Zhihua Temple's Hall of Tathagata, home to over ten thousand Buddhas. Photo taken by William Wang for CRI, March 2012.
As you walk further and further into Lumicang Hutong, a busy little alleyway filled with fruit vendors, the more you doubt that one of the best preserved Ming dynasty Buddhist temples could be in the vicinity. But just before the end of the alley, you see the rippled black tile roofing of Zhihua come into view, shielding a modest stone entrance.
Depending on the time of day, you might step into the courtyard to hear the high-pitched sound of a trilling bamboo flute, alongside of a buzzing sheng and percussion. Four times a day, a handful of musicians robed in yellow perform 15-minute concerts using traditional Ming dynasty string, wind and percussion instruments. Some of the instruments are quite unique, such as the sheng, a wind instrument that looks like a hefty plant stalk with multiple shoots, and the yunluo, a collection of tuned mini-gongs.
The temple musicians play traditional Ming dynasty Buddhist compositions to the open courtyard whether visitors are present or not. The songs, which have been passed down for 27 generations, have a touch of the otherworldly to them, even if the musicians themselves appear to be less than impassioned in their performance. The sounds fill the front courtyard where visitors and tourists snap photos, echoing back towards the corners of the compound.