To the northwest of Kunming, lofty Yu'an Mountain (玉案山) overlooks the city and is also home to an intriguing Buddhist temple that is known for its many painted sculptures. Qiongzhu Si (筇竹寺), as it is known in Chinese, is named for a specific type of bamboo, and has thus been nicknamed 'The Bamboo Temple'.
First established back in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), it was the very first temple dedicated to Zen Buddhism anywhere in Yunnan. Like many of the region's religious sites it has a dramatic history, including having been burnt down and reconstructed from scratch several times. The structures you see today mostly originate from the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Whilst Qiongzhu Temple had humble beginnings, it did gradually increase in reputation throughout the Yuan Dynasty and beyond, as eminent monks and other Buddhist leaders visited and conducted lectures here. In 1983 it was recognized by the State Council as a major Buddhist temple.
And whilst most Chinese Buddhist temples do feature statues of arhats (a being who has reached a state of perfection and enlightenment), very few of them can lay claim to five hundred of them as Qiongzhu Temple does. In fact, this is one of just six temples across the whole country that can boast such an expansive collection.
Whilst you'll often find such statues have been identically reproduced and feature similar details, the five hundred statues here each show individual personalities that express a range of lifelike emotions, ranging from anger to joy and sadness. Having been painted with traditional Chinese mineral and plant pigments, the colors remain vivid many years later.
These remarkable statues were created during the reign of the Guangxu Emperor (光绪皇帝) (r. 1875–1908) in the Qing Dynasty, under whom the temple enjoyed a major renovation. Noted Sichuan clay artist Li Guangxiu (黎广修) (1883-1890) spent seven years tirelessly creating the artworks alongside his students.
As with so many historic Chinese structures the architecture is elegant, and the design details are rich in symbolism. Note, for example, how the roofs of the buildings on the central axis feature gold-glazed tiles, emphasizing dignified vigor and links to nobility. The complex is made up of a variety of different halls that can be visited, and which the famed arhat statues are divided between.
Another intriguing feature can be found within the Great Hall, where an imperial edict dating back to the Yuan Dynasty hangs. The edict names Xuanjian (玄坚), the abbot of the temple, as the head monk and asks for the support of locals in keeping important Buddhist scriptures here in the temple.
Well known as an important Buddhist area, Yu'an Mountain is also home to Haiyuan Temple (海源寺) which also has a number of its own arhat statues and can be added on to a visit to the area. To round off a day trip in the most fitting way, hike to the top of the mountain where you'll find Xihua Cave (西华洞), a typical karst cave and, best of all, a panoramic view over the entire city of Kunming.
Admission: Accessible for 6 RMB from 8am to 7pm.
Transport: Bus C62 or C63 will take you from Kunming to Qiongzhusi Station (筇竹寺站) for 5 RMB.