Beijing Water

Oral History: The Xishan Dajue Temple’s Spring Runs Dry

Below is the tenth in a series of oral histories about Beijing water, as told to An He and Wang Jian by Guan Zhanxiu, a forestry specialist at the Xishan Dajue Temple (Great Awakening Temple, or Temple of Enlightenment) in Beijing’s Haidian district.

You can download the pdf here.

Guan Zhanxiu’s Occupation:  Forestry specialist at the Xishan Dajue Temple administration in the Cadre Training Centre of the City Cultural Relics Department

Translation by Madeleine Ross and Fang Li

You’ve probably heard of the “Three hundred temples in the Western Hills.” Of these 300, one is the “Enormous Buddhist Temple.” It is also known as ‘one of Emperor Jinzhang’s eight temples in the Western Hills.’ This temple – the Great Awakening Dajue Temple – is the subject of our discussion. [1]

One gets the feeling there is something unusual about this temple, and there is – the front faces east and its back is turned to the west. It was built this way by the Khitans in the fourth year of the reign of Xianyong (1068 AD) during the Liao Dynasty (916-1125 AD). The temple’s orientation reflects the Khitan custom of worshipping the rising sun in the east.

When it was first named, there were two crystal clear springs inside the temple, one flowing in from the south and one from the north. These inspired the temple’s name – Qingshui Yuan or Clear Water Garden. During the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234 AD) it was renamed Lingquan Temple (Magic Spring Temple), again, in tribute to the springs. In the Liao Period, a philanthropist by the name of Deng paid to have the temple reconstructed, and a stone tablet was placed on the east side of the pool in the courtyard. This is the ancient stone tablet you have just seen, sitting northwest of the Dabei Hall. It dates from the Liao Dynasty and is engraved with four characters, ‘Da Jue Chan Si’ (Great Enlightenment Buddhist Temple), so the name Dajue Temple was settled upon thereafter. It is also said that the stone tablet was erected by order of the Emperor Daozong and Empress Xiao in the Wushen year (45th year) of the sixty-year cycle (in 1068 AD).

In earlier times the temple took its name from the water close by. The whole of the ancient temple complex rests on granite, which is very strong, hard and unable to hold water. Fortunately however, a creviced limestone mountain enclosing the temple’s back allowed water to seep through. The water gathered into little streams that flowed crystal clear down to the granite on which the temple was built. It was said that the temple had two advantages: one, that it had a solid granite foundation and, two that it was placed adjacent to limestone and had access to water.

The formal name for the Dajue Temple is the ‘Dajue Buddhist Temple built by Imperial Decree,’ a name which tells us three things.  First, “imperial decree” means it was built by order of the Emperor, with national funding and in compliance with a national plan. Second, “Dajue” was its original name, chosen after the Ming Dynasty reconstruction. And third, Buddhist Temple (chansi) means it was a place where the emperor made sacrificial offerings to Heaven and Earth, and not a site where ordinary Chan Buddhist rites were performed, in which case it would have used the usual meaning of the word Chan Buddhism (chanzong).

Looking at historical documents we can see that the Dajue Temple used to enjoy a lot of water. Photos taken by a German envoy in the 1930s, show a free-flowing small waterfall built into an artificial hill made of stones. But the amount of water has gradually diminished. The weather in Beijing has been quite dry since 1949.

Do you remember the chant that goes like this?

We’ve been liberated,

The communist party is here,

There are no spirits where there used to be [2]

There’s no water where there used to be.

Water in the Dajue Temple flowed for a thousand years, as far back as records are kept, but in the last fifty years there has been a significant decrease. Spring water from the mountain first accumulated in a small square pool called the Dragon Pool or Dragon King Pool, behind the temple. Then it was drawn out on both sides of the central axis, splitting into northern and southern branches that flowed through the entire temple. There were many courtyards in the temple – they all had spring water flowing through them. The two branches eventually met in the Merit and Virtue Pool in front of the temple. An overflow spout allowed water to flow out of the pool when it was full.

Twenty years ago, the northern branch inside the temple still had water in it, but the southern branch stopped flowing before 1912, when the Republic of China was established. In recent years the southern branch has been restored to look like it did in the past when water flowed through it. But now it can only be considered an artificial landscape.

There is a saying that water is as high as the mountain – meaning that there are springs on the mountain that provide surface water.[3] Now, the temple relies on water replenished from deep wells,[4] but before that, all the water at the Dajue Temple was surface water from mountain springs. This fresh surface water is created when rain falls onto the vegetation covering the mountain, and then soaks into the ground, permeating the rock layers. Later on it dribbles out of tiny crevices in the rock and flows naturally downward. People at the Water Bureau have told me that what we drink now from the well is crevice water that has seeped into the rock layers formed deep below the surface during the Cretaceous period. It is pumped from wells a thousand meters deep. Some think that, provided there is enough rainwater, the groundwater we have extracted will be able to replenish itself, but this simply demonstrates a lack of general knowledge. It doesn’t matter how much it rains, the water table level in the deep layers of rock won’t rise for quite sometime – unless the water pours straight in. [5]

The water in the Dajue Temple was clean and sweet because the rain fell on the dense vegetation on the mountain behind the temple and this surface water was constantly filtered as it percolated through the rock. The temple’s tea gardens, known as ‘Dajue Tea Culture,’ had already gained a modest reputation, but the key to this tea culture was the water. The spring water was tested in the 1990s and found to contain three elements, one of which was selenium. The effect of drinking this water was not immediate but would be felt twenty-four hours later. If you stayed at the Dajue Temple and drank the spring water, by about four or five o’ clock in the afternoon the following day – before it was time for the evening meal – you would already be hungry. If a person, after eating a typical meal, feels “distinctly” hungry before the next meal, it means that selenium has had a beneficial effect on digestion.

When we promote our tea and call it ‘Dajue Culture,’ water is one of the most important factors. Along with the Minghui Tea House in the Dajue Temple, which has become fashionable in modern times, a traditional Buddhist tea service is also served in the temple. With Buddhist tea, the tealeaves have an added Buddhist element: the tea has been consecrated. Drinking this kind of tea is seen as an enlightenment practice. Water is the priority but the leaves must also be consecrated. Vulgar speech is not permitted while drinking and it is wisest to discuss philosophy, life, or Buddhist practices. Drinking Buddhist tea is different to drinking black, green or flower teas – it can’t be summed up in a few words. We have just made a batch of Pu’er tea, called Dajue Buddhist Tea. Though I have to be honest, this batch wasn’t consecrated at the Dajue Temple because there weren’t any monks there. It was done at the Tanzhe Temple.

Water has its own culture. The different cultures of the north and the south are linked to differences in their water. The character of northerners is like the northern river. The Yellow river, with all its sand, is surging and turbulent, carrying the good with the bad, changing course without following any rules. Don’t you think that is just like the rough and straightforward northerners? They don’t fuss about small things in their daily life and they handle matters according to how they feel at the time, without any particular strategy. They may seem simple and muddleheaded, like the water in the Yellow River, but they are generous and warm-hearted.

As for southerners, just look at the Yangtze River, it comes from different rivulets of water high up in the densely forested mountains that join up one by one. The Yangtze has two layers of water. On the surface the river looks placid and the top layer of water moves slowly, giving the appearance of being gentle and easy-going. But underneath, 30 centimeters below the surface, the undercurrent is extremely strong. Southerners appear to be gentle, quiet and amiable – outwardly they smile – but really, underneath they are calculating, figuring out how much they can benefit from one another, down to the last cent, so that in the end no one owes anything to anyone else. Might this have anything to do with water?

There has been a drought in the area around Beijing for many years now. Low rainfall means there has been little surface water, which in turn has meant little evaporation. And because there has been very little evaporation there have been fewer clouds. With ever fewer clouds there can’t be any rain. On top of this, the level of water in the water table has fallen – it’s a vicious circle.

The Dajue Temple has no real springs any more. What we are drinking is mainly well water, which leaves lime scale when it’s boiled.

And what about spring water? You can see that in the courtyard there are still water channels, but the spring water has already dried up because the village down the hill has dug a well in front of the water channels that run into the Dajue Temple. Now all the water from the channels has been diverted away. The village only has a hundred or so households and isn’t very big. We aren’t going to mention it by name because the local government doesn’t want it revealed.

The villagers dug the well last year to supply groundwater to the village, and the spring water to the Dajue Temple was officially cut off on the first of July in 2008. The spring water above the Dragon Pool hasn’t disappeared completely, it’s just changed course. Instead of going through the temple it goes straight to the village. All the water villagers use for eating, drinking, bathing and irrigation comes from this spring. The flow of water has changed to the point that the water that originally flowed to the temple has been diverted underground by the well dug by the villagers. The problem is that, even if the well were blocked or filled in, the spring water wouldn’t return to the temple – it might flow anywhere, one or two hundred meters lower down because its path has been changed by the well. There would still be no water available for the temple.

In fact, before 2008, an older, original well in the village still had water in it. Then, when everything had to be spruced up for the Olympics – and there was such a fuss about it – the ground water was extracted to such an excessive degree that the water level across Beijing fell very rapidly. Last year there was a lot of rain, but an even larger volume of water was used – which only became known as a result of meetings among Beijing’s water authorities. The issue was discussed for a long time at these high level meetings, but no one in the village spoke out about the fact that the problem was straightforward – too much water was extracted because of the Olympics. The water table in many places dropped and in areas at a higher elevation, such as the Dajue Temple, it dropped the most. The Dajue Temple is about 140 meters above sea level, so it was more severely affected than the city of Beijing.

Wells belonging to the ordinary people of Beijing have no water in them anymore. When there is no water they look for other places to dig. In the past, at least in theory, government permission was required to dig a well. But when that village got approval, it wasn’t for this particular well near the temple. They dug a bit here and then dug a bit there. In some places they didn’t find any water, but when they dug near the temple, they found some. You might ask what had been approved. The villagers could go through the formal steps to get permission to dig a well, and who could stop them? One of China’s characteristics is that there are no rules to speak of. The local government has been helping us look into how we could fill in the well dug by the villagers close to the temple. But, good grief, when we tried to do something, a score of the local people stood around the well and prevented us from doing anything.[6]

Who does the water from the mountain springs belong to, to the temple or to the villagers? It’s the Chinese condition. There is conflict wherever there are people, but resolving this conflict by giving the water to only one of the parties is clearly unacceptable. Although the temple is the victim, one must still consider this principle carefully: the Dajue Temple might be called the Clear Water Garden but this resource, namely the spring water, cannot belong entirely to the temple. It would be a small matter for the Minghui Tea House in the temple to shut down if the temple no longer had spring water. But the damage both to a heritage site like the temple, and to the environment, from the loss of water would be hard to quantify. The old trees in the temple depend entirely on that spring water, and without replenishment, trees that have lasted one thousand years will wither and die.

Water is the trees’ lifeblood and spirit. No matter how the watercourses are changed, water must remain here. Through the local government, we are negotiating with the peasants, but it would be totally useless to say who is right and who is wrong. The peasants say that, no matter who you are, when water flows to your doorstep you would die before you give it up!

In fact, history shows us that the village only began to develop because of the Dajue Temple. In the last few years there has been an endless stream of visitors, and the villagers have helped to provide the tourist infrastructure and other services needed. They are the ones who ran stalls outside the temple and villagers have looked after parking bicycles. Would the temple’s existence or disappearance be of no consequence to them? The local people do in fact care about the temple; otherwise they would have let it be demolished a long time ago. But when it comes to a matter of survival, or if it comes down to not having water, everyone is going to put themselves first. If the temple has no water, it still has the government and the state to fall back on, but ordinary people have no one to look after them. They are a disadvantaged group.

Some of the trees in the temple have already died. Many of the Chinese pines became diseased and infested with pests in 2003, the year when SARS appeared. The pine tree next to the pagoda on the hill, a tree about 400 or 500 years old, originally grew in about thirty centimeters of soil on top of the granite. But now its roots have gone right down to granite, making its continued growth difficult. Also, at the same time the trees are getting larger, there is less and less water, and there are also large numbers of tourists stomping around. It’s not that the plants simply lack water in the ground; they also need moisture on their leaves. If the leaves are dry for long periods, the entire plant suffers. By comparison, tree leaves are bright emerald in the south where damp air provides leaves with moisture.

The year we arrived at the temple the weeds were up to my waist. It was 1992, and the country’s “opening up” policies had formally started. This Magnolia is over three hundred years old, and is considered a natural treasure. That tree over there is a parasitic Buckthorn Cypress, and it is still beautiful. This ginkgo here is over one thousand years old. Another one died just over there and some do-gooders put in a fake one, which makes me feel uncomfortable. A species endemic to China, the ginkgo is a living fossil. Its demands on the natural environment are few – it can survive harsh conditions and at the same time be productive and useful. Everywhere else in the world the ginkgoes died during the fourth ice age in the Cretaceous period. The only survivors to be found were on the mainland of China.

It’s been thirty years since we’ve had “opening up and reform.” [7] The ordinary people have gone from being in a state of fervent revolution to one in which they have achieved a moderately good standard of living. The Dajue Temple, on the other hand, has gone from having water to not having water. The temple’s water is now gone. The people who come to pay reverence are also gradually realizing that their desire to earn as much money as possible, hand over fist, while grabbing every opportunity to consume as much as possible and as quickly as one can, is futile. The whole world is beginning to share an understanding that being rich doesn’t necessarily mean that one has the right to deplete the resources of others. Everyone is slowly beginning to feel that consuming less is better than owning a lot. Consuming less has a two-fold benefit.

In the temple we have introduced the practice of meditative tea drinking as a way to help people control their greed. For example, realizing that one steamed bun is enough and refusing the other half – otherwise you have to exercise to work off that extra bit of consumption. Buying less property, which is a way of taking care of mountains and forests, is yet another. A feeling of contentment doesn’t come from owning a lot, but from consuming less.

The worst enemies of the natural world are people; especially the nouveau rich who want to grab everything for themselves. Have you noticed that wherever there are people, there will probably be too many and that the trees will have disappeared, the water will have disappeared and the animals will have disappeared? The Dajue Temple has gone from being the beautiful but unknown Clear Water Garden to being a place that people flock to. But in the end the water is all gone, the trees have withered and the temple buildings are collapsing. At the present rate of technological development, if human beings don’t learn to control themselves, it won’t be long before they will have destroyed the treasures handed down by their ancestors and they won’t even be able to guarantee their own lives.

It isn’t an optimistic scenario for the Dajue Temple. I’m afraid that it is beyond the capacity of one group of people to preserve an ancient, one thousand-year-old temple. The key to doing so will be appealing to society, and having a proper understanding of what genuine civilization and culture really is. What will we be able to trust in the future…skyscrapers and highways? This city of Beijing has forgotten about culture. It’s nothing like the Beijing we once knew. We’ve become accustomed to pleasure seeking and are still unaware of what we should be giving back to the natural world.

Commentary

Beijing is surrounded by the Taihang and Yanshan mountain ranges: temples were often located near the springs of these mountains. If water from the springs was plentiful and flowed steadily, it created beautiful landscapes and famous gardens. The limestone area in Xishan has a small number of springs that produce a large volume of water, whereas the granite, gneiss and sandstone areas have a large number of springs with only a small volume of water. The Clear Water Garden located at the base of Yangtai Mountain in the Xishan area, and later renamed the Dajue Temple, the one thousand-year-old temple that became famous for its springs, belongs to the former – a limestone area.

As old as the temple itself, the ginkgo trees within its compound are living cultural artifacts that rely on its clear spring water. They ingeniously bind together the natural and the manmade landscapes, passing down information about the past through their tenacious lives.

They provide an important basis for our study into the history of the ancient capital’s cultural development, the establishment of city parks and the rise and fall of governments. Ancient trees are unable to speak; yet they have experienced unpredictable events and have seen great changes. They are witnesses to history and can give living testimony to the style and culture of ancient times.

The Eight Great Temples were located in Beijing’s Xishan area because it was abundant in spring water. The ginkgoes have been able to survive for a thousand years because there was water. The three hundred-year-old Magnolia denudata should be considered one of the natural wonders of Beijing. There are 160 ancient trees within the Dajue Temple compound, and, in addition to the thousand year old ginkgoes, there are one-hundred-year-old magnolias, sal trees (Shorea robusta), ancient pines, cypresses and so on. The basis of life for this group of ancient trees is the temple’s spring water, and the Dajue Temple still exists because of its interdependence with the water and trees.

One by one the ancient trees are now withering because water has stopped flowing to them. What’s going to happen to the Eight Great Temples in the Xishan area? In Beijing, uncurbed development has already caused the water table to drop, the river flows to be interrupted, and the springs to be silenced. Unless human beings can control rampant development in Beijing, it won’t be long before the treasures handed down by our ancestors are destroyed and our very lives are put at risk.


An He is a Beijing-based engineer. Wang Jian is a Beijing-based water expert.


Beijing, once famous for its sweet spring water and clear-flowing rivers is now infamous for its polluted canals and dried up riverbeds. My Home and Water: A People’s Account provides a rare uncensored glimpse of life and water in the ancient capital of Beijing and surrounding areas – as told by longtime residents.

Translation, editing and online publication of the series by Chinese author Dai Qing and Probe International has been made possible by funding from the Foundation Open Society Institute (Zug). For more information, contact Probe International at info@probeinternational.org

  1. There are 300 temples in the Western Hills, eight of which are big and well known. The Dajue Temple is one of these eight.
  2. Meaning, the kinds of religious activities where people go into trances and sing incantations.
  3. The narrator means that springs could be considered a form of “surface water,” i.e. water in a river or lake.
  4. The narrator is drawing a distinction from the spring water or surface water by saying that the temple must now pump its water from “groundwater” supplies through wells because the springs have dried up.
  5. By this the narrator means current rainfall doesn’t have an immediate impact on the water level deep in the aquifers. If one expects the water level deep underground to rise quite rapidly, you have to pour water directly into these areas – which is impossible.
  6. Here the narrator is talking about a conflict between the temple and the nearby villagers for the water. After the villagers dug a well nearby, the temple’s water supply was disrupted. Both parties (the temple and the village) claimed the right to the water. The temple tried to enlist local government officials to fill in the well – but to no avail. The villagers fought for the well and prevented the temple from filling it in.
  7. Reform and opening-up policies in China: After the death of Mao Zedong (in 1976), a new economic system was introduced—beginning with the abolishment of people’s communes and the planned economy. In its place emerged a state-run market economy. China also began to open itself to the global marketplace—introducing foreign capital, technology and natural resources, as well as ideological values from the West.
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