Created 29-Nov-12
Modified 29-Nov-12
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This series of very rare photographs of the Dajuesi 大覺寺 on Xishan near Beijing was published in an architectural study by Heinrich Hildebrandt, the architect (Baumeister) of the German
government. The study went to print by Asher & Co. in Berlin in 1897. It was a very limited print run (maybe 100 to 200 copies?), therefore this book very seldom comes on the market. It includes eight photolithographies and four photogravures. The actual photographs were taken not by Hildebrandt, but by F. Henneberg and P. Gelpcke. I do not know anything about these photographers, it would be an interesting project to explore whether there are materials that have survived with their name on it. The photogravure process was done by Meisenbach, Riffarth and Co.

Note that the temple appears to be absolutely empty and deserted. However, image #5 points to an "Upper mansion on the south side of the temple compound", and has the curious phrase "Summer residency of the German Ambassador" in paranthesis. How it came about that a venerable Buddhist temple which dates back to the 11th century served as the summer retreat of the ambassador of a foreign nation is a mystery to me, and any or all explanations might defy a rational narrative. In any event, judging from the images presented here, the study leaves little doubt that the site was in disrepair and quite certainly a play thing of colonial forces. That German ambassador was Edmund Freiherr von Heyking, btw. (von Heyking served August 1896 to June 1899)

Today this is one of the most-visited and revered temples in the Western Hills, with thousands of pilgrims flocking to its doors during the calendar of Buddhist holidays. I wonder if they know (or would care) about the temple being used as a sort of bishu shanzhuang for German diplomats one hundred years earlier.

Thomas H. Hahn
Ithaca, NY
Uploaded Nov. 28, 2012
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