"Guardian of Xinjiang": the "Guan Gong temples" of Xinjiang

"Guardian of Xinjiang": the "Guan Gong temples" of Xinjiang

 In 1763 (the 28th year of Emperor Qianlong's reign), the first temple in honor of Guan Yu (known as "Emperor Guan" or "Guan Gong") was built in Huiyuan, a city in Ili Prefecture, Xinjiang. That year, the emperor granted the temple an imperial title — "Guardian of Xinjiang" — carved on a ornamental wooden slat known as a bian'e. In keeping with tradition, this imperial gift also features a couplet: "The reputation of he who embodies the virtue of Confucius has spread far and wide/He watches over the borderlands, where his effigy is worshipped in temples."

 The reverence of Guan Gong reached its peak during the Qing Dynasty. At that time, temples erected in his honor could be found all throughout China, and Xinjiang was no exception. As early as the reigns of Emperors Kangxi and Yongzheng, one could find Guan Gong temples in regions of eastern Xinjiang such as Barkol and Hami. The worship of Guan Gong reached its peak after Emperor Qianlong granted him the posthumous title of "The Loyal and Righteous Emperor and Deity". This title helped crystallize the image of Guan Gong as a heroic and loyal figure in the Chinese people's collective imagination. Word of Guan Gong made its way to Xinjiang, where he was worshipped as a deity of protection by soldiers who had come to protect the borderlands, as well as merchants who had come to sell their wares.

Image 62: Portrait of Guan Gong

By about halfway through Emperor Qianlong's reign, one could find Guan Gong temples all throughout Xinjiang. Image 63 is a set of extracts from the Complete Atlas of Xinjiang stored in Taipei, which reflects the state of Xinjiang during the 38th year of Emperor Qianlong's reign (1773). As we can see, one could find Guan Gong temples on the outskirts of the three cities of Barkol, Aksu and Uqturpan (underlined in red). The location of the temples is denoted by a simple "temple" symbol and the label guandimiao ("Emperor Guan temple", highlighted in red boxes). This map is direct visual proof that Guan Gong temples existed in the aforementioned three cities in the middle of the Qianlong reign.

To be more precise, according to extant sources, one could find Guan Gong temples in the Qing Dynasty cities of Gongning and Dihua (today both districts in Urumqi); as well as Hami, Xingxingxia, Qitai, Wusu, Jinghe, Yili, Yarkand, Kashgar, Kuqa and Karashahr.
The city of Barkol (shown at the very top of Image 63) was a pivotal trading hub of northern Xinjiang Province known as the "Temple Crown of Xinjiang" due to its location at the top of Xinjiang and its profusion of temples, such as the "Mountain God" (shanshen) and "Dragon King" (longwang) temples indicated on the map in blue boxes. During the Qing Dynasty, in the vicinity of Barkol alone, one could find as many as 11 Guan Gong temples of various sizes. Historical records show that, over the course of this dynasty, there were a total of 40 government-built temples in honor of Guan Yu within the region of Xinjiang. In addition to these "official" temples were a number of Guan Gong temples built by the local people using their own funds. From these statistics, we can imagine how widespread the worship of Guan Gong was in Xinjiang at this time.

Image 63: Guan Gong temples as shown on the Complete Atlas of Xinjiang

The proliferation of Guan Gong worship as well as the construction and distribution of Guan Gong temples in Xinjiang is the direct result of the migration and reproduction of the Manchu, Han and Xibe people. Whether they were stationed in frontier garrisons, opening up wasteland or selling wares in markets, these people all built and prayed at temples in Guan Gong's honor during their time in Xinjiang.
Anyone visiting Xinjiang from Gansu had to pass through Xingxingxia on their way there, making it an important trade hub. According to historical records, a Guan Gong temple was built on the top of a mountain approximately 10 li (about 6 km) to the west of Xingxingxia and quickly became a popular site among pilgrims. Luckily, we can still find old photos from when this temple was still standing. Image 64 is a photo that the Australian explorer George Ernest Morrison took on his way through Xingxingxia in 1910. On this photo, we can see six or seven worshippers standing in front of this traditional Chinese structure's main hall.

It is said that this temple was built during Zuo Zongtang's campaigns to reunify Xinjiang in the reign of Emperor Guangxu of Qing. In the first few years of the pre-imperial era, there was a monk lived on and watched over the temple grounds. Pilgrims worshipped a statue of Guan Yu in the center of the main hall. In addition to this statue were a number of sacred objects, such as three iron broadswords, a red robe, and several bian'e donated by high-ranking officials and businessmen. Anyone who passed through Xingxingxia would make sure to stop by and light incense in Guan Gong's honor.

Image 64: Photo of the Guan Gong temple to the west of Xingxingxia, in 1910

To the west of Xingxingxia, in the village of Dongdi in Qitai County, there is another Guan Gong temple (shown in Image 65) — the only one that can be found (partially) standing in northern Xinjiang today. This temple was originally constructed in the 57th year of the Qianlong reign (1792) and was expanded during the reigns of Emperors Jiaqing and Daoguang. It was mostly destroyed by war during the reign of Emperor Tongzhi — only the central hall of the temple remains. Later, in the 18th year of Emperor Guangxu's reign (1892), four of the monks living in the temple raised funds, which they used to rebuild the temple with the aid of craftsmen and painters from Gansu Province.

In front of this Guan Gong temple tower a row of ancient trees. Inside the temple, there are two grey brick reliefs that measure 2 m high and 1.5 m wide, and which depict Chinese iconography such as dragons, phoenixes and flowers. On either side are colorful frescoes that represent popular stories such as Guan Yu going to a dangerous meeting with a single broadsword, reading the Spring and Autumn Annals late at night, and taking an oath of fraternity with Liu Bei and Zhang Fei in the peach garden.

Image 65: Guan Gong temple in Dongdi Village, Qitai County

The Xibe people of Xinjiang also believe in Guan Gong. During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, over the course of a year, they migrated several thousand li west of their ancestral home in northeast China to the opened-up frontier of Ili Prefecture, via the official Qing post road in Outer Mongolia. (For more special details, I suggest reading The Western Migration of the Xibe People: Defending the Borderlands for the Sake of the Emperor). When these patriotic Xibe soldiers and officials settled with their wives and children along the Western frontiers, they brought with them the custom of worshipping Guan Gong. In Image 66, we can see the remains of a Guan Gong temple as they lie in the Xibe Autonomous County of Qapqal today. Hardly any of the ancient Guan Gong temples can still be found in Xinjiang; the majority of those that remain have fallen into disrepute like the one in Image 66. Passing tourists would hardly imagine that this desolate scene was once a popular site of worship.

In July 2015, during a survey of Aral (the seat of the First Division of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps), I met a young woman of Han descent from Uqturpan County. This frontier county is not all that well known, but its seat was once granted the honorific name Yongning ("Eternal Peace") City by Emperor Qianlong. Not far from the seat, on Yanzi Mountain, is a Guan Gong temple, which attracts pilgrims year in and year out. Emperor Qianlong himself gave the temple a bian'e on which the words "Divine Post on the Cliff" could be read, as well as the following couplet: "The enlightened ruler's reputation has shone for aeons/spreading peace over 10,000 li."
Unfortunately, these days, traces of this important figure from China's religious and cultural history are near impossible to find.

Image 66: Remains of a Guan Gong temple in the Xibe Autonomous County of Qapqal

Main references

Qi Qingshun: Worship of Guan Yu in Xinjiang during the Qing Dynasty. Qing History Studies. No. 3, 1998.

Dai Liangzuo: A general overview of Gong Guan temples in Xinjiang during the Qing Dynasty. Xinjiang Art. No. 2, 1995.

Chen Xu: The ritual worship of Guan Gong and the temples in his honor throughout Xinjiang. World Religions and Cultures. No. 4, 2009.

An Yingxin: The "Guan Gong temples" in the westernmost reaches of the motherland. Southeastern Culture. No. 6, 2000.

Wang Yao: Studies of the Complete Atlas of Xinjiang stored in the Taipei National Library. Chinese Classical Literature and Culture. No. 3, 2014.