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Madame Li: Buddhist Fanatic

Beijing's Tanzhe Temple benefited greatly from Madame Li's fanaticism
Madame Li: Empress Dowager and Buddhist Fanatic

By Luke Hambleton

Politics in late Ming Beijing was dominated by the machinations of feuding princesses, politicians, empresses and eunuchs. At the centre of allegations of extravagance, corruption and power grabbing was the mother of the Wanli emperor (1572-1620), one of the Ming dynasty’s most famous emperors, known to history as empress dowager Li.

As a young girl, Li Wei was recruited into the Forbidden City and married to the future Longqing emperor (1567-1572).

Li staked her claim to power by providing her husband with a son, who succeeded his father as emperor of China at the tender age of nine years old.

With an infant on the throne, Beijing politics was set like a game of chess between what many historians see as the wise and sober regents for the boy, Wanli, and the eunuch factions led by his fanatical mother, empress dowager Li.

After a dream in which a Bodhisattva (earthly assistant to the Buddha) presented Madame Li with a Nine Lotus Sutra – thus convincing the empress dowager that she was the incarnation of the Guanyin Buddha, the empress dowager set about on a Buddhist crusade around Beijing

Convinced of her holy status, Madame Li became obsessed with raising the profile of the Buddhist temples. Whilst many of these temples have long since gone, the modern visitor to Beijing can visit the Dazhong (Great Bell) temple, where the famous scene of Madame Li receiving the sutra is depicted on the bell made especially by Li to mark the occaision.

Naturally, her son remained loyal to his mother’s fanatical religious practices. For example, when the famous Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci presented the Wanli emperor with a portrait of the Virgin Mary, it was assumed to be the Guanyin Buddha, and given to Madam Li.

Rural temples sponsored by Madame Li such as the Tanzhe Temple (Pool and Mulberry Temple) in the mountains to the west of Beijing benefited tremendously from the huge amounts of money lavished on them during her 42 years as empress dowager.

Nevertheless, ministers in Beijing decried what they saw as a massively wasteful programme of temple building and patronage. It was due to her untouchable position as mother of the emperor, however, that blame was always attributed to monks and eunuchs, rather than Madame Li herself.

Getting To Beijing’s Dazhong Temple and Tan Zhe Temple

To get to Dazhong temple, the easiest way is to catch line 13 to Dazhongsi station, one stop from Xizhimen. The temple is a short walk from the station, with signs in English pointing the way. See the separate article on Tanzhe temple, for information on how to get to Tanzhe temple.

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