(Continued from Taoist Shrine in Ancient Hội An)
The first time I visited this temple in Hội An, I had no idea it was one that venerated a Taoist god. You must forgive me. All temples look the same from the outside. The architecture might have been one type of construction but then, over the years, it could have changed hands many times until it is at its most recent incarnation.
When you walk inside, however, you begin to get an idea of what sort of temple it is. If the first thing you see is a huge Buddha statue, it’s a Buddhist temple. If you see a Shiva Lingam, it’s a Hindu temple. You will most likely not see a huge cross because ancient temples are usually never repurposed to become a Catholic church.
In the case of this temple, what I saw was this:
It was also really dark inside, and being rather short of stature, I could barely see past the HUGE bronze incense pot filled with incense that was still smoldering, a pleasant scent of agarwood.
The effigy on the altar was a dark brown sculpture of a man wearing ancient garments. His hands were resting on the handle of a sword that was pointed downward into the ground at his feet.
At first glance, he could have been anybody. The hat on his head was of the sort that high level mandarins (generals) wore at a king’s court session.
Since he was holding a sword and not a scroll or book, he had to have been a warrior mandarin (a warrior general) and not a literature mandarin (a senator or legislator).
Certainly, if I could read Hanzi, or if I had visited the temple with a person who knew how to read the two scripts on the front doorway, I might have had a clue.
Alas, there I was, a clueless woman, standing in front of a Taoist god, with a vacant glazed look.
I wasn’t sure if this was some ancient famous swordsman of past glories who had done some worthy deed for some long-dead monarch, so I gave the statue a perfunctory bow and took off.
I honestly didn’t know at the time, but I had inadvertently found a very old temple that had been dedicated to our very own Mister Thánh Gióng (aka Huyền Vũ / Black Tortoise / Dark Warrior).
Sorry Mr. Huyền Vũ. I should have known it was you. Who else would it be. Everybody (and I mean EVERYBODY and their grandma) knows who the Black Warrior, Mister Thánh Gióng is.
He’s the only Taoist deity the Vietnamese people still remember.
Don’t get me wrong. People know who Mister Thánh Gióng is. His statues are all over the place. Nobody is disputing who he is, but it’s the strangest thing!
Nobody realizes that he is a Taoist deity. What’s even worse is that nobody even knows what Taoism is any longer (more on this later).
People just think he’s some ancient legendary mythological being who had some close dealings with one of our kings (An Dương Vương), but nobody in this enlightened day and age think he is a real person.
The king was a real, undisputed person in Viet history books––but the guy that the king hung out with, who he considered a close compadre, and even went on a ghost-busting travel adventure with––most people think of this guy as a mythological figure.
This means that either the king had some psychological issues that caused him to see things that are not real, OR the guy he hung out with was a real being who actually walked among us mortals for a time. Pick one.
So now that I know the temple is there, next time I visit, I will most definitely spend a bit more time visiting Black Warrior.
In any case, if you ever get the chance to visit, you will find the ceramic Taijitu (Taoist symbol) embedded all over the structure of the bridge.
Taijitu Yin Yang Symbol
They look like huge dinner plates that use a method of ceramic art called transferware pattern which is a transfer technique used to create beautiful artwork.
Ceramics artisans would use a copper plate that has been etched with the desired designs and then used heat to transfer the image to a very thin tissue type paper. The paper would then be placed over a piece of pottery, which would then be fired within a low-temperature kiln.
The end-result would be beautiful pieces of artwork that were duplicated with a high level of detail and would last for many centuries.
Since The Black Tortoise is technically a Taoist god, this is therefore point of interest for any visiting Taoist who might happen to be nearby and might want to poke in and give him a shout-out.
After I spent some time admiring the construction and the artwork that was embedded all over the structure of the temple, I went back outside to look at what had caught my eye before I stepped inside the temple.
Since I didn’t know it was Huyền Vũ‘s altar, I was far more interested in the dogs and monkeys statues on either end of the temple. I had never seen a monkey or dog god at an ancient shrine before and I was very curious about them.
In my defense, there are shrines of every imaginable god or goddess scattered all over Vietnam. It would be a huge undertaking to document each and every shrine across the country and try to aggregate the various deities into some semblance of sanity.
I will try to document the few that I come across on my sojourn around my ancient motherland, but it will be less of the erudite sort and more akin to a travel blog, where I gather first impressions and what I found out about the place.
At any rate, the dogs and monkeys shrines are quite interesting, so let me tell you more about them.
The Generals of the Horoscope
On either end of the bridge are stone animals built into the bridge base.
On one end, there are two monkeys––a male and a female. They face each other, with an old copper incense burner between the monkeys, smack dab in the middle of the walk way.
The incense burner is always filled with recently burned incense sticks, which mean people still venerate them to this very day.
On the other end of the bridge, placed in the same manner are two stone dogs. Again, we have a male and a female, both facing each other. There is another large old copper incense burner between them placed in the same position as the monkeys’ end.
These are spirit sentinels. They were placed there as guardians of the temple and the bridge, and have been on guard for over 400 years and still going strong.
They also placed red shawls over the statues’ heads to decorate them for the new year holiday (when this image was taken). When I was there, they didn’t have the cloth head covers, but that could have just meant that it was being cleaned, or it wasn’t close enough to a holiday.
There is also much about phong thủy (feng shui) that I could see regarding the place. It shows in the designs that mirror the philosophical idea of balance through opposites, and acceptance of change.
When I was there, one of the locals told me that the bridge was built in the year of the monkey and two years later, when it was finished, it was the year of the dog.
To commemorate the actual age of the bridge in a way that the people would easily remember, they made the two statues and placed them on either end.
If you look closely, you will clearly see the words carved right on the bodies of the animals. The words are:
“Thiên cẩu song tinh an cấn thổ. Tử vi lưỡng tỉnh định khôn thân”
This translates to ‘The two stars of the heavenly bridge protect the land. The two horoscope generals (meaning the monkey and dog) stabilize the Khôn (In the I Ching, the Earth is Khôn (K’un /地))’.
Let’s look at the two animals.
In true Taoist fashion, the monkey’s end is ☱. It faces southwest and represents wind, summer, pink (or white or beige), gentle penetration and flexibility.
They were called the two horoscope generals because the monkey and the dog are two of the twelve animals depicted in the calendric horoscope called Can Chi, aka Thiên Can Địa Chi.
The dog’s end is ☶. It faces north-east and represents thunder, winter, blue (or black or green), arousing, excitation, revolution, and division.
The Heavenly Bridge
The ancient saying also specifically calls out ‘the ‘two stars of the heavenly bridge‘. This is a very common description of the stars of Altair (aka Aquila) and Vega located on the two sides of the Milky Way.
It also interestingly, mirrors what was told to me about the reason for the Hội An bridge to be built––as a way for star-crossed lovers to be together.
The ancient Viet folk tale of these two star-crossed lovers is called Ngưu Lang Chức Nữ and the ‘Asian Valentine’s day’ called Thất tịch lands on the seventh day of the seventh month.
The legend goes that there was once a human named Altair who lived on Earth, and a Goddess of the Heavens named Vega who traveled among the heavens doing heavenly work for her parents.
One day she saw a handsome man sitting beneath a great tree. He was playing beautiful music on his flute so she came closer to hear his music.
He was surprised to see her but was so smitten that he immediately fell in love with her.
Vega came to visit him over the following days, as she had also fallen for the Earthly cow herder. Although she knew she was not allowed to be with a mere mortal, Vega vowed that she would find a way for them to be together in the Heavens.
Eventually, her mother discovered their forbidden love and dragged Vega away, forbidding Vega from seeing the mortal Altair.
Altair climbed on his cow’s back and they took off to the Heavens, chasing after Vega and her mother.
The Empress of the Sky saw Altair in close pursuit, so to stop him, she used her magic to turn the pathway into a river (now known as the Heavenly River or Milky Way).
Altair came to the edge of the river and had to stop chasing after Vega. When Vega’s father, the Emperor of the Sky, saw their tragic situation, he became sympathetic.
Although he was unable to go against his wife’s wishes, he did create a wide bridge of magpies which could allow the lovers to cross the river and meet. Unfortunately, it only happens once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunisolar calendar.
This wold be the day that Altair and Vega can cross the river and be together once again. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to meet. On this day, if the rain falls, then the lovers would not able to see one another and the rain would be Vega’s tears falling from the heavens.
Perhaps it is the hope of the bridge builders that this bridge would be the connecting points so that the two earthly lovers would be able to meet each other, just like Altair and Vega. We can only hope that it worked out for the human lovers so long ago.
I’ve heard of that story, I like how you tell it. That is a very cool temple that you visited, thank you for sharing.