Beijing Water

Passing of an era: Beijing’s water crisis hurting one of the city’s great temples

Probe International
June 24, 2010

Beijing’s water crisis is behind the demise of one of city’s most famous and historic temples, say a team of Beijing investigative historians led by China’s prize-winning journalist Dai Qing and Probe International, a Canadian environmental think tank.

In the “Xishan Dajue Temple’s Spring Runs Dry”, the tenth in a series of oral histories produced by the team, Guan Zhanxiu, the temple’s forestry specialist, describes the 1000-year-old temple’s magical ecosystem through which two crystal-clear springs flowed to nurture trees and provide “clean and sweet” water for the Dajue Tea Culture—a Buddhist enlightenment tradition.

But the temple is now a shadow of its former self.

“Water in the Dajue Temple flowed for a thousand years, as far back as records are kept,” he says, “but in the last fifty years there has been a significant decrease.”

The punishing drought afflicting Beijing’s watershed, and the over-exploitation of surface and groundwater, has caused a major crisis for the city’s 17-million residents who now survive on 1/30 of the world’s average supply.

Not only is there less precipitation to nurture the temple’s160 ancient trees—including a 300-year old magnolia, 1000-year old ginkgoes, sals, ancient pines, and cypresses—but the already-diminished springs were diverted away from the temple when local villagers dug a well for bathing and drinking. This move has sowed seeds of discord and focused attention on water rights and the ruinous use of the capital’s natural resources.

With the disappearance of the spring water, Mr. Guan laments the death of the temple’s trees and the phoniness of the tea service. He describes the temple’s landscape now as an “artificial” one.

The tea service, once, a spiritual event with water filtered through lush vegetation and containing selenium that was integral to the taste of the tea, is now devoid of its ancient value. The temple must now rely on groundwater pumped from deep wells that leaves lime scales when boiled.

And as the water goes, so too, does the temple’s tea culture, long famous, says Guan. When we promoted our tea and called it ‘Dajue Culture,’ the water was key, he says

Now, says Mr. Guan, the Temple is in a disagreement with local villagers over the use of an ever-diminishing supply of water. The resulting battle leaves Guan Zhanxiu asking a very potent question: “Who does the water from the mountain springs belong to, to the temple or to the villagers?” Ultimately, he says, this lack of clarity regarding property rights and the use of natural resources is “the Chinese condition.”

Between the conflict of water rights and the worsening water crisis, the future is a bleak one for the Dajue Temple, says Mr. Guan.

Guan Zhanxiu’s story is a poignant, personal account of how Beijing’s water crisis is having a real, and very negative, effect on both the city’s natural and cultural heritage, and ultimately on its soul. “What will we be able to trust in the future…skyscrapers and highways?” he asks. “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.”

Read “The Xishan Dajue Temple’s Spring Runs Dry”

To read other Beijing Water Oral Histories, click here.

To read other Three Gorges Oral Histories, click here.

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 a grant from the Foundation Open Society Institute (Zug). For more information, contact Probe International at

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