For centuries travelers and locals have been confronted by the imposing and awe-inspiring Temple of Zhang Fei, the legendary figure from the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280). Standing majestically on the northern banks of the Yangtze River, close to the city of Yanyang County in eastern Chongqing Municipality, the temple has witnessed the passage of much of China's history.
Across time the temple had perched loftily on a precipitous rock like an eagle poised for take-off. It featured four huge Chinese characters jiang shang feng qing (cool breeze blowing on the river) carved into its foundation as well as interwoven courtyards, elegant pavilions, lush trees, grass, and roofs featuring upturned eaves.
But since early last month, the vista has changed dramatically. With each passing day the temple that has stood for centuries has been rapidly disappearing. In a remarkable program, which began on October 8, the temple is being dismantled piece by piece and will be rebuilt in its original form away from the soon to be flooded area.
More than 300 workers and experts in the field of ancient architecture relocation and conservation have been working round the clock to complete the project.
Tiles, wooden rails, stone sculptures, even time-worn stone steps, have been removed with great care by the team.
Each fragile piece is wrapped in cloth and loaded onto lorries which in turn transfer the items to a gigantic ferry for transportation to the new temple site.
The project is reportedly the largest and most important of a series of government-organized projects to preserve relics of historic, cultural, artistic or ecological value in the area of the Three Gorges reservoir.
A total of 1,087 sites, including the temple are on the State Cultural Relics Protection List. They are located in 22 counties and districts in Chongqing Municipality and the Hubei Province, which will be flooded as part of the Three Gorges Project, said Chen Zulin.
The overall cost of the relocation of the temple is estimated to be at least 70 million yuan (US$8.45 million). Next June the area will be filled with water, explained Chen Zulin, general manager of the Chongqing Xiajiang Cultural Sites Relocation and Conservation Corporation.
The disassembling work, the first step in the relocation process, is expected to be completed this Saturday, when a farewell ceremony for the original temple will be held, said Huang Xueyi, 69, chief supervisor of the relocation and re-construction of the temple.
The relocation team will move the whole temple including plants, railings, rocks, stone stairs and an old stone bridge from the front of the temple.
The next step is to put the 1,600-square-meter temple back together again. It will begin next week in Bangshang Yuanzi, in Longan Village, which has similar geographic features to the original site, but is safe from the reservoir waters. The new location is 32 kilometers upstream on the Yangtze.
Zhang Fei, a brave, wise and loyal warrior in the Three Kingdoms period, and a major protagonist in the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, is a household name among the Chinese people.
For centuries, Zhang has been worshipped as a god of protection, especially by the fishermen on the Yangtze River and local residents.
A memorial to the ancient warrior, the temple is regarded as a cultural gem and must-see for the 200,000 or so visitors each year. It was designated a key cultural relic under State protection in 2000.
"I still remember clearly the day, October 4, when thousands of visitors from home and abroad celebrated Zhang's 1,843rd birthday in the temple," recalled Wang Yongmin, an admirer of Zhang, and a vendor of drinks and souvenirs near the temple. "They lit candles, burned incense, offered sacrifices such as chicken or fish in the shrine and the Yunyang County Chuanju Opera Troupe staged the drama of Oath in the Peach Garden for the big event," said Wang, whose family has lived close to the temple for centuries.
The original construction of the temple made the best use of the natural landscape and exemplified the mysterious beauty of ancient Chinese architecture, that can be either extremely simple or highly complex, but always impressive and unforgettable.
It housed more than 600 delicately made, centuries-old sculptures, stelae, ancient Chinese wood carvings and rock inscriptions. They have provided a rich resource for academic research spanning a number of fields, including Chinese history, fine art, classical literature, ancient architecture, and environmental changes in this section of the Yangtze River valley, said Huang, the overseer of the project.
"We are working in line with the cardinal guideline of making no changes in the size, raw material and structure of the original temple during the relocation process.
"To ensure the completeness of the original temple, at least 97.8 per cent of the wooden parts of the temple must be kept intact during the disassembling and transportation and reassembling process," he explained.
Every removed part of the original temple will be treated with antiseptic, mothproofed and numbered to make sure that it is put back in its exact original place, when the temple is rebuilt.
"The original Zhang Fei temple is gone with the winds. But I still hope and believe Zhang's admirers and the people who love the legends about Zhang in folk tales and the Chinese classic 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms' will still come to the new temple to pay homage to him," said Wang Yongmin.
(China Daily November 14, 2002)