The gods at Shuanglin temple are caged panthers

Before visiting someplace I’ve never been, I need to first project myself there in my imagination.  I do this by picturing one essential cultural experience.  It could be seeing an artwork, walking through a cathedral or listening to a particular sort of music.  Without this initial mind-travel, I can’t conceptualize doing something so strange as, for example, getting on an airplane in Chicago and walking out 13 hours later in China.


That central experience for our trip to China was traveling to see this god, one of about 2000 sculptures in Shuanglin temple, a short drive from Pingyao in northern China.


Shuanglin temple was originally built in 571, though its current incarnation (did you catch my Buddhist joke?) is circa 1571.  Like most Chinese temples it is a complex of several buildings and courtyards surrounded by a wall.  Sadly, we were not allowed to take photos inside any of the buildings, so I have no pictures of most of the temple’s sculptural treasures. 


This ancient tree from the central courtyard was loaded with good karma.


The dragon-themed roof sculptures were intriguing and meticulously preserved.


I’m particularly fond of the dragon’s chin hair.


This is Guanyin, goddess of 1000 arms.


Shuanglin temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site—I wonder if that includes the trash cans?


The sculpture I came to see represents one of the Four Heavenly Kings, created during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907).  The Four Heavenly Kings oversee the four directions of the world.


This god (I like to think of him as my god) is alive.  All four of them are alive.  Their confident stances, torqued torsos and vehement expressions made the hair stand up on my arms in a way that only happens with the best works of art.

metaAll this vitality is what made the location of the gods—stuck behind bars—so disturbing.


Why, why take sculptures with such a ferocious life force and put them in a literal cage?


Animal artists at the Jardin des Plantes, Paris. From the magazine “L’Illustration”, 7 August 1902.  (Image from Wikipedia).

Art students were lined up in front of the god cage, making miniature models of the Four Heavenly Kings.  Normally I enjoy watching students work from art, but here I had the unsettling thought that the students looked like turn-of-the-century dilettantes painting caged lions in the park.

Perhaps one day the good people at UNESCO will persuade the guardians of Shuanglin temple to find a less barbaric way to enclose these sculptures.  Until then, I leave you with this poem by Rilke, who described the horror of jailed vitality better than I ever could:

The Panther, by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.





How we got to Zhenguo Temple: train from Beijing to Pingyao and then the proprietor of our guest house drove us to the temple.
Where we slept: Pingyao Jiaxin Guesthouse. Price: 7.50€ for a double. Recommended: yes.


  1. Judie Sigdel · · Reply

    Thank you for sharing your pics and insights with us. While I understand the need to protect the statues, there should be a more respectful, less obtrusive way to do so.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment Judie. I’m sure the temple could hire an museum exhibit designer—there are some really brilliant ones out there—who could come up with a less traumatizing solution.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. They are so amazing, maybe more so, because they are behind bars, but it would be nice to see them free 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Putting gods in cages is a cultural atrocity. Free the heavenly kings!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I second that 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for the Rilke…let us hope that the Heavenly Kings will be freed. I can see why you would make the journey to see them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. One of the benefits of age I guess—enjoying Rilke—-I didn’t care for him much when I was younger.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve seen caged statues also in Japan; I’m not sure when it became an ingrained tradition.

    I also sometimes wonder about the prohibition of photography in Chinese temples: it is completely random, and quite unenforced even when a prohibition is declared. I wonder whether it is more political. In the Tibetan Buddhist temple in Beijing, for example, photography is forbidden. But in Tibetan temples in India, there is absolutely no bar on photography.

    Nice of you to pick a photo and a poem from the Jardin des Plantes!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you that the photography prohibition is political. I wish I could have photographed that sandalwood Buddha in Beijing’s Llama temple.


      1. The priests don’t mind if you take photos.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Nemorino · · Reply

    I’ve just looked up the German original of that Rilke poem (inspired by his visits to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are so lucky to be able to read it in the original. I’m stuck with translations—I tried several and the Mitchell is the best.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. That poem made me sad… As a child, I remember seeing the large cats in small cages at the Pittsburgh Zoo just pacing back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Even at that young age, I understood how fundamenatlly wrong that was and I felt very sorry for the animals. Now I feel sorry for the caged gods!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh yes, it is a horrifying poem! Sometimes HOB and I go to the Lincoln Park Zoo and we have to agree to avoid the big cat house, though that’s hard because that’s where the bathrooms are.

      Seriously, how are the gods supposed to control the four cardinal direction of the world when they’re locked up?


  7. beautiful photos and details information

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! Even with the bars the sculptures are so beautiful it is hard to take a bad photo here.

      Liked by 1 person

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