Dedicated to the Eastern Peak (Tài Shān) of China’s five Taoist mountains, the morbid Taoist shrine of Dōngyuè Temple is an unsettling, albeit fascinating, experience and one of the capital's most unusual temples. An active place of worship tended by top-knotted Taoist monks, the temple's roots go all the way back to the Yuan dynasty. It's most notable for its long corridor exhibiting a series of comically macabre displays of statues representing different 'departments' from the Taoist underworld.
Before going in, note the temple’s fabulous Páifāng (memorial archway) lying to the south, divorced from its shrine by the intervention of the busy main road, Chaoyangmenwai Dajie.
Stepping through the entrance pops you into a Taoist Hades, where tormented spirits reflect on their wrongdoing and elusive atonement. You can muse on life’s finalities in the Life and Death Department or the Final Indictment Department. Otherwise get spooked at the Department for Wandering Ghosts or the Department for Implementing 15 Kinds of Violent Death.
It’s not all doom and gloom: the luckless can check in at the Department for Increasing Good Fortune & Longevity. Ornithologists will be birds of a feather with the Flying Birds Department, while the infirm can seek cures at the Deep-Rooted Disease Department. The Animal Department has colourful and lively fauna. English explanations detail department functions.
Other halls are no less fascinating. The huge Dàiyuè Hall (Dàiyuè Diàn) is consecrated to the God of Tàishān, who manages the 18 layers of hell. Visit during festival time, especially during the Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, and you’ll see the temple at its most vibrant.
Just outside the complex, in a small car park to the east, stands the handsome, but rather lonely Jiǔtiān Pǔhuā Gōng, a small temple hall which is the only remaining structure of two other Taoist temples that once also stood in this area. Built in 1647, the hall, which we think is now empty, once contained more than 70 clay and wooden statues dedicated to Léizǔ (雷祖), Taoism’s God of Thunder. Unfortunately, it's not open to the public. Note the two impressive stone tablets that rise up from the platform at the front.