As you walk further and further into Lumicang Hutong, a busy little alleyway filled with fruit vendors, the more you doubt that one of the best preserved Ming dynasty Buddhist temples could be in the vicinity. But just before the end of the alley, you see the rippled black tile roofing of Zhihua come into view, shielding a modest stone entrance.
Depending on the time of day, you might step into the courtyard to hear the high-pitched sound of a trilling bamboo flute, alongside of a buzzing sheng and percussion. Four times a day, a handful of musicians robed in yellow perform 15-minute concerts using traditional Ming dynasty string, wind and percussion instruments. Some of the instruments are quite unique, such as the sheng, a wind instrument that looks like a hefty plant stalk with multiple shoots, and the yunluo, a collection of tuned mini-gongs.
The temple musicians play traditional Ming dynasty Buddhist compositions to the open courtyard whether visitors are present or not. The songs, which have been passed down for 27 generations, have a touch of the otherworldly to them, even if the musicians themselves appear to be less than impassioned in their performance. The sounds fill the front courtyard where visitors and tourists snap photos, echoing back towards the corners of the compound.
Zhihua consists of three main halls, one housing three dusty golden Buddhas, and one being home to over 10,000 Buddhas (mostly small ones, it’s true). But the highlight of the temple is the Zhuanlunzai (wheel carrier), in the scriptures hall. This octagonal script cabinet is exquisitely decorated, adorned with cavorting mythical winged beasts, animals and gods. The detailed intricacies of the cabinet may pull viewers in, but it’s worth noting that in the corner of the room is a platform specifically created to draw your attention to the Buddha who sits atop the Zhuanlunzai, virtually hidden in the shadows, the ceiling recessing to make way for the Buddha’s head. He is surrounded by also barely discernable Buddhist paintings which cause many viewers to strain their eyes in appreciation.
Zhihau is a hidden gem of a temple, tucked away out of sight, despite being barely removed from the second ring road. Although other temples may impress with gargantuan sculptures of Buddha and square meterage, Zhihua has carved out its musical niche. And if the music doesn’t move you, you still have the fallbacks of meticulous craftsmanship, thoughtful design, and at least one Buddha who seems so eerily real, that you can feel his gaze penetrating your soul.
Music performances are scheduled every day at 9, 10, 11, and 3 o’clock.
Address: No. 5 Lumicang Hutong, off Chaoyangmen Nanxiaojie, near Jinbao St.
Price of Admission: 20 yuan