Early History2/7

Original Meaning & Purpose3/7

The Passing of Wang Zhen4/7

Decline and Sale of the Ceilings5/7

One Story Becomes Three6/7

Virtual Restoration, Reconciliation?7/7
Zhihuadian with Missing Ceiling

Reconnecting Histories

One of Beijing's architectural treasures tells a rich tale and presents an opportunity for a new kind of reconciliation.

Tucked away near the eastern edge of the old Beijing city wall, Zhihua Temple is protected from the bustling traffic of modern-day Beijing.
The temple has witnessed the collapse of two dynasties and the rise of two republics. It has weathered earthquakes, a Cultural Revolution that erased countless other historic landmarks, and rebounded from centuries of decline and financial hardship.
Today, Zhihua Temple lives on as a museum where guests can explore one of the finest surviving examples of architecture from the Ming Dynasty.
Visitors to the museum are however confronted with two notable absences when gazing up at the over twelve-feet high Buddha images in two of the main halls. Shown here is the “Ten Thousand Buddhas Pavilion”. Drag the image to explore and notice the empty panels above the central Buddha sculpture.
The finely constructed ceilings that once hung above the Shakyamuni and Vairocana Buddhas, now overlook visitors to Buddhist temple galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in the United States.
Early History
The Zhihua Temple, or "Temple for Transformations of Wisdom”, was built in 1444 in the ninth year of the reign of Emperor Yingzong (r. 1435-1464) who inherited the throne when he was a child of eight.
The temple was commissioned by a palace eunuch named Wang Zhen who served as tutor to the young emperor and came to hold enormous influence over him. With the emperor's support he attained great power and wealth.
The engraving on this stone stele states that Wang Zhen built this as his home temple and paid for it using his own funds.
In traditional Chinese society, outside imperial circles, eunuchs were commonly shunned and seen as repugnant. Those who became very wealthy did so through corrupt practices.
Sponsorship of Buddhism may have offered eunuchs the hope of status and acceptance in life and death that they struggled to find otherwise.
Original Meaning & Purpose
Zhihua Temple, like many Buddhist monasteries, housed monks, provided space for ceremonial rites, meditation, and funeral services, and maintained printed copies of Buddhist texts for study and teaching.
The "Ten Thousand Buddhas Pavilion" seen here occupies the top floor of the largest building in the complex. It contains three large Buddha statues and thousands of miniature Buddha figures.
One of the two aforementioned ceilings was originally mounted above the central Vairocana Buddha, as can be seen in this photo of the Ten Thousand Buddhas Pavilion from the 1920s.
The recessed coffered ceilings from Zhihua both consist of a large central dragon, surrounded by eight smaller dragons. Such ceilings were reserved for use in the most important buildings of the era, and were symbolically thought to protect against fire.
Dragons were mythical creatures associated with water and rain in traditional China. In later historical periods, dragons also came to serve as symbols of imperial power—and the dragons here could have represented both concepts.
The ceiling also contains eight sections representing the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism. The panel seen here depicts a heavenly being holding the Wheel of the Law—one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols.
Originally encircling the coffered ceilings, were thirty-two heavenly pavilions, each resting on a bed of clouds and enshrining a miniature seated Buddha.
These pavilions showcase extraordinary attention to detail in their craftsmanship, especially unexpected, as they could not have been seen up close.
The Passing of Wang Zhen
Shortly after completion of the monastery, Wang Zhen persuaded Yingzong to lead an offensive against the Mongols. Many officials voiced opposition, but Wang prevailed. The offensive was a disaster, and resulted in the capture of the youthful emperor, the death of Wang Zhen, and huge losses to the Chinese army.
The Mongols eventually released Yingzong, whose brother had taken the throne in his absence. Upon re-gaining his throne Yingzong sought to restore the honor of his childhood mentor and returned to Zhihuasi...
where he commissioned the stele bearing Wang's image seen earlier, arranged for annual sacrifices in his name, and donated a complete set of Buddhist scriptures and the scripture cabinets seen here.
For the next three hundred years, Zhihua Temple is thought to have prospered, continuing to serve its original purposes as practicing Buddhist monastery, symbol of imperial power, and memorial to its benefactor, Wang Zhen.
Decline and Sale of the Ceilings
Beginning in the mid 1700s, the monastery entered a period of long decline when a Qing Dynasty censor declared Wang Zhen a traitor. He called for the destruction of Wang's shrine at Zhihua Temple and ordered the removal of his name from the stele.
By the late 1920s, Zhihua Monastery was in serious financial trouble and had begun renting out portions of its space to local businesses and residents.
The two coffered ceilings were removed and sold—one to Horace Jayne on behalf of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and one to local coffin-makers, who later sold it to Laurence Sickman of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
The sale of Chinese Buddhist religious artifacts in the international art market was not uncommon by this time and resulted in the dramatic relocation and transformation of the function of the ceilings.
One Story Becomes Three
The ceiling from the Ten Thousand Buddhas Hall at Zhihua Temple was installed in 1932 at Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. The museum was one of the earliest in the US to build a Chinese "period room"—with the intention of immersing visitors in space that evoked a different time and place.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art purchased its ceiling in 1930. Notable in its installation is the inclusion of most of the heavenly pavilions that originally encircled the ceiling. Present-day visitors can view details of the ceiling and also learn more about it with the aid of an interactive tablet-based application.
Thus, the ceilings become an important part of two entirely new stories, educating and broadening the perspective of visitors who might never have been exposed to elements of a Chinese Buddhist temple,
Back in Beijing, Zhihua temple continued to struggle, both financially and culturally. After a prolonged civil war, the Chinese Communist party took control of the country in 1949, and Zhihua temple ceased to function as a religious institution.
Virtual Restoration, Reconciliation?
In a museum, the ceilings are objects to appreciate for their craftsmanship, aesthetic beauty, or novelty. Paired with explanatory texts or an interactive platform, the public can learn about their original significance as symbols of protection and the exalted place of the Buddha and those who achieved enlightenment.
In recent decades the original Zhihua Temple site has undergone major repairs, and it too is now a museum where visitors can view the architectural and sculptural art.
Its ceilings however still reside half-way around the world, and though questions inevitably arise as to whether they should be returned to the temple, this is not always feasible, nor arguably desirable to attempt to "undo" history in this way.
Technology presents a new kind of opportunity under these circumstances. In 2019, the Center for the Art of East Asia in conjunction with Xi'an Jiaotong University in China were granted permission to conduct detailed 3D scanning of both the ceilings in the US, and the Zhihua Temple spaces, with the aim of digitally re-connecting the pieces of the temple's story.
This digital restoration unites the chapters into a new, shared story—in a virtual space informed and inspired by the temple's six-hundred-year-old legacy.
The restoration also enables exploration and study of the ceilings and temple at a level of detail that was never previously possible by people other than the Ming-era craftsmen who created them.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the digital restoration presents an opportunity for a new kind of reconciliation—a bridge across cultures, time and place, that might contribute to a connection between the humans touched by the temple's legacy.
Additional Image Notes
Part 1 - Introduction
Zhihua Hall (present day) with missing ceiling visible overhead, photo by Chen Qiang
Zhihua Temple aerial view, courtesy of Zhihua Temple
Courtyard in front of Rulaidian/Wanfoge, photo by Katherine Tsiang
Wanfo Pavilion 360 panoramic view, photos by Chen Qiang
Philadelphia Museum of Art Chinese Gallery, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Part 2 - Early History
Emperor Yingzong, 明朝画师, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Rubbing from a Memorial Stele of Wang Zhen dated 1459, courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art
Stele (one of two) at entrance to Zhihua Gate, courtesy of Zhihua Temple
Part 3 - Original Meaning & Purpose
Chinese Buddhist Monk Hallway, Ryan McFarland, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Wanfoge, photo by Katherine Tsiang
Wanfoge with original coffered ceiling visible, 1920s, courtesy of Nelson Atkins Museum of Art
3d model of ceiling in Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, originally housed in Wanfoge
Heavenly Being holding The Wheel of the Law, courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art
Coffered ceiling with surrounding cloud pagodas, courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art
Part 4 - The Passing of Wang Zhen
Routes of Yingzong's Military Attacks Against Mongolians, courtesy of Zhihua Temple
Scripture Cabinets in Rulaidian, courtesy of Zhihua Temple
Rulaidian/Wanfoge at night, courtesy of Zhihua Temple
Part 5 - Decline and Sale of the Ceilings
Qianlong Emperor in court dress, Giuseppe Castiglione, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Zhihua Hall 1920s, courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art
Laurence Sickman, courtesy of Zhihua Temple
Part 6 - One Story Becomes Three
Nelson Atkins Museum of Art 360 panoramic view of Chinese Gallery
Philadelphia Museum of Art 360 panoramic view of Chinese Gallery
Philadelphia Museum of Art Chinese Gallery, courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art
Zhihua Gate 1930s, courtesy of Zhihua Temple
Part 7 - Virtual Restoration, Reconciliation?
Nelson Atkins Museum of Art Chinese Gallery, courtesy of Nelson Atkins Museum of Art
Tathagata Hall Repairs, courtesy of Zhihua Temple
3d Scanning of ceiling at Philadelphia Museum of Art
Panoramic view of 3d reconstruction of Wanfoge
Images from Tsinghua University research study
3d Reconstruction of Zhihuadian