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The Caishan Goddess Temple: Then and Now
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The Caishan Goddess Temple
Then and Now
Translated by Livia Kohn

In late May of 2012, the Xuzhou dushi chenbao 徐州都市晨报 (Xuzhou Metropolitan Morning News), the Yangzi wanbao 扬子晚报 (Yangzi Evening News), various television stations in the Xuzhou and Jiangsu areas, as well as other media reported an archaeological find in Liguo Township 利国镇 of the remains of an ancient Daoist temple hall complete with several murals. In the spring of 2014, I had the opportunity to visit the site several times. After a preliminary investigation, I found that the actual location of the temple is in Cai Village of Liguo Township, a place commonly known as Caishan 蔡山, and that it represents the remains of the local Goddess Temple (Nainai miao 奶奶庙). Although the discovery was over two years ago, few steps have been taken to preserve the site and no academic studies have been published. To remedy the latter, I present a survey of the temple and its remains, combining field reports with the examination of Daoist literature and local histories.

The Temple Today

Of this once flourishing temple, today only the front hall remains, surrounded by tenements and multifamily housing, including a local farmer’s sheep pen on the east. The roof top has caved in, the grounds are overgrown, and it appears to be completely run down. However, [End Page 196] there are some exquisite standing pillars as well as rafters, purlins, and roof tiles in good order, serving as faint reminders of its ancient glory.

The front hall faces south, with a single line of eaves shaped in a curve. A door opens in its center, with two windows (now blocked) placed symmetrically to either side. The outer walls cover an area of 12 by 9 meters (36 × 27 ft), crowned by a high wooden structure of interlacing beams made from strong materials. The ridge column at a height of 9 meters shows a decoration of cloud heads, while the beams at the top of the six columns each measure about 23 centimeters (9 in) and the foundation stone is 35 centimeters (14 in). Since the roof top caved in many years ago, there is a clear danger of collapse. To prevent leaks, the authorities temporarily covered the entire structure in plastic.


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Fig 1.

The beams and rafters of the front hall.

As regards the walls of the hall, those to the east and west are well preserved. Their foundation was laid on rectangular stones, then built up with bricks that are 26 by 7 centimeters (10 × 3 in) in size and held together with lime caulking. The north and south walls have undergone more repairs. Their inner surface was of brick, put together in a more variegated, rougher way, probably dating to the 1950s. Records show that, after the statues of divinities were removed, the building was used [End Page 197] as a village schoolhouse, warehouse, factory, sheep pen, and for other local purposes, suffering a lot in the process.

The East Wall Murals

Although dilapidated, the hall is precious since its east and west walls still contain fragments of ancient murals, the main media focus after its discovery. For example, the Xuzhou dushi chenbao announced that “large-scale murals were discovered in a Daoist temple in Liguo, possibly going back to the Tang or Song.”

Meticulously painted by brush and executed in color, the original murals began about half a meter (1.8 ft) above the floor and covered both side walls, an area of 50 square meters (540 sq. ft). After the founding of the People’s Republic, when the temple was converted to a school, the murals were covered with a layer of white plaster. Heavy rains in 2012 caused the roof top to cave. The resulting inflow washed away the plaster mud, uncovering the murals that had been concealed for decades. When I came to investigate them two years later, the colors had already faded quite a bit and there was some serious peeling in the walls, reducing the parts clearly visible for study.

As site surveys and collected photographs show, the murals on the east wall are slightly better preserved, depicting the celestial progression...