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Notes on the Geography of China: Jinci

The most important historical attraction near Taiyuan is Jinci, the memorial shrine [or hall or temple] of Jin. The name Jin, however, is ambiguous. Literati have generally understood Jinci to be the shrine of Shu Yu of Tang, founder of the Jin state. Locals, to the contrary, have seen Jinci as a shrine to the Sage Mother, a rain goddess presiding over the on-site springs whose water, flowing into the Jin River, irrigated local fields. From time to time, the preponderance of belief has shifted from one to the other. The whole subject has been exhaustively studied by Tracy Miller in The Divine Nature of Power: Chinese Ritual Architecture at the Sacred Site of Jinci. As she summarizes the temple's role (p. 19), "Shu Yu of Tang and the Sage Mother are both spirits of Jin; one is the spirit of the political unit that became the Jin state, the other the spirirt of the Jin Springs."

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China: Jinci picture 1

There are many buildings on the site. Some are new but others, like this one, are old. The new buildings tend to be clustered in the geometric pattern familiar from Beijing's Forbidden City, but the layout of the oldest buildings is not organized in a symmetric lineup along an axis; instead, the buildings cluster around various springs. Miller argues that this is a strong argument in support of the idea that Jinci was conceived primarily or originally not as a shrine to a political figure but as a shrine to a rain goddess who kept the local springs flowing.

China: Jinci picture 2

Here, from another angle, the hall of the Sage Mother.

China: Jinci picture 3

The hall was built between 1038 and 1087 and is approached over a spirit bridge built at the same time and crossing spring water. The date of construction is not accidental. A few years earlier, irrigation canals from the Jin River had been extended to cover a greater area.

China: Jinci picture 4

Two of the original three springs are still plainly visible. Not so with the central spring, under the pool crossed by the Spirit (or Flying) Bridge.

China: Jinci picture 5

On the approach to the bridge there is a terrace with four iron statues. Only this one, from 1094-98, is original. The figure was apparently intended to provide protection from floods. The terrace on which it stands was a space for rituals conducted as part of the worship of the rain goddess.

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A view of the Sage Mother Hall from behind and above.

China: Jinci picture 7

Dragons wrap the columns on the front side of the hall. They, too, were intended to help bring rain, and they suggested as well the power of the Sage Mother.

China: Jinci picture 8

The dragons are all different from one another. They are originals, too.

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A third dragon.

China: Jinci picture 10

The front porch of the hall is two-bays deep, as indicated by the missing columns and providing space for gatherings or ceremonies.

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A painted-clay guardian statue, an original from the time of the Song Dynasty. Note the wind-blown sleeves.

China: Jinci picture 12

Its companion was made in 1950 and lacks the ferocity and dynamic energy of its partner.

China: Jinci picture 13

The sign over the entrance reads: Sage Mother of Clear Efficacy and Manifest Aid. Such was the goddess's official name after her elevation to the Chinese pantheon in 1111.

China: Jinci picture 14

And here is the Sage Mother herself. Miller writes that she "emerges not as an adjunct to the state founder but as the central figure of the Jinci cult site, whose primary power lay in delivering much-needed water to an agrarian community" She continues: "Her significance in the Ming dynasty lay in the authority her cult held for the network of canal heads who physically distributed water to noble and private landholders according to a set schedule. Even into the twentieth century, canal heads were expected to pay homage to the Sage Mother annually, village by village." Later on, Miller writes, the Sage Mother was "more commonly identified as the mother of Shu Yu," founder of the Jin Dynasty (pp. 10-11). The figure measures 110 centimeters, or 228 centimeters including the throne.

China: Jinci picture 15

A closer view. Miller writes of the "legs crossed in front of her in a manner entirely unfamiliar in representations of either popular female deities or images of empresses known from the period. Instead, her cross-legged position resembles Buddhist images but also, perhaps a product of competition between the two religions...." (p. 126)

China: Jinci picture 16

The sage goddess is surrounded by other clay figures, mostly contemporaneous with her but a few (including the one of the left here) from the much later Ming Dynasty.

China: Jinci picture 17

The figure on the right is Ming; that on the left, Song.

China: Jinci picture 18

Miller, once again: The "attendant figures within the Sage Mother Hall are considered to be some of the best Northern Song-dynasty works extant." (p. 129)

China: Jinci picture 19

The ridge of the Sage Mother Hall 3; the central kiosk stands over the Eternal Youth Spring.

China: Jinci picture 20

Balustrade of the Dressing Tower.

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A lifelike balustrade detail.

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The spring, Eternal Youth, appears aptly named. It's the most productive of the trio.

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Immediately below the springs, the waters were divided into shares, physically separated as shown here by three holes to one side, seven to the other.

China: Jinci picture 24

The kiosk in the distance stands over the Perfect Benefit Spring, whose water flows into the Octagonal Pool in the foreground. On the right are the stairs leading to the shrine of Shu Yu.

China: Jinci picture 25

The shrine to Shu Yu of Tang, which was rebuilt in 1770-71. Unlike the Sage Mother Hall, the shrine consists of several buildings along a nearly-cardinal axis.

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Musicians in a hall before the Shu Yu shrine.

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Miller writes, "For the elite of China, from warlords of the sixth century CE to literati of the seventeenth century, Shu Yu of Tang was the most important deity worshiped at the site of Jinci...The archaeological record suggests that the original fief of Tang was located not in the Taiyuan basin but rather much further to the south.... The Shu Yu Shrine was most likely placed at the site of the Jin Springs in an effort to gain control over the strategically important Taiyuan basin through the support of local spirits" (p. 37). Elsewhere, Miller writes, "The reason for building a shrine to Shu Yu at the site of Jinci was most likely because the Jin River was the eponym for the Jin state..." (p. 57).

China: Jinci picture 28

In the last few decades, Jinci has been greatly expanded, here with a neatly organized lineup of souvenir sellers.

China: Jinci picture 29

More importantly, the entrance has been upgraded with several large buildings along the approach axis, as though the iconography of the Forbidden City has utterly vanquished every other possible architectural idea.

China: Jinci picture 30

Today, Jinci has what it never before had, the classic processional axis.

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A tower around which traffic must circle.

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Statuary glorifying the martial past and China's continuing might.

China: Jinci picture 33

A better last look. Out of sight in the foreground is the channel of the Jin River, guarded by its protective deity.


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