The breath-shortening, miracle-sporting summit of Mount Emei is both the geographic and figurative head of the mountain, right down its crown of gold monuments. But the majority of regular visitors and local pilgrims flock not only to the summit but to the mid-mountain Wannian Temple (万年寺). Geographically and figuratively, this temple is the heart of the mountain.
The temple’s layout seemingly anticipates its own significance. The mountain’s ubiquitous stone steps widen near the temple entrance, thus crowded with tour groups but never clogged. Beyond the entrance (and its formidable barrier of a 10RMB entry fee), there is space and serenity belying the circus-like exterior. Courtyards both before and behind the Brick Hall create much of this impression of space. The front courtyard is long, multi-levelled and flanked by 30 unique elephant statues, ably diffusing visitors amongst its many tiers, niches and nooks. The back one makes up for lack of length by its width and two turtle ponds.
The Brick Hall sits at the centre of the courtyards, and it is symbolically the temple’s centre as well. The building is unusual – sponge-cake yellow on the outside, with rounded edges and a dome adorned with a small stupa. Its inside is famously beamless. This cave-like interior dominated by a towering and uncommonly colourful bronze statue of Samantabhadra bodhisattva and his white, six-tusked elephant – 7.85 metres high, 62 tonnes in weight and dating from the Song Dynasty (宋朝, 960-1279 A.D. Southern Song, 1115-1279 A.D.). The elephant’s hind legs draw the biggest crowd so far seen in the temple, as visitors gather to rub them for enhanced wisdom. They wear away the white paint and the exposed metal, ringed by a red undercoat of colour, look uncomfortably like sores. From recesses carved impossibly high on the walls, at the base of the dome itself, a multitude of small, golden bodhisattva statues observe.
They would have done so for centuries. The Brick Hall and its contents have twice been spared by fires that levelled the rest of the temple, making Wannian not only the largest temple of the mountain, but its oldest surviving. Its original construction dates from 420-440 A.D., in the twilight of Jin Dynasty rule (晋朝, 265-440 A.D.) and the start of the period of Northern and Southern Dynasties (南北朝, 420-589 A.D.). Its name was changed from Puxian (普贤)Temple to Baishui (白水) Temple in Tang times (唐朝 618-907 A.D.), then to Puxian Baishui Temple under the Song.
But the temple’s most memorable and fascinating name change is its latest, spearheaded by Ming (明朝, 1368-1644 A.D.) emperor Wanli (万历) after he reconstructed the temple in 1600. A fabled empress had prayed at the temple for six months for a son, vowing in return to “build a temple on this spot that would stand for ten thousand years.” In four years, her request was finally fulfilled. Her own promise was later put in motion by this son, who would become Emperor Wanli.
True to its founding pledge, the temple remains thriving after 400 years. Its architectural soundness and cultural preeminence should keep it this way. But it is the temple’s unending flux of faithful visitors is that is likeliest sustain it through all ten thousand years – physically and figuratively.
Photo credits to Nicholas Woo and An Pham
Huang, Shoufu and Zhongyue Tan. Mount Omei, Illustrated Guide: New Edition. Transl. Dryden Linsley Phelps. Reprinted from 1936 edition. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1974.
Liu, Huairen et al. Emei Shan Dixue Lüyou. Chongqing: Chongqing Press, 1988.
Murphey, Rhoads. East Asia: A New History. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1997.
UNESCO World Heritage Centre http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/779 July 25, 2011.
Websites of the Sichuan and Leshan travel bureaus
Supplementary information by our tour guide
 Time did not permit our group to travel to Emei’s two other, more remote summits, the Thousand Buddha Summit (千佛顶) and Ten Thousand Buddha Summit (万佛顶), though the latter (3099m) is in fact taller than the Golden Summit (金顶, 3077m).
 This Thousand Year Temple sits at 1020 metres in elevation.
 The statue itself dates from the mid-9th century. Emperor Taizu (太祖), the founder of the dynasty, authorized it to be build.
 Not to be confused with China’s other Jin Dynasty (金朝), also known as the Jinn or Jurchen Dynasty. It dealt the death blow to the Song sovereignty over northern China and occupied the region in 1115-1234 A.D., while the Southern Song Dynasty retained control of the South. It was the first major empire to use Beijing as its capital. Both it and the Southern Song were conquered by the Mongol army in the 13th century, reunifying China.
 That is, Samantabhadra.
 In addition to rebuilding the temple, the emperor endowed it with gifts of tusks and gold. These have since been removed from the site but are recognized as national treasures.
 That is, I prefer to think, based on my own research interests that heavily revolve around how people and religious institutions mutually sustain.