Need a Roman holiday to view some of the world’s great frescoes? You might not have to travel as far as Rome; Beijing is home to frescoes that are just as noteworthy. They can be found at Fahai Temple, a peaceful Buddhist temple at the foot of Cuiwei Shan. Just below the hill is Tian Yi Mu, the tomb of the eunuch Tian Yi, so visit both for a full day trip of nature, history, and art. Don’t fret if you don’t have a car; using public transport to get there is a breeze.
Built during the reign of Ming dynasty Emperor Zhengtong, Fahai Temple was funded through the financial prowess of Li Tong, one of the emperor’s favorite eunuchs. Construction on the temple was completed in 1443, and what sets Fahai Temple apart from other Buddhist temples are the 500-year-old frescoes, all 236sqm of them. When the temple was constructed, every hall had frescos; now, only those in Mahariva Hall (the main hall) survive. While Fahai Temple is not the only Chinese temple with frescoes, it has some of the most intricate and well-preserved frescoes in the country. Its colors have not faded away, even after over 500 years.
Mahariva Hall’s frescoes depict 77 distinctive bodhisattvas. Admission to the frescoes costs RMB 100 per person. If you’re bent on a budget day trip, there are still plenty of photographs and examples of frescoes that are not in Mahariva Hall. The free exhibit on frescoes is all in Chinese, but it is easy to understand some of the basics through the pictures. It is thought that the frescoes have remained so well-preserved because the pigments were derived from minerals. Although created during the Ming dynasty, the frescoes were influenced by styles of the Song, Tang, and Ming dynasties. They are also exquisite examples of Ming-era perspective and brush technique.
Navigating the three-terraced temple is fairly straightforward, as each terrace features one hall. All the paths are paved and there are some stairs, so it’s not stroller-friendly, but it would be easy for young children. There are also mats that line the ground, for when the rocks get slippery.
Without the jostling crowds found at Lama Temple or the Forbidden
City, Fahai Temple is a serene retreat ideal for an early autumn day. Be sure to bring snacks and water (or better yet, a meal), since there are no vendors around. The little pagodas are the perfect locale for a picnic, too.
Tian Yi Mu is about a 10-minute walk from Fahai Temple. Just head down the mountain road, take the first right at Moshikou Dajie, and walk about 300m. Tian Yi Mu can be tough to spot, so look for the gray archway on the right and head up the ramp that leads to the arch. Tian Yi, the favorite eunuch of the Emperor Wan Li, was buried here. Though it is known as Tian Yi’s tomb and memorial, there are four other eunuchs buried in the cemetery.
Eunuchs have a long history in China. China’s last eunuch, Sun Yaoting, died in 1996. Back in the sixteenth century, Tian Yi himself was the directorate of ceremonies, the highest administrative office, and was the favorite eunuch of Ming dynasty Emperor Wanli. Tian Yi, Wanli’s mentor and confidant, served three emperors over 63 years. When Tian Yi died in 1605, Emperor Wanli had the tomb built to commemorate his much-loved eunuch. Though built on a smaller scale, its structure emulates that of Ming emperor tombs.
Beyond the Lingxing Gate are three stone pavilions that house large stone tablets. The tablets depict Tian Yi’s life and notable achievements. Beyond that is Shouyu Gate, the metaphorical separation of the physical and spiritual world, where you’ll find the tombs of Tian Yi and the other four eunuchs among the plants.
One highlight is that visitors can actually go down into one of the tombs. When you head into the garden cemetery, you’ll see a sliding metal door that leads into the ground. Slide it back, walk down the steps, and turn on the light. Down the steps, it is cold, wet, and dark, and the area remains unsupervised. This scene is not for everyone, but it is an adventure for some.
Just behind the ticket booth are five rooms with exhibits on eunuchs. Almost all of the section is in Chinese (although it can still be informative for non-Chinese readers), and it has a large diorama to show the process of becoming a eunuch, and a mummified body in another room. If you aren’t quite ready to head home, explore the neighborhood outside of Tian Yi Mu, which features an open air market and small winding alleyways.
Though both Fahai Temple and Tian Yi Mu are unconventional tourist sites, they are well worth a day trip. Lesser known tranquil areas in Beijing are hard to find, so take advantage of the cool weather and enjoy a trip to the mountainside.
Fahai Temple 法海寺
RMB 20 (adult), RMB 10 (child). Fresco admission: RMB 100, RMB 10 students. Daily 9am-4.30pm. 48 Moshikou (southern foot of Cuiwei Shan), Shijingshan District (8871 5776) 石景山区翠微南麓模式口48号
Tian Yi Mu 田义墓
RMB 8 (adult), RMB 4 (child). Daily 9am-4.30pm. 80 Moshikou Jie, Shijingshan District (8872 4148) 石景山区模式口街80号
Take subway Line 1 west to the stop Pingguoyuan (苹果园). From the Pingguoyuan subway stop, hop in a taxi; it is a 3.4km drive to Fahai Temple. Another option is taking bus 116, 112, 396, or 746 three stops from Pingguoyuan to Shougang Xiaoqu (首钢小区). From the bus stop, it’s a short walk (over 1km) through the Moshikou (模式口) community up to the top of Fahai Temple.