Traditional temple

Qiongzhu Si: the bamboo temple

Parts of the 500 arhats

Parts of the 500 arhats

To the northwest of Kunming, the high Yu’an Mountain overlooks the city and is also home to an intriguing Buddhist temple known for its many painted sculptures. Qiongzhu Si, as it is called in Chinese, takes its name from a specific type of bamboo and has therefore been dubbed “the temple of bamboo”.

First established in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), it was the very first temple dedicated to Zen Buddhism in Yunnan. Like many religious sites in the region, it has a dramatic history, not least having been burned down and rebuilt from scratch on several occasions. The structures you see today are mostly from the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

Parts of the 500 arhats

Parts of the 500 arhats

Although Qiongzhu Temple had humble beginnings, its reputation gradually rose throughout the Yuan Dynasty and beyond as prominent monks and other Buddhist leaders visited and lectured there. In 1983, it was recognized by the State Council as a major Buddhist temple.

And while most Chinese Buddhist temples feature statues of arhats (a being who has attained a state of perfection and enlightenment), very few can claim five hundred of them as the temple does. Qiongzhu. In fact, it is one of only six temples across the country that can boast such an extensive collection.

One of the 500 arhats

One of the 500 arhats

While you’ll often find that such statues have been reproduced identically and feature similar detail, the five hundred statues here each show individual personalities that express a realistic range of emotions, from anger to joy and sadness. Having been painted with traditional Chinese mineral and vegetable pigments, the colors remain vivid many years later.

These remarkable statues were created during the reign of Emperor Guangxu (r. 1875-1908) in the Qing Dynasty, under which the temple benefited from a major renovation. Famous Sichuan clay artist Li Guangxiu (1883-1890) spent seven years tirelessly creating works of art alongside his students.

Parts of the 500 arhats

Parts of the 500 arhats

As with so many historic Chinese structures, the architecture is elegant and the design details are rich in symbolism. Note, for example, how the roofs of the buildings in the central axis are covered with golden tiles, emphasizing dignified vigor and ties to nobility. The complex is made up of a variety of different halls which can be visited and between which the famous arhat statues are distributed.

Huayan Pavilion

Huayan Pavilion

Another intriguing feature is found in the Great Hall, where an imperial edict dating back to the Yuan dynasty hangs. The edict appoints Xuanjian, the abbot of the temple, as chief monk and asks for the support of locals to keep important Buddhist scriptures here in the temple.

Well known as an important Buddhist area, Yu’an Mountain is also home to Haiyuan Temple which also has a number of its own arhat statues and can be added to a tour of the area. To end a day trip in the most appropriate way, hike to the top of the mountain where you will find Xihua, a typical karst cave and, best of all, a panoramic view of the entire city of Kunming.

The main hall of the temple

The main hall of the temple

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