Lei Feng Day, Phase II – Three Pagodas

Three Pagodas

…cont’d from Lei Feng Day, Phase I

Part of the Lei Feng spirit is giving people the benefit of the doubt, and every day I pass the Shoe Men at the intersection of Fuxing Lu and Foreigner Street, and wave off their attempts to mend my shoes. For two reasons:

One is a warning from Wikitravel.org:

“Don’t get your shoes fixed by men approaching you on the corner of Fu Xing Rd and Foreigner St. Even if a price is agreed, they will add a couple of extra stitches and charge ridiculously inflated prices (¥200-300). You’re in a difficult position to argue because they have your shoes!”

Two, they’re not designer shoes. They’re old Asics that I’ve been wearing every day for a year. Up Mount Tai and down Tiger-Leaping Gorge. Across the rice terraces of Yuanyang and through the Hutongs of Beijing. You can see my socks through the tops. The shoes are beyond fixing.

Last week I finally bought a pair of new shoes and you can’t imagine the freedom I’ve felt walking up Fuxing Lu, unharassed. They see my foreign face, run to catch up with me, are about to say something when they look down at my brand new sneakers. Scrunching their eyebrows, they search for some thread out of place. How did this laowai get all the way to the middle of Yunnan Province with brand-spankin’-new shoes? they wonder, as the mysterious foreigner passes the harbingers in silence. Now that I have new shoes, I can give the Shoe Men a chance to prove Wikitravel wrong (bringing my new shoes in my backpack just in case).


Hanging wishes at the Three Pagodas

Before heading to Old Town to meet the Shoe Men, I’d already booked a ride up the road to the Three Pagodas, Dali’s biggest tourist attraction and something I’d been meaning to see since last April.

When I arrived, a woman ushered me to a little green tram for 25 rmb. I don’t want to take a little green tram, I explained. It’s a beautiful day. I can see the pagodas. They’re right in front of us.

She showed me a model of the complex, which admittedly was much larger than the Three Pagodas themselves, but I’m glad I stuck to my guns. While walking around the center pagoda, a young Chinese man came up and we started talking about the pagodas. He wondered if I was traveling alone. My flag kind of went up. From my previous experience in China, people who just come up to you to be nice, often have a hidden agenda. Also, he didn’t have a uniform. (See previous post.) I explained that I was visiting the pagodas solo but I had friends in Dali.

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The southern pagoda – The Leaning Tower of Dali

I asked if he was traveling alone. He was actually with a friend, he said, “but we had a fight, and I don’t want to talk to her.”

The friend came up. She didn’t speak English, but seemed content to walk in front of us as we chatted. It was a little weird, but hey, it’s China.

His name was Anthony, he was from Shijiazhuang (near Beijing) and lived in Australia. He came back home for Spring Festival and was traveling around now with his friend from Guangzhou.

We commiserated over the recent Beijing weather. Then, pointing at the pagodas, I told him I was amazed how these structures, built over a thousand years ago, were still standing. Earthquakes in 1515 and 1925 completely destroyed the city of Dali; yet these pagodas—the oldest a 70 meter tower built in the 9th century—survived it all.


Three Pagodas, Dali

He explained that the locals learned to build pagodas from the Chinese. He also pointed out that pagodas usually have an odd number of terraces. “These have an even number. Sixteen”, he counted, pointing to the large pagoda in the center, “They wanted to be different.”

We flowed into a passing tour, and Anthony was nice enough to translate the tour guide for me, although he stipulated that the people in this area have poor Mandarin pronunciation, and he could generally only understand 50% of what they said.

He translated the tour guide:

The Temple of the Three Pagodas is the only temple in the country to have a gold name plate. To have a gold name plate, temples must meet three prerequisites:


The Golden Name Plate, Three Pagodas, Dali

  1. It must be designated a national temple. (Dali isn’t a nation now, but it was the capital of the Kingdom of Dali during the Tang Dynasty when the pagodas were built.)
  2. The Buddha within must be entirely plated with gold.
  3. One-hundred master monks must get together and chant scripture at the temple for nine days straight.

There were only sixty such monks in China, so they had to go across Southeast Asia and recruit. Altogether 108 masters converged on the temple in 2006 and chanted for nine days.

Anthony pointed to the center doors of the three-door gate. The center was closed. It was only opened when the king became a monk. This happened eight times during the Kingdom of Dali when the king stepped down from his throne to pursue monastic life. It was opened one last time in 2006 for the consecration ceremony.

“Who’s she?” I pointed to a relief sculpture.

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Guanyin – Three Pagodas, Dali

“Guanyin,” he said, but Guanyin wasn’t really a she. “He’s portrayed as a she to make him closer to people. An illusion.” But in the next temple we saw the true form of Guanyin, and sure enough, Guanyin has a mustache.

In the following temple sat an idol of the Buddha himself, or one of his incarnations—fat and smiling—between two dragons of silk. The smiling face is to remind people to have a positive attitude, said Anthony.

He pointed out people lighting incense in front of the main temple. There were three places to burn incense: past, present and future. If you want to pray for your parents, you burn on the left. For you and your wife, the middle. And for your offspring, the right. He wasn’t going to burn incense, but he was going to make a wish inside the temple.

Normally, one must return to the temple after the wish comes true to thank the Buddha or whichever entity one prayed to. But the tour guide explained the Three Pagodas are special in that one need not return after the wish is granted. Which is good, because it’s 120 kuai.



We walked around the left side of the temple. I asked Anthony why we circumambulate clockwise. He said it’s because Chinese people use the knife in the right hand. This surprised me. I hadn’t seen a Chinese person use a knife ever. Only chopsticks. He clarified. They don’t place a weapon in their left hand. Only the right. (Also, the left-hand side is considered first, as the Western Zhou and the Western Han dynasties preceded the Eastern Zhou and Eastern Han.)

I was glad to have this information. It rectified a previous, incorrect notion I had that people circumambulate clockwise to keep the right hand closer to the stupa. The left hand being the one traditionally used to clean up after a healthy bowel movement.

Or there’s the reason I circumambulate clockwise, which is to keep from bumping into people.

According to the tour guide, the Three Pagodas complex has even better feng shui than the temple in the Forbidden City. That’s on a north-south axis. This is east-west, which means the Buddha looking out never sees the sun set.


The tour group left us to board their little green tram and make their way to the far end of the complex. Anthony and I agreed the little green tram didn’t feel like an appropriate way to view the temple. “It doesn’t show respect for Buddha,” he said. We reached the back tower and I could see why Dali’s Torch Festival isn’t in March. The bottom of the hill was dry, which might explain all the dust in the air. Normally you could see the mountains clearly. Anthony said it was steam (mist?) from the lake, but I had my doubts. I later learned about the forest fires on the other side of the Cangshan Mountains.

In the last building, Anthony and his friend didn’t want to go up to highest floor because they’d be above Guanyin’s head, and that wouldn’t show respect. “Even if you don’t believe in Buddha,” he said, “it’s important to show respect for Buddha.” That’s why, during the Cultural Revolution, when the Communists were destroying the Four Olds, “they didn’t touch Buddha.” The people wouldn’t stand for that. “Even today, in Leshan, the real estate developers across the river won’t build higher than the Buddha, because nobody will buy them.”

I asked Anthony how one says a prayer in Buddhism. The protocol seemed complicated—the hand movements, standing and bowing, everything repeated three times—but I gave it a shot.

“Did I get it right?” I asked afterward.

“Close,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re thinking of your wish with your heart.”

Too bad, because I was concentrating all my efforts on getting the sequence right.

On the way out we saw a big clear plastic box with post-it notes inside and a pad beside. “You make your wish,” said his girlfriend —who apparently did speak English— “by writing it down on a piece of paper and putting it in the box. Then you ring the bell.”

Much simpler. We all wrote our wishes, rang the bell, and headed toward the exit.


A steady stream of young women with umbrellas posed in front of the pagodas.

This personalize tour was one of the most educational temple visits during my year in China. And I got the feeling that even Anthony’s attitude changed a bit. At the beginning it seemed he looked down on people in these-here-backwaters, for the way they talk, for borrowing Han Chinese culture, but not quite “getting it right.” After listening to the tour guide and exploring the temple, he noticed the similarities and maybe even admire the differences.

I thanked him for explaining everything to me. I hoped he and his girlfriend would be able to mend their argument.

“She is not my girlfriend,” he clarified. And he insisted I was doing him a favor by giving him a chance to do a good deed.

Wait, what? What was that? Finally, someone celebrating Lei Feng Day!

Lei Feng Day? He looked confused and said something to his not-girlfriend. Ah, “Three-five,” she said. March 5th. They hadn’t realized it was Lei Feng Day. No, Anthony said, he meant in Buddhism it’s a mitzvah to help a stranger. (He didn’t say mitzvah. I forget what you call a mitzvah in Buddhism.)

So it seems, despite the government’s best propaganda efforts, Lei Feng is not the sole reason young people do good deeds in China. And, for the time being anyhow, his predecessor still reigns supreme. Sorry Lei!

+ + +

Heading out to Fuxing Lu, I coincidentally ran into Harry from Korea again, who joined me for a bit on my new mission until we parted ways at Fuxing Lu. He grabbed dinner as I reached Shoe Men corner. But all the Shoe Men were gone by this time. (Or perhaps Lei Feng Day is their day off? Their good deed?)

And maybe it’s a good thing. I mean, on my selfish quest to celebrate March 5th I had overlooked the Lei Feng spirit and what should have been my true goal on Lei Feng Day: to help others celebrate Lei Feng Day.

And by virtue of being lost and clueless at all times in China, I offer others that opportunity every day.


Bai lady three pagodas

Woman in Bai dress at the Three Pagodas, Dali. Lei Feng Day, 2013

About sinestor

Originally from Los Angeles/Long Beach, California, I'm currently spending a year exploring the amazing world known as China. My main website is Every Day's a Holiday.

One comment

  1. I find your writing style interesting and easy to read. If you decide to make it a book, you’d better enlist me as your proof reader for all those little typos or spelling errors. You are a good communicator – and to people like me that is really the important thing.

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