The murals in the Sistine Chapel are known across the world, but hardly any tourists have seen their Chinese counterparts, the murals in the remote Yongle Gong temple, also known as the Palace of Eternal Joy.
Located in a reclusive part of northern China’s Shanxi Province, the murals depict deities and everyday life scenes.
They are not only 200 years older than Michelangelo’s 16th-century ceiling in Rome but also comparable in size and beauty, according to Stephen Little, a scholar of Taoist art and director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts.
Yongle Gong stands not only as the largest Taoist temple in China, but it is also a treasure chest filled with traditional Chinese art.
Art critics and historians have called the 960-square-meter frescoes in the palace the greatest of mural painting in China.
Construction of the Taoist temple started in 1247 during the early period of Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) to worship Lu Dongbin (born AD 796), the revered founder of the Taoist mainstream Quanzhen School. The construction, including creation of those extremely beautiful murals, took a total of 110 years.
Featuring a distinctive Yuan architectural style, the temple’s layout gives people an impression of simplicity and spaciousness. In addition to its front gate, the temple has four main halls, namely, the Longhu Hall, Sanqing Hall, Chunyang Hall and Chongyang Hall, sitting along the south-north axis.
In 1959, China decided to build a gigantic dam on the Yellow River that would wind through Shanxi Province and flood the site of the Taoist temple. Thus the temple was moved and now stands nearly 20 kilometers north of its original location.
In 1987, China added the Yongle Gong temple to its list of tentative UNESCO World Heritage Sites, arguing that the murals are an exquisite masterpiece of art.
However, the temple was ineligible as a World Heritage Site as the government had moved it.
Still, the awe-inspiring murals have been preserved and remain one of the single ensembles of murals in the country.
Most of the murals in the Taoist temple can be found in three main halls there.
The Sanqing Hall, or the Three Taoist Saints Hall, is the largest hall in the temple and its inside walls are almost completed covered with elaborately painted murals. The murals, covering more than 400 square meters, depict a grand scene of congregation, featuring Taoist saints and more than 280 other figures.
The murals here demonstrate the superb Taoist painting techniques that had been inherited from Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and Song Dynasty (960-1279). The figure painting here reminds viewers of the ethereal style of Wu Daozi (AD 680-759), a legendary artist of Tang Dynasty.
The Chunyang Hall, also known as the Hall of Pure Yang, is devoted to Lu Dongbin.
The more than 200-square-meter mural here portrays scenes from the life of this Taoist master who was later widely worshiped as an immortal.
However, the wall paintings here also show activities of people from all walks of life, such as drinking tea, cooking, working in the fields, fishing, cutting firewood, teaching, chatting and holding memorial or religious ceremonies.
Paintings of ordinary life are vital in understanding China’s past. Professor Little says that the Yongle Palace “is like an echo of things that had to have existed in China but which did not survive the Mongol invasion” and “by the early 20th century, they were pretty much unique.”
In the Chongyang Hall, or the Hall of Redoubled Yang, people can find 49 murals, describing the life of Wang Chongyang (1113-1170), another founder of the Taoist Quanzhen School. The style of the murals in this hall is quite similar to that of the Hall of Pure Yang and they are believed to be painted by Zhu Haogu, a leading craftsman in Shanxi Province of the Yuan Dynasty, and his students.
Today, the murals in Yongle Palace are not only cherished as a rare gem in the world of art, but also treasured sources for studying Taoism, China’s only indigenous religion.
Yongle Palace Murals
Year: Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)
Location: Yongle Palace, Shanxi Province