Jinci Temple, built during the Northern Wei (BCE 386-533) Dynasty, is located 25 kilometers southwest of the city of Taiyuan, at the foot of Mount Xuanweng, though the temple's original name was Tangshuyu, since it was erected in honor of Tang Shuyu, the king of Jin State - which state was originally named Tang - of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty's Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period.
Jinci Temple is one of China's largest temple gardens to be named in honor of a ruler rather than in honor of a man of the cloth, as it were. It should be noted that Tang Shuyu, unlike his later descendants, who would not only tear the Jin State apart, but cause instability to spread to the rest of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, thus heralding the end of the relatively peaceful Spring and Autumn Period and the beginning of the not-so-peaceful Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period, was an unselfish leader who was devoted to seeing his state prosper, an endeavor in which he succeded admirably, and therewith won himself a place in the hearts of ordinary people.*
Jinci Temple is designed as an ancestral temple and as such is one of the few of its kind that have survived the ravages of time, and, not least, war. Various elements have been added to the temple over the span of the many Imperial dynasties since the temple was first erected over two millenia ago. The temple complex has several splendid halls, the most famous being the Goddess Mother Hall, which is so ancient that it is made of wood.
Besides its grand halls, the temple complex also comprises a large garden in which are imaginatively juxtaposed bridges, pavilions and terraces - such as the famous Mirror Terrace - as well as corridors that connect everything. There are many bridges here because there are small, spring-fed streams that run through the garden, reminiscent of the famous gardens of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, the coastal province which lies southeast of Shanxi Province, just above the city of Shanghai (streams are arguably a symbol of eternity, even if they sometimes do dry up entirely). Apropos eternity, a 2000-year-old cypress tree, the Zhou Cypress (said to be planted during the Western Zhou (1027-771) Dynasty), stands in the garden beside Goddess Mother Hall, its limbs bowing heavily toward the earth, as if showing its age.
Other famous "landmarks" of Jinci Temple are Flying Bridge across the Fish Pond as well as Offerings Hall, the former being of a construction style that is unique - it is literally one of a kind - making Flying Bridge across the Fish Pond as well as Jinci Temple itself a link to China's ancient architectural past. But the most famous "landmarks" of Jinci Temple - referred to as the "Three Treasures of Jinci Temple" - are the Zhou Cypress, the Never Aging Spring and the Figures of the Maidservants.
Of these, the most treasured down through the ages has undoubtedly been Never Aging Spring, which is the source of one of the babbling streams that run through the temple garden. The famous Tang Dynasty poet, Li Bai, described the eternal beauty of Never Aging Spring like so: "The spring waters of Jinci Temple are like jade, its hundred-chi deep pool reflects the spirits of Cui'e" (note that a chi equals roughly twenty centimeters and that Cui'e is a fabled beautiful lady).
But Jinci Temple is also linked to a more recent Imperial past, namely, the scholar garden of the period beginning with the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty. As indicated, there have been additions to Jinci Temple down through the ages. There have also been scholarly adornments to the temple in the form of tablets, or stelae, inscribed with writings, in calligraphic form, by the Who's Who of China's Imperial era, the most famous of which stelae is a CE 646 stele by Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, who ruled during the period CE 627-649. This stele hangs in a pavilion that is now called the Zhenguan Baohan Pavilion (Zhenguan translates roughly to "illuminating the true path" - it is also the name of the reign of Emperor Taizong - and Baohan means "the treasured script of the emperor").
Jinci Temple is particularly treasued by the Chinese people. The arrangement of its buildings, trees, streams and bridges seem to embody a Zen-like (Ch'an-like, in Chinese-English) mystical quality in the sense that it seems to pose more questions than it delivers straight answers, and its identity as an ancestral temple only deepens a Chinaman's appreciation of things felt but not seen. The Chinese people have to this day retained, if not their outright ancestor-worship of old, at least a deep reverence for their ancestors, a corrollary of which is that Chinese culture observes a deep respect for its aged members, as anyone who saw the BBC documentary series on White Horse Village in Wuxi County, Jiangsu Province, will recall.
But as any Zen/ Ch'an Buddhist worthy of his zazen (the study of the self) would be quick to point out, things can be as deep or as shallow as the individual wants to make of it. In fact, both interpretations - the pithy and the trivial - can coexist at the same time in the mind of a Zen/ Ch'an Buddhist, so don't feel too bad if, when visiting Jinci Temple, you fail to appreciate its pithy side, especially if you come from a culture that doesn't practice ancestor-worship.
* The State of Jin was originally named Tang, a name created by the brother of Tang Shuyu, King Cheng of Zhou, who had given the territory in question - part of the Kingdom of Zhou - to his younger brother. Tang cum Jin State would be partitioned by a much later Zhou king when Tang Shuyu's descendants would begin to vie for power. In the end, King Weilie of Zhou decided in BCE 403 to divide the Jin State into three smaller states, appointing the three bickering competitors, Han, Zhou and Wei, as a prince, or marquis, of the states of Han, Zhou and Wei, respectively. This proved to be no solution at all to the problem, but instead marked the end of the relatively peaceful Spring and Autumn Period and the beginning of the Warring States Period, as the infighting spread to the other larger states of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty.