Situated in the Xicheng District of Beijing, the White Cloud Temple is one of “The Three Great Ancestral Courts” of the Complete Perfection School of Taoism, and is titled “The First Temple under Heaven”. Also it is one of the oldest and largest Taoist temples in China.
The White Cloud Temple was originally founded in 739 A.D. during the Tang Dynasty. It was burned down and then rebuilt, hence most of the buildings we can see now were built in the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. The White Cloud Temple is commonly called Baiyun (white cloud) Guan in Chinese, because in China Taoist temples are not called temples but Guan. Guan means something like to look at or observe. This is a reflection of the Taoist belief that understanding the Tao comes from a direct observation of nature, rather than scholastic theological studies. Buried in the compound are the remains of Qiu Chuji, a famed Yuan Taoist guru who lived in the temple all his life. For this reason, Taoists in China regard the White Cloud Temple as their ancestral sanctuary.
Covering a total area of more than 10, 000 square meters, the White Cloud Temple is the largest Taoist architectural complex in Beijing. Its buildings are laid out around three parallel axes from east to west in seven courtyards and a rear garden. The main buildings, arranged on the central axis with side halls and covered corridors on both sides, include the decorated archways with color paintings, the main gate, Hall of Jade Emperor (Yuhuang Hall), Laolü Hall, Hall of Patriarch Qiu (Qiuzu Hall), and the Hall of Three Purities and the Hall of Four Celestial Emperors (Sanqing Hall and Siyu Hall).
The temple is generally laid out like a Buddhist temple but with some unique Taoist features, for example, at the entrance stands the superbly decorated archway with three entrances, symbolizing the Taoist three worlds – Desire, Substance and Emptiness.
The Hall of Jade Emperor is where the Jade Emperor is worshipped and enshrined. The ribbons hang around the shrine are embroidered with one hundred Chinese word “longevity” in different colors and patterns. It is said that the ribbons were gifts from Dowager Cixi on her 60th birthday. In the front hall there are two stone tablets with Emperor Qianlong’s handwriting with the words “White Cloud Taoist Temple Rebuilt” on the east and poems on the west.
Laolü Hall is where Taoist disciplines are taught and the site where priests usually hold religious activities. Meetings are held there during festivals and birthdays of the forefathers.
In the center of the rear courtyard is the Hall of Patriarch Qiu, devoted to the worship of Qiu Chuji. In the middle of the hall there is a large bowl, which is made from a knotted root of a tree. The remains of Qiu are buried underneath this bowl.
Behind the Hall of Patriarch Qiu is the Hall of Three Purities and the Hall of Four Celestial Emperors, which is a two-story structure with a gabled roof that contains statues of the Three Purities on the top floor and the Four Celestial Emperors on the bottom floor.
The White Cloud Temple is one of the most entertaining I’ve visited with lots of activities for visitors. Two of the most popular activities are touching the stone monkey and shooting coins. There are three monkeys depicted in relief sculptures around the temple and it is believed to be lucky to find all three and touch them. (As a big hint: The first one is on the front gateway and has been rubbed black and the other two are in the first courtyard.) After entering the gate, people can see a large arched stone bridge known as Wofeng Bridge, but there is no water beneath it. The coins and bells hanging on both sides beneath the bridge are for visitors and those who want to pray for good luck by throwing coins to hit the bell. People believe that each time the bell is struck, a blessing will be bestowed.
As one of China’s major Taoist temples, the White Cloud Temple is now the seat of the Chinese Taoist Association, and houses 30 resident monks. The Chinese Taoist College is also located inside. The temple conducts traditional Taoist ceremonies and is crowded with monks, their followers and tourists on Taoist holy days. Every year on the 19th day of the first lunar month a festival is held at the abbey in celebration of Qiu Chuji’s birthday.
White Cloud Temple is also a wonderful place to find out about Chinese culture and tradition. The temple fair at Chinese New Year is particularly noteworthy, when many exhibitions of traditional folk arts and handicrafts are held. Another attraction of the temple fair is that you can see and try almost all the traditional Beijing local foods and snacks.