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Murals in the Yongle Temple

Murals in the Yongle Temple


ORIGINALLY, the Yongle Temple was located in Yongle Township, Yongji County, Shanxi Province. According to legends, it was the birthplace of Lü Dongbin, one of the "Eighth Taoist Immortals." Inside this Taoist temple was a hall named "Pure Yang "dedicated to the worship of this Taoist immortal. Due to the construction of the Sanmen Reservoir which would flood the entire area and transform it into a huge lake, the government, beginning in 1959, dismantled the temple, piece by piece, and subsequently moved it to a northern section of Ruicheng County, which was not too far from the temple' s original site. The Yongle Temple and all its murals were thus saved for posterity.


In addition to "Pure Yang," the Yongle Temple has three more worship halls, namely "Three Purities," "Double Yang," and "Infinite." All these halls contain murals dating from the Yuan Dynasty. The murals inside the "Three Purities" are the largest in size and cover a total area of 400 square meters on all of its four walls. In them each deity is as tall as three meters, and altogether there are more than 280 male and female deities, of whom eight are principals. They look very much like "The Eighty-Seven Immortals" that have been introduced earlier. After 650 years, these murals not only look remarkably good, physically speaking, but are also excellent from an artistic point of view. The design is grand, the composition serious and uncompromising, and the form elegant and beautiful. Each deity possesses his or her own individuality. The coloring is rich and harmonious. Among all the extant murals, they are among the best in terms of quality (Illustrations 81, 82). The painters, whose signatures appear on the murals, were Ma Junxiang of Henan and his son. Their work was completed in the summer of 1325.


Murals inside the Hall of Pure Yang measure a total area of 111.8 square meters, and they were completed in 1358. The painters were Zhu Haoji and his students, including Zhang Zunli. One mural, entitled "Hart Zhongli and Lü Dongbin" (Illustration 83), shows a well-built, serious-looking Hart Zhongli lecturing Lti Dongbin on Taoist ideology, and the latter, sitting deferentially and listening attentively, is in deep thought and appears most sincere. The brushwork that depicts the background of trees, rocks, and springs is forceful and strong, and the coloring harmonious. The level of skill is by no means inferior to that of the "scroll paintings." We appreciate it even better when it is pointed out that these murals are of comparatively large size.


Clearly these muralists had inherited the fine tradition of the Tang-Song period. Not only is their style honest and solid, but the construction of each mural as a whole has never been forgotten in the painting process. An opportune medium between "complexity" and "simplicity" has been successfully attained. Though ornamentation has been obvious and the coloring is a little too rich, the arrangement is clear and logical. Principal themes stand out prominently at all times.


If "The Eighty-Seven Immortals," created via the method of "line drawing," can be compared to an elegant duet of lines, the murals inside the Hall of Three Purities are none but grand symphonies. This symphonic orchestra of murals consists of thick lines, thin lines, long lines, short lines, dense lines, loose lines, dark lines, light lines, hard lines, soft lines, etc. It also consists of different shades of colors, which can be characterized as either radiant or reserved, deep or shallow, black or white. Sleeves, that cover large areas, appear only in broad outlines, while hats and belts, where there is a great deal of ornamentation, have been delineated in complex hut fine details.


Inside the Hall of Pure Yang are 52 separate but sequential murals that purport to tell the life of Lü Dongbin after he has become an immortal. Similarly, there is a series of 49 murals inside the Hall of Seven Troths that relate the life of a Taoist saint named Wang Chongyang and seven of his disciples. The life depicted in these murals reflect, more or less, the true life of people during that period.


Many ancient buildings and relics have been well preserved in the province of Shanxi. Other than the Yongle Temple, murals and molded sculptures have been found in many other places. For instance, the Yuan murals inside the Guangsheng Temple of Hongdong County actually describe popular dramas and theatres of that period. Some of the murals reflect the life of the rich, such as the fish-buying scene (Illustration 84) that appears in a painting inside the Hall of Water Deities. The composition is most natural, and the expression of each individual lively and real. The artists' skill is superb, and the mural itself is full of life.


We shall be amiss if we do not also mention the murals inside the Buddhist Temple of Blue Dragon, located in Jishan County, Shanxi Province. The style is free and bold. One of the scenes shows a naked little boy dancing in the clouds with a long scarf (Illustration 85). Suddenly, he becomes bashful, lowers his head, shrinks his body, and tries to disappear behind the clouds, with his little fat legs going first. The theme is good and humorous. Unfortunately the mural itself has suffered much damage.


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