The Forbidden City

The next few days included a visit to the old Dutch school, well known to old China hands.

The highlight of my visit to Shanghai was my tour of the Forbidden City, arranged by a grateful Chao Tung professor. While we were in this old walled section of ancient Shanghai, we didn’t see a single other foreigner. I gathered they were wary about entering the place. We passed many little dirt-floor workshops where people moved foot treadle looms to make fabrics. Others used the hammer and chisel for designing wooden chests, following exactly the ancient patterns handed down through generations.

It was in the Forbidden City that I saw the inside of an ancient Chinese Buddhist Temple. Around the walls just above eye level was a gallery of 49 Buddhas, all carved from mahogany. Forty-nine represented the seven standard Buddhas for each of the seven stages of life, from youth to old age. There was a Buddha for each year of a person’s life. At the year 50, you started over again at Buddha number one.

In one side of the temple there were a half-dozen medium-size pits, side by side, depicting different forms of hell. I remember one was a colony of ants swarming over a person, another included a collection of reptiles twined around the victim, and, in one, I believe, the victim was buried in mud, almost up to his nose. When I later read Dante’s Inferno, his seven layers of hell reminded me of these graphic torture scenes.

The Buddha monks in the temple have a serenity of expression resembling the Buddha figures themselves, all on the verge of smiling, exuding an inner joy.


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