A Guide to Visiting Wenshu Monastery // This is Chengdu, China
One of Chengdu’s Top Tourist Attractions
Wenshu Monastery (文殊院 -- Wen Shu Yuan) is the best preserved ancient monastery in Chengdu. It’s the home to 80 monks, and is frequently visited by both tourists and locals. The locals come to relax in the gardens, sip tea at the tea house, or worship at one of the many sacred halls. Tourist often come for the amazing stone and wood architecture, or to peruse the art and relics that can be found throughout the grounds. Wenshu monastery is a great way to spend a couple hours if you are in Chengdu.
The temple’s story spans dynasties, starting in the Southern dynasty (420-589) when China was going through a civil war -- and yet art, culture, and Buddhism were spreading like never before. This lead to the building of the Miaoyuanta Monastery, which was renamed to the Xinxiang Monastery during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Over the next 600 years, the monastery helped spread Buddhism in Chengdu.
Unfortunately, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the monastery was completely destroyed during a war. I haven’t been able to confirm what war led to the destruction, but it’s possible that the Mongols were responsible, or perhaps it happened during the conquest of Sichuan by Zhang Xianzhong.
At any rate, the grounds were left covered in rubble until one day a well-practiced Buddhist monk came by and built a shabby hut between two trees. His name was Cidu, and he lived in the hut for several years. When he died, he was cremated. As the smoke rose up it formed the image of the bodhisattva Manjushri, who is called Wenshu in Chinese. Believing Cidu was the reincarnation of Wenshu, they rebuilt the temple and named it appropriately.
Of course, this story has many version, and it’s likely that none of them are true (that’s right I said it!), but if it led to the building of a beautiful place like Wenshu monastery, then I can’t complain.
Covering over 13 acres, it’s easy to miss something within the grounds. There are apparently 190 rooms, including 5 halls. When you first walk in, make sure you have a peak at the 4500 kilogram bell to your right. If you go left, you can stroll through the gardens. Straight ahead is the Hall of Heavenly Kings, Mahavira Hall, the Three Persons Hall, Preaching Hall, and Sutra Hall. While this probably means nothing to you, they are quite beautiful and are popular places for worshiping. At the very back of the grounds you’ll find the library, which is the largest and grandest of the buildings.
Other than the architecture, there are many paintings and relics that you can search the grounds for. I didn’t knowingly see any of these, but here’s a short list that might help you identify items that you come across.
- stone inscriptions from the Liang Dynasty (502–587)
- an iron statue of the Jie (discipline) Spirit
- a jade Buddha that was apparently carried over from Myanmar by a monk on foot in 1922
- 300 other Buddha statues of various materials including iron, mud, stone, wood, and more
- these characters (which mean “kong lin” or “empty forest”) written by Emperor Kangxi
- a piece of broken skull from the monk Xuanzang
- a Buddhist robe that was embroidered with a thousand Buddhas by concubines
- an embroidery of the bodhisattva Guanyin, made out of hair
- some sutras written in tongue blood (wtf?)
As much as I enjoyed the entire complex, probably the highlight for me was watching the monks play some badminton and table tennis. I guess I’m not much of a history buff…
It was just interesting to get a glimpse of their lives. You can imagine how different it is from your own, but after watching a monk in a Linkin Park tee-shirt get a birdie smashed at him, you kind of get the sense that were not all that different.
That’s about the limit of enlightenment that I reached during my visit.
After you’ve finished exploring, you can grab a cup of tea at the on-site tea house. It’s suppose to be one of the best in the city. Or, if you’re hungry, there are a ton of local Chengdu specialties around the temple.
Across the street from the entrance there’s a place that serves sweet water noodles. Just look for the window-separated kitchen with the rows of sauces. In Chinese the dish is called tian shui mian. Even when you butcher the pronunciation they should still know what you want. I find the sauce a bit too sweet, but I love the thick, unevenly cut noodles.
There will likely be a few booths setup along the monastery’s surrounding lanes. This area is almost embarrassingly called the Folk Cultural Experiencing Zone. You can shop for Tibetan treasures here. Just be sure to barter hard.
Location: 66 Wenshuyuan Street -- 成都市青羊区文殊院街66号
Take metro line #1 to Wenshuyuan station. Emerge from the station using exit K. Walk north (the direction you’ll be facing when you exit) along the busy road until you see the mostly pedestrian street (Wenshuyuan). Turn right there and the entrance is on the left.
Hours: 9:00 AM-5:00 PM
Admission: Some websites say 5 RMB, but I didn’t see a ticket booth and no one charged us.