Zhìhuà Temple

Buddhist Temple in Forbidden City & Dongcheng Central

Běijīng’s surviving temple brood has endured casual restoration that often buried authenticity. But this rickety nonactive temple, hidden down a rarely visited hútòng, is thick with the flavours of old Peking, having eluded the Dulux treatment that invariably precedes entrance-fee inflation and stomping tour groups.

You won’t find the coffered ceiling of the Zhìhuà Hall (it’s in the USA), and the Four Heavenly Kings have vanished from Zhìhuà Gate (智化门; Zhìhuà Mén), but the Scriptures Hall, off to one side of the central courtyard, encases a unique, eight-sided, Ming dynasty wooden library topped with a seated Buddha and a magnificently unrestored ceiling. The highlight, the Ten Thousand Buddhas Hall (Tathagata Hall & Wanfo Pavilion; 万佛殿; Wànfó Diàn), is right at the back of the complex, and is an enticing two floors of miniature niche-borne Buddhist effigies and cabinets for the storage of sutras. Its entrance is dominated by three stunning, wood-carved deities (a 20ft-tall Tathagata Buddha, flanked by Brahma and Indra). Unfortunately, visitors are no longer allowed to climb to the 2nd floor of this hall.

Try to time your visit to coincide with the free, 15-minute, musical performances, which take place in Zhìhuà Hall at 10am and 3pm each day. Performers use traditional Chinese instruments associated with Buddhist worship.

Note the surreal juxtaposition of this 15th-century temple with the swirling, space-age curves of the Galaxy Soho buildings, which now loom over this historic hútòng neighbourhood.