrine in the main hall is to the Songzi Guanyin (送子观音) or the “Goddess of Mercy who brings children” (Avalokiteśvara in Sanskrit). The most popular and beloved of the enlightened beings, Avalokiteśvara embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. Empowered with supernatural powers, she can assume any form. As the personification of compassion and kindness, the mother-goddess is the patron of mothers and the temple was originally devoted to her. The Guan Yin is depicted holding a male child and seated in a grotto, hence the “Sheltered” Mercy in the temple’s Mandarin name.
Folk stories as teaching
In the grotto, there are small images of the Monkey King, Monk Triptaka, Pigsy, Sandy and the magic white horse White Dragon from the Chinese classic ‘Journey to the West’. Tripitaka is on a solo mission from the Chinese emperor to India to fetch one of the first sets of Buddhist scriptures back to help spread Buddhism. Guanyin helps him on his mission, and the accompanying disciples complete their pilgrimage and gain redemption for their past sins.
This main hall depicts paintings of the 18 immortals or Arhats (罗汉) on each side, and there are three additional altars. Immediately to the right of Guan Yin is the Great Black Sky God 大黑天神 (Mahakala in Sanskrit), a protector deity featured prominently in Tibetan Buddhism and a manifestation of the Hindu god Shiva, the god of Time and the time beyond death. Mahakala is one of the most popular local village protector gods in Northwest Yunnan. To the right of Mahakala is the Mother Earth Goddess (Parvati in Sanskrit), The goddess of all lands and power, she takes care of the balance between Ying and Yang energies. She is also worshiped as the God of Harvest. Parvati is the wife of Shiva, and she is often depicted sitting astride a tiger.
To the left of Guan Yin is a seated image of Bodhidharma,( 达摩), the first Buddhist master in China. He was a Buddhist monk who grew up in south India in the 5th century, but he traveled by sea to China and later crossed the mighty Yangtze River to introduce Buddhist practice to China. The local people treat the flanking images and shrines with equal respect, dressing them for holidays and regularly lighting candles and incense at their altars.
A mixture of Bai religious traditions
In a separate courtyard, relegated behind and to the right of Guan Yin is Cai Shen (财神) the God of Prosperity that originates from Han Chinese folk legend dating to the Qin Dynasty. Cai Shen is portrayed astride a tiger holding a golden sword. There is an annual Festival of the Prosperity God every April at the temple, with a large turnout of villagers who raise money, leave offerings at the Cai Shen altar, hold ceremonies and cook meals all day for attendees.
Above the Guan Yin Hall is a separate building on a hill that houses two additional shrines; the lower is for the Sakyamuni Buddha (释迦摩尼佛) flanked by two arhats and above him is the altar of the Jade Emperor (玉皇阁). The Sakyamuni is shown in the Bhumisparsa mudra or calling the earth to witness (觸地印相). This upper courtyard was also used to house the two nuns who lived at the temple and whose lodgings had been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.
To the Buddha’s left is an image of Lao Zi 老子 the Founder of the Daoist School. In his hand he holds dust, symbolizing impermanence and the cycle of life and death. Seated to Laozi’s right, astride a spotted hippo is Confucius (孔子), honoured for bringing cultural literacy to Chinese people, humanitarianism and a system of social analects that established an ethical paradigm on which Chinese society is still based.
The Jade Emperor is a Daoist god who oversees all three realms of existence and sits atop the Sakyamuni building in a separate ornate shrine, only accessible by a narrow wooden staircase. The elders do not allow young people or women to ascend these stairs. The story of the building of the Jade Emperor hall is featured prominently in the temple’s inscribed historical tablet.
All temple buildings are constructed from rammed earth and mud brick walls on stone foundations, as typical in the local vernacular tradition. There are no modern additions to the original design, except for an auxiliary kitchen made of concrete block, a labor-saving substitute for broken original walls. We also found thin cement which was poured over the tamped earth floors in places, all of which was removed by our team and replaced with qing brick pavers (青砖). The pagoda rooflines of the Jade Emperor shrine are also particular to the Bai people of Yunnan and were painstakingly replaced according to the traditional method of creating a fan-type corner assembly. Because this is a Shaxi village folk temple, it is not gilded or extravagant in any way and our project has sought to maintain that modest simplicity of design.
The Shaxi village temple has mostly served as a gathering place for village elders, a sunny location sheltered from wind in which to play mah-jong and dry vegetables. There are a core group of elderly women who maintain the altars and a designated “Uncle” who opens and closes the temple each day, lights incense, cleans the altars and has keys to every room. The temple is still an important village centre during holidays or festivals and groups of women regularly come to pray to Guan Yin for children.