The Juesheng Si (Temple of Awakening) was built in the northwestern suburbs of Beijing in the 11th year of the reign of Emperor Yongzheng of the Qing Dynasty (1733). It was located in Zengjiazhuang Village outside Xizhimen (Straight West Gate), one of the gates of the walls surrounding the city of Beijing. The area was dotted with pines and cypresses, plots of farmland and cottages. Smoke ascended slowly from kitchen chimneys. Green hills rose and fell in the distance. It was a superbly quiet place for followers of Buddhism.
Since the Temple of Awakening was built under Yongzheng's imperial edict, you can still find the horizontal stone board above the main gate, edged with the pattern of dragons flying through water and clouds. The board bears the characters "The Juesheng Temple Built by Imperial Order" inscribed by Emperor Yongzheng.
Facing south, the magnificent Temple of Awakening was neatly laid out as an imperial temple. Standing from south to north were the principal buildings like the Screen Wall, the Main Gate, the Bell and Drum Towers, the Deva-Kings Hall, the Hall of Mahavira, the Hall of Avalokitesvara (Goddess of Mercy) and the 'lower of Scriptures. They were flanked with side halls, houses and east and west courtyards. With a total area of 30,000 square meters, it was a major temple in the northwest of the capital.
Shortly after the completion of the Temple of Awakening, Imperial Prince Zhuang and others suggested to Emperor Yongzheng that the Yongle Bell in the Wanshou Si (Temple of Longevity) be moved to the Temple of Awakening. The archives of the Imperial Household Department in the 4th month of the 11th year of the Yongzheng period (1733) bear the following record: "Imperial Prince Zhuang and other ministers presented a memorial to the Emperor on the 16th day of the month: Concerning the move of the bell at the Temple of Longevity, Vice Bureau Director Guan Zhining and Bureau Secretary Hong Wenlan found out that since the Temple of Awakening is located in the north of the capital and southeast of the Yuanmingyuan (Garden of Perfection and Brightness) and the body of the ball is made of metal, it will be most appropriate to move the bell to the Temple of Awakening. If it is moved to a place southeast of the capital, it will be located in the direction of the Tanlang Muxing (literally meaning the star of the wood) and the metal and the wood will subdue each other. So it will be inappropriate to move the bell there. The Temple of Awakening consists of five halls, and the rear hall is connected with the element of earth. If another building is constructed behind that hall, it will signify the mutual generation of metal and earth. The new building will be most appropriate for housing the bell. If Your Majesty permit, we will, in conjunction with Su Hena, present to you a blueprint of the bell building to be built behind the rear hall. The Emperor approved the memorial." Emperor Yongzheng approved Prince Zhuang' s suggestion, initiating the colossal project of building a bell tower at the Temple of Awakening and moving the bell from the Temple of Longevity. The project was completed ten years later in the 8th year of the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1743).
The newly built big bell tower became the key architecture in the Temple of Awakening. It stood on a huge bluestone base. The main body of the building consisted of the square lower part and the round upper part, suggesting that Heaven was round and the Earth square. The carved dragons and painted pillars afforded a magnificent view.
After it was moved to the Temple of Awakening, the Yongle Bell became an important musical instrument for Buddhist services at the temple. From then on, the big bell reverberated, Buddhist music was played and Buddhist monks held religious services on important occasions. As one of the major common practices in the capital city, people listened respectfully to the sound of the bell from the Temple of Awakening. The Yongle Bell was so well known that the Temple of Awakening was popularly called the Big Bell Temple. With the elapse of time, the original name of the temple was rarely known by the public.
The Yongle Bell weighs 46 tons. Such a huge bronze bell has been suspended steadily from wooden beams for hundreds of years. This convincingly attests the consummate skills and scientific design of Chinese craftsmen in ancient times. In order to support the heavy bell, three tiers of beams were overlapped so that the weight carried by the main beam was shared by ten cross sections and the load born by eight pillars could keep constant value by and large even in an earthquake. Careful visitors will find that the eight gigantic pillars decorated with gilded dragon patterns slant towards the inner side of the beams of the bell. Termed "side angle" in traditional Chinese architecture, this design plays an important role in resisting any wobble of the beams of the bell and preventing the separation of the mortise and the tenon. In 1976 when the grave earthquake in Tangshan spread to Beijing, staff members of the temple found that a tiny gap between the mortise and the tenon at the northeastern corner of the beams of the bell had been filled abruptly with the quake of the earth.
A poem written in Beijing during the Qing Dynasty noted that "A beam was threaded through the handle of the ball and a shallow pit was dug under the bell to spread the peal of the bell." The resonant stone pit is in good shape. Built on a bluestone base, the octagonal pit is 0.7 meter in depth and 4 meters in diameter. The surface of the pit is one meter apart from the rim of the bell. When the bell was struck in the old days, the peal could be heard within a circumference of about 50 kilometers.
In ease of a prolonged drought in the early period of the Qing Dynasty, the emperor would personally go to the Yuanqiu (Circular Mound), the Heilongtan (Black Dragon Pool) and the Dagaodian (Great and High Hall) to pray for rain. In the 52nd year of the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1787), the Big Bell Temple was designated as another site to pray for rain.
A terrace with a flight of steps on each of the four sides was laid before rain was prayed for at the Big Bell Temple. It was about 5.23 meters wide, 4.57 meters long and one-third of a meter high. Put up on the terrace was a flat-topped mat shed, 6 meters square and 3.3 meters high. The mat shed had a gate on each of the four sides and was encircled by a mat wall, 26.67 meters square and 2.33 meters high. A mat screen wall was erected in front of each of the four gates.
Emperor Qianlong and most of the succeeding emperors personally went to the Big Bell Temple to offer incense and pray for rain. The activity usually lasted several days or even dozens of days, so the emperor could hardly stay there all the time. Princes or relatives of the emperor took the place by turns. On such a grand occasion, the monks chanted Buddhist scriptures while drums and bells resounded. The emperor, princes, commandery princes, Beile and Beile princes also offered incense there, praying for an early fall of sweet dew. A lot of data on such activities at the Big Bell Temple can be found from the archives of the Qing Dynasty. The imperial praying-for-rain services at the Big Bell Temple lasted until the end of the Qing Dynasty.
As an important Buddhist temple, the Big Bell Temple usually attracted a good many worshippers. More Buddhist pilgrims came to the temple fairs from far and near. In particular, a great many people, men and women, old and young, enjoyed the game of throwing coins. They mounted a height in the big bell tower to throw coins at the hole of the bell, praying for a life of peace and good luck from year to year.
There is a hole, as big as a bowl, at the top of the Yongle Bell. In the old days, many people believed that if they managed to throw coins into that hole, everything would go smoothly for them in the coming year. The more coins they threw into the hole, the greater luck they would have. So they were never bored with this game. Historical records say that in half a month from the 1st to the 15th day of the first month of the lunar year, one half of the pit under the bell was filled with copper coins. They had to be stored in several sacks. This income alone provided enough food for the monks at the temple for the year. A poem written during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing had the following description:
"Suspended at the Temple of Awakening is a big bell.
Puzzlingly copper coins go through its hole.
It seems everything on earth has to be bought.
Cash is needed to foretell one's good luck."
Monks at the Big Bell Temple struck the Yongle Bell on the eve of a new year. Buddhists strictly followed the way of striking 108 strokes of the bell. It was said that a year consisted of 12 months, 24 solar periods and 72 pentads (5 days for one pentad), totaling 108, so the bell must be struck 108 times. Another argument was that man had 108 kinds of worries. The Bell Hymn says, "Worries are alleviated when the peal of the bell is heard." One had to strike the bell in a particular way, that is, strike "seven quick strokes, eight slow strokes and 20 gentle strokes," repeat these strokes three times, and then strike three powerful strokes. That added up to 108 strokes. Apparently it was not easy to go on striking the bell as long as one was a monk. If he did a good job in striking the bell, he fulfilled his duty.
The forceful strokes of the Yongle Bell followed the heavy steps of history over the centuries. The temple fell into disrepair during the years of the Republic of China. The ancient buildings were out of repair and many cultural relics were lost.
After the founding of the People's Republic of China, the premises of the Big Bell Temple were occupied by Beijing No. 2 Food Factory from the 1950s to the end of the 1970s. Most of the ancient buildings became workshops producing candied fruit, soft drinks and foodstuffs. The former imperial temple was changed beyond recognition. Fortunately the big bell tower remained all alone. In the early days of the 1980s, the Yongle Bell attracted much attention from the departments concerned. With the approval of the Beijing Municipal Government, the Big Bell Temple Cultural Relics Preservation Office was established in February 1980. The slumbering ancient temple regained its vigor.
With the great support of the governments at various levels and the departments concerned, the factory was relocated and the ancient buildings were repaired. In October 1985, staff members of the Cultural Relics Preservation Office, with generous help from people of various circles, restored the layout of the original ancient buildings along the central route. They collected several hundred ancient bells of different types and categories dating back to various dynasties in Chinese history and established an ancient bell museum with its unique features.