Shrines of Solace: Exploring Kunming’s Temples

Shrines of Solace: Exploring Kunming’s Temples
By Caitlin Dwyer ,

At first glance, Kunming might seem an unlikely place to look for famous temples. Other Chinese cities are known for their elaborate and historical architecture – most prominently Beijing, but also Yunnan’s own Dali and Lijiang. However, Kunming has a few beautiful temples of its own, which reveal the city’s rich cultural history. At the crossroads of Tibetan, Han Chinese, local minority and Southeast Asian cultures, Kunming’s temples are a testament to its history.

Huating Temple. Photo:

1) Yuantong Temple
Nestled in the heart of central Kunming, Yuantong Temple is a popular tourist destination. Originally built over 1,000 years ago, the Buddhist temple has undergone multiple restorations – including one currently in progress.

Visitors descend through several gates and eventually emerge in a watery courtyard. A pagoda rises from the pond, its tiled roof turreting toward the sky. Turtles populate the pond, drawing at least as much attention as the architecture. Red and gold lions claw their way out of the mouldings. Worshippers stand before the murky water, incense sticks clasped between two palms. The temple is an important pilgrimage site in Yunnan, and it attracts Buddhists from around the province.

Visitors can cross over to the pagoda via a stone bridge or circumnavigate the covered walkway to the main hall. Inside, a golden Buddha presides over a smoky, incense-filled hall. The temple continues up Yuantong Hill behind, but most of this area is reserved for staff and monks and is off-limits to tourists. For being in the centre of a busy, bustling city, Yuantong is surprisingly peaceful – an ancient site that remains vibrant in the community, even today.

Yuantong Temple(圆通寺) View In Map
Add: 30 Yuantong Jie, Wuhua District, Kunming
Opening hours: 08:00 – 17:30 daily. On the first and third of the lunar month, it closes at 17:00
Price: 6 RMB
Getting there: Bus Nos. 85, 92, 95, 100 and 101 all stop on Yuantong Jie

2) Taihua and Huating Temples
In contrast to the busy surrounds of Yuantong, the West Hills of Kunming offer a tranquil, remote setting for several temples. Set into the forested slopes, Taihua and Huating Temples sit close together in the Xishan Forest Park, making a good day trip from the city.

The easiest way to reach both temples is via gondola. A 15-minute ride from Haigeng Park lifts visitors over Dianchi, Kunming’s sprawling southern lake, and up into the hills. From the gondola, visitors can either take a bus or enjoy easy walking on the forest paths to reach the temples.

Visitors pass through an old, moss-eaten stone gate to reach Taihua. Behind it, a newly painted gate marks the formal entrance to the temple. This colourful gate, filled with the potbellied, scowling Taoist deities, is the most modern thing about Taihua; the rest feels as if it has remained unchanged for centuries.

Inside, Taihua feels like a sanctuary. In the small central courtyard magnolia trees bloom. The central hall has several gold Buddhas and circular gold tapestries. Visitors can wander a second courtyard on covered walkways, which are occasionally ruptured by overgrown vines or cypress trees. The view out toward Dianchi and Kunming is spectacular.

The old upper road connects the two temples. A cobbled path winds pleasantly through the hills for about 2 km and terminates at Huating Temple. The path has various shady pagodas for resting along the way.

Huating feels more active and lived-in than Taihua. Monks pass by in their subdued brown robes. Looking across the courtyard, the Chinese Buddhist temple is boldly set, red and gold with flapping flags, against the dark bulk of the West Hills behind. An inner courtyard, filled with apple and magnolia trees, leads into the hall and the oversized golden Buddhas.

Taihua Temple (太华寺) and Huating Temple (华亭寺)View In Map
Add: Xishan Gonglu, Xishan Forest Park, Xishan District, Kunming
Opening hours: 08:00 – 17:00. The gondola runs 08:40 – 17:00 daily
Price: 6 RMB entry; 70 RMB/round-trip gondola ride from Haigeng Park to the West Hills Forest Park; 15 RMB/bus from the gondola to the park
Getting there: From Kunming’s central train station, take Bus No. 44 toward Haigeng Park (海埂公园). The gondola will leave you at the visitor’s centre; from there, catch the Green Bus to Taihua Temple or walk down the road about 10 minutes

3) The Bamboo Temple
In the hills outside Kunming, the Bamboo Temple is a peaceful half-day escape from the city. The bus climbs from the road up into thickly forested slopes, with dry conifers and thick-leafed deciduous trees interspersed. Long, straggling groups of cyclists attempt the climb. After a few hairpin turns, Kunming starts to feel very distant.

The Zen temple is famous not for its main hall, but for a curious artistic piece: 500 statues of arhats, or Buddhist practitioners who have attained Enlightenment. Carved during the Qing Dynasty by sculptor Li Guangxiu, these sculptures are one of Kunming’s most important artistic works.

The arhat statues have an odd dynamicism – bodies seem to fall over each other out of the walls, pointing, growling, laughing, and riding unicorns and tigers. The almost Baroque ornateness is different from the spare, peaceful surroundings of the rest of the temple. Each individual statue is unique, with a particular personality and depiction. The artist reportedly based some of the characters on prominent figures from his day – possibly angering a few important people. He disappeared soon after the work’s completion.

The temple is larger than Taihua or Huating, with multiple halls, a restaurant and resident monks. While the statues may seem sort of kitschy, they are also a fairly impressive act of preservation: in a city where much of the built culture has been destroyed to make way for modernisation, the Bamboo Temple remains a rare window into Kunming’s past.

Bamboo Temple (筇竹寺) View In Map
Add: 1 County Road, Yuan Mountain, Western Hills District, Kunming
地址: 云南省昆明市西山区玉案山001县道
Opening hours: 08:30 – 18:00
Price: 6 RMB
Getting there: Bus No. C61 runs from Xichang Lu. A cab from Green Lake should cost under 50 RMB, depending on traffic

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Keywords: temples Kunming history of Kunming famous temples in Yunnan ancient culture Kunming


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