This little-known temple played an important role in China's history. It survived nine dynasties with all the turmoil and doctrine changes that involved, including the religious changes that went with it. There was intrigue and, according to legend, a princess.
Cheng'en Temple is believed to have been built during the Sui Dynasty, known for encouraging the growth of the Chinese Buddhist religion. As a result, temples and worship caves sprang up all over China. Legend has it that a Sui princess once lived alone in the temple and healed diseases. It was known as the Dai Zong Temple then.
During the Tang Dynasty, the temple's name was changed to Guangde, reflecting the period under Emperor Li Yu's reign (762-779). Despite his short reign, the temple kept its name for almost 600 years. During this time, the imperial family formally recognized Buddhism as the religion of China, endorsing further growth. The temples, including Guangde (Cheng'en) grew as well, receiving an influx of wealth and power.
There is no more mention of the temple in the historical annals until the Yuan Dynasty. This dynasty ushered in a time of change for the temples. Qubilai Qan (Kubilai Khan) of the Mongols was the first emperor of this dynasty and suspicious of anything Chinese.
His government couldn't decide between the Buddhist and Taoist religions. Although the Mongol rulers were more interested in a Tibetan form of Buddhism, it still meant that at any given time the temple could be practicing an illegal religion. In the end, Guangde (Cheng'en) Temple opted to honor both Buddhist and Taoist religions. Unfortunately, toward the end of the Yuan Dynasty, the temple caught fire and burned to the ground.
For approximately 95 years, the temple site was left untouched. Then, during the reign of Ming Emperor Ying Zong (1451-1464) it was rebuilt, all except the drum building. It is believed that Ying Zong renamed the temple to Cheng'en in honor of his uncle Zhu Zhan who helped put him on the throne.
Although the temple was built during the Sui Dynasty, it was at its highest peak during the Ming Dynasty. At some point during the restoration ordered by Emperor Ying Zong, a 500kg bell was hung in the bell tower, which is the temple's claim to fame. The bell is covered in Sanskrit writing and, when rung, can be heard over 10km away.
Since Cheng'en Temple was intended for the emperors' personal use, it was not open for public use for hundreds of years. This made it a prime location for secret meetings between eunuchs and emperors. Many emperors of the Ming dynasty used the eunuchs for gathering important information about their enemies. It is believed that the Cheng'en Temple played a major part in this secret intelligence group.
During the Ming era, there were many Buddhist and Taoist statues throughout the temple. In 1966, China saw a major change in policy when the Chinese Communist Party took over the government. All of the statues were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
The best time to visit is in the spring or autumn. When visiting the temple, step over the doorway entrance, not on it. Always be respectful of the monks and their ceremonies. Slightly bow your head in greeting; never offer to shake their hands or try to hug them. Speak quietly within the temple. If you come upon a monk praying or performing a ceremony, do not interrupt. Do not take photos unless you have been given permission. Do not touch anything, especially not the Buddha statues. Your attire should be casual and comfortable, yet respectful of a place of worship.
Anyone is welcome to visit the temple. Couples with children younger than 10 years would probably be hard-pressed keeping them involved. Children must be monitored at all times.
Cheng'en Temple is located in Central China in Hubei Province, outside of Xiangfan City. You can fly right into the Xiangfan Airport from Beijing, Shanghai, or Hong Kong. The nearest main city is the capital, Wuhan, 335km south (3-4 hours by train). This is the home of the Hubei Provincial Museum. There are a few cities of interest nearby. Shiyan, home of Wudong Mountain, is 171km northwest of Xiangfang, approximately 2-3 hours by train. Yichang City, is 244km southwest of Xiangfang (3 hours by train). This is where you will find the Three Gorges Dam Project and Shennongjia Forest Zone. These sites can all be reached by train, then by coach or bus.