Yongle Gong

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Chunyang Hall in Yongle Temple.
Yongle Gong (Yongle Palace 永乐宫) was originally in the town of Yongle in Ruicheng County in Shanxi Province. When work was being done on the Three Gate Gorge (Sanmenxia) construction project on the Yellow River in 1959, the palace was within the area to be submerged so all the buildings were moved to the village of Longquan three km north of the county town to be restored and preserved. It is said that Lü Dongbin was born in Yongle Town on the 14th day of the fourth lunar month in the 14th year of the Zhenyuan reign period of the Tang Dynasty (789), so people of the late Song Dynasty built the Master Lü Memorial Shrine (Lü Gong Ci 吕公祠) to offer sacrifices to him. After the rise of Quanzhen (Complete Perfection) Daoism during the Jin Dynasty, Lü Dongbin was venerated as one of its founders, and expanded the Master Lü Memorial Shrine into a proper Daoist temple. It was rebuilt in the second year of the reign of Yuan Dynasty Emperor Dingzong (Güyük Khan) (1247), during which time it was enlarged into four halls and given the name Great Chunyang Longevity Palace. The huge project of producing all the murals, which had taken more than 100 years, was completed in the 18th year of the Zhizheng reign period (1358). As it was built in the town of Yongle, it was generally called Yongle Palace.

Along Yongle Palace's central axis are five main buildings – the palace gate, the Dragon and Tiger Hall (also called the Gate of the Infinite), the Hall of the Three Pristine Ones (also called the Hall of the Infinite), Chunyang Hall and Chongyang Hall. The palace gate was built during the Qing Dynasty, and the other buildings during the Yuan Dynasty. Thirty steles of different dynasties are on display in a spacious and high corridor built on both sides of the courtyard between the palace gate and the Dragon and Tiger Hall. They give an account of the process by which Yongle Palace was built and of the content of the murals. None of the four halls has a window. Apart from the gates, there are just walls, which are covered with magnificent and exquisite murals. The murals occupy an area of more than 1,000 square meters, a scale so large that it is rarely seen in the rest of the country. The Dragon and Tiger Hall and the Hall of the Three Pristine Ones feature paintings of figures, while Chunyang and Chongyang halls have series of pictures that tell stories.

The Dragon and Tiger Hall has a primitive simplicity. In the hall, there used to be large, tall sculptures of the Black Dragon and White Tiger, two Stellar Sovereigns, unfortunately these have been destroyed. All that is extant now is the murals of the 26 heavenly spirits that guard the immortals’ world, including the door gods Shentu and Yulei, heavenly warriors and local gods.

The Hall of the Three Pristine Ones, the largest hall in Yongle Palace, is seven bays wide and four bays deep. There is a spacious platform in front of the hall. The roof of the hall is decorated with ceramic owls’ tails, and exquisite immortals or animals. There are shrines in the hall to worship the Primeval Lord of Heaven of the Jade Purity, the Heavenly Lord of Numinous Treasure of the High Clarity, and the Heavenly Lord of Dao and Its Virtue of the Supreme Purity. The hall’s walls are covered with “Worshiping the Primeval Lords,” a mural of more than 400 square meters. There are large portraits of the Jade Emperor, the South Pole, the Eastern Extremity, the Purple Subtlety Constellation, the Great Heavenly Emperor Gou Chen, the God of Earth, the Lord of Wood and the Golden Mother, dressed as eight emperors and empresses and arranged as if they were worshiping the Three Pristine Ones. The immortals stand in reverent postures, surrounded by celestial clouds, with great momentum in the fresco. The painting depicts 286 deities, led by the Black Dragon and White Tiger stellar sovereigns on each side of the south wall, and they are all arranged symmetrically. The figures in the painting are colorful and varied in their postures, such as the well-rounded and dignified emperors and goddesses, the strong, bold and powerful warriors, the gentle, cultivated and reverent immortals, and the beautiful, pure and innocent golden boy and jade girl. The whole work is characterized by bold and smooth lines, gorgeous and deep colors, great size and exquisite skill.

The Chunyang Hall mural “A Manifestation of the Transformations in Imperial Sovereign Chunyang’s Fairyland” reflects Lü Dongbin’s experience of cultivating himself to become an immortal. It consists of a series of 52 paintings, each of which has a title that briefly describes the content. Although its theme is Daoism, it also reflects the various scenes from the society of that time, such as mountains, rivers, fields, cities and towns, shops, residential housing, the local authorities and peddling. The horizontal scroll painting “The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea” on the lintel on the north wall depicts a lively scene of the eight immortals crossing the sea to attend the Grand Peach Banquet, each immortal showing his or her special prowess. The painting “Zhongli Quan and Lü Dongbin Discussing the Way” at the back door of the hall vividly depicts Zhong giving Lü guidance in his Daoist studies to become an immortal. The painter has put the figures in a quiet and secluded environment, surrounded by pine trees, emerald green stones, a waterfall and exotic flowers. Master and disciple are sitting sideways opposite each other. The long-bearded Zhongli Quan, his chest exposed, is having a pleasant conversation with Lü Dongbin, who is listening attentively and modestly. The bold and lively work is a rare top-quality portrait from ancient China.

The murals in Chongyang Hall consist of a series of 49 paintings, depicting the experience of Wang Chongyang’s birth, his self-cultivation according to Daoist doctrine, his attaining the highest state of spiritual enlightenment, and the salvation of the seven Quanzhen masters. Connected by mountains, stones, clouds and trees, the different paintings look like a landscape painting at first glance but a careful examination shows them to be a series of complete biographical portraits. It is a pity that many of the murals in Chongyang Hall have been damaged, with approximately one-third having become indistinct.

The murals of Yongle Palace were painted by unknown folk craftsmen but, with their intelligence and wisdom, they left a world-level art treasure-house for later generations.

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