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Local Chinese restore calm, beauty to Taoist temple

''What a pity you can't see our temple by moonlight!'' Mrs. Zhang Jieyan, chief custodian of serene Guandi temple, had been trimming rosebushes and supervising the work of seven or eight young people in the back garden when a group of foreign visitors came up to shake hands.

''Welcome, welcome,'' she said, straightening up. And then, ''Don't the roof bells sound lovely.''

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There was no need for her to point, for the bells at each corner of the upturned eaves of the pavilion behind her were tinkling like animated beings, conversing with each gust of wind as it soughed through the cypress trees in the forecourt.

''You know,'' she said, guiding her visitors toward the sweeping two-story pavilion, ''you people only see this temple by day. But we who live here all the time are lucky.'' Then came her remark about viewing the temple by moonlight.

''Sometimes,'' she continued, ''we go up to the balcony of this pavilion when it rains. If I were a poet, I could write something about rain slanting against the roof, but all I can do is to treasure the memory. And then, in winter, when the snow falls, all the lines of the temple buildings and the trees look different.''

Mrs. Zhang's enthusiasm for Guandi temple is understandable, for she has devoted her life to it. If the temple looks well-preserved, if its garden breathes an atmosphere of calm, it is thanks entirely to Mrs. Zhang.

Guandi is a Taoist temple dedicated to Guan Yu, a famous general of the three kingdoms (AD 220-265). He was deified about 300 years after his death and has been revered ever since as a model of righteousness and integrity. In many parts of China, Guandi's temple is a garish affair usually right in the center of town , always bustling with shops and worshippers.

But the temple in Yuncheng is different. It is close to Guan Yu's birthplace and has been repaired and rebuilt many times since it was founded in the 6th century. The present buildings date mostly from repairs of the Kang-xiperiod ( 1661-1722). The complex is built in imperial style, a smaller version of Peking's Forbidden City.

Today the Chinese are proud of their ancient monuments. But it was not always so, especially during the chaotic Cultural Revolution (1966-76). In those days, rampaging Red Guards were intent on sweeping away anything that reminded them of feudal days. They traveled from historic site to historic site, smashing the heads off buddhas and disfiguring ancient walls with slogans extolling rebellion.

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''Those were anxious times,'' Mrs. Zhang recalled. ''We locked the doors of the whole compound and tried to let no one enter. But after all, many of the Red Guards were little more than children. Some of them would climb over the walls. Each time I had to greet them with quotations from Chairman Mao and persuade them not to damage the cultural heritage of all the Chinese people.''

The worst time, Mrs. Zhang recalled, was the latter part of the Cultural Revolution, when the temple became a school, and then small factories were built in the compound. Even now, Mrs. Zhang has not gotten all the temple's buildings back. It is Mrs. Zhang's dream to restore the whole complex to its former glory and to build a hotel in traditional style that could look as if it belonged to the original compound. ''Then,'' she said, ''you could come back and enjoy our temple by moonlight.''

''A thing of beauty is a joy forever,'' wrote Keats. By devoting her life to the preservation, restoration, and handing down of a gem of Chinese art and architecture, Mrs. Zhang has turned it into ''a joy forever.''

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