Curved pathways and double doors were built at the Weaverville Joss House State Historic Park with the belief that they would confuse the evil spirits and keep them out of the Taoist Temple of the Forest Beneath the Clouds. We can only hope this methodology works and that the dark forces that would have this Joss House closed can be kept at bay.
The Weaverville Joss House is located in the town of Weaverville, fifty miles west of Redding, right on Highway 299. They are currently open two days per week - Thursdays and Saturdays - sharing some of the park services with Shasta State Historic Park down the road.
Prior to California's gold rush, the Native Wintu people had occupied the local lands for about 4,000 years. With the arrival of thousands of fortune seekers, their indigenous ways were forever changed. In addition to the "gold fever bug," the new residents brought with them many diseases to which the original people had no immunity, decimating three quarters of them. Today Wintu descendants are reviving their languages, crafts and traditions.
In addition to Americans and Europeans flocking to the gold fields, a large number of the miners were from China, particularly from the economically challenged southern province of Guangdong. Hard working, many were able to send their earnings back to their families in China. Sadly, many others were unable to survive the new, harsh environment and went to early, unmarked graves. Still others chose to open small businesses such as grocery stores, barbershops, bakeries and restaurants. Weaverville had an opera house and puppet theatre to accommodate traveling troupes of Chinese entertainers.
Patty and I visited in August. Yellow yarrow in full bloom lined the parking lot. The Visitor Center/Museum was straight ahead, displaying Lion Dancer costumes, historical charts and artifacts. Our ticket from our earlier visit to Shasta SHP also entitled us to entry at the Joss House.
Tours were on the hour and as with many historic sites, we were only allowed into the building with a guide. An ornate red bridge crosses a creek to the temple, with lush plant life, carvings and statuary along the way.
The first temple on this site was built in 1853 and burned down in 1861. Local Chinese resi-dents built a second temple which was once again swept away by flames in 1873, as was the entire town in this heavily forested part of the state. The temple was once again rebuilt in 1874. This time, sitting atop the roof of the temple, are two Chow Win Dragon Fish,
believed to keep wooden struc-tures safe from fire. It would seem these fish have been adequately doing their job for the past 137 years. I myself live in an area where forest fires are the most common natural hazard, and thought perhaps I would like to get a couple of these for my roof.
Our tour guide, Paula, led a half dozen of us to the gates of the temple. The blue color on the front of the building represents the sky, the symbol of Heaven, with white lines resembling tile work of similar temples in China, and now giving it a "blue brick" appearance. Ornate Chinese lettering and paintings decorate the outside of the temple. A double screen door serves as a final barrier to any evil spirits who may have managed to navigate the curvy pathway. It was believed that evil spirits were unable to travel over barriers or around corners. So far, so good.
By 1880 the population of Trinity County had decreased to less than 2000. As gold dwindled, many left to work on the railroads. By 1931 only sixteen Chinese residents were left in Weaverville. The Joss House was robbed of many of it's furnishings. The abandoned dwelling seemed unable to keep the evil spirits away.
Weaverville resident Moon Lim Lee was appointed trustee of the Joss House in 1938, and many of the pilfered items were recovered. For the next twenty years he promoted the temple as a jewel that should be preserved for all Californians. The deities - no doubt happy to have their domain restored - were perhaps instrumental in the Joss House becoming a State Park in 1956. Now, as we entered the temple, we were honored to view the treasures of Mr. Lee's tireless efforts.
Inside is a magnificent, colorful display. Three ornately carved spirit houses hold clay statues of male and female deities. Bright red banners hang from the ceiling. An altar table holds candles, incense, wine cups, stone urns and many other ceremonial artifacts. The side walls of the temple store banners, drums and gongs that are used on Chinese New Year and other celebratory occasions.
Prior to visiting the Joss House, I had read that it is still an active temple. Taoist ceremonies are still presented. “To us, the Joss House represents a direct link back to our honored ancestors” says Rev. Jefferson Lee, chief priest of San Francisco’s Ching Chung Taoist Association.
One of the docents remarked that a local resident - upon hearing that the Joss House was on the State Park closure list - wondered, "How can they close my church?" I instantly replied, "All the more reason to keep church and state separate." And as I said these words, I wondered how in fact that all worked in this situation. I am exploring some of that history now, and hope to have more information when I write about Mission Santa Cruz in a couple of weeks.
A sparsely furnished living quarters for the temple attendant is attached to the Joss House. Relatives of Weaverville's nineteenth century residents who were living in China were nonetheless obligated to financially support the temple. On the walls are hundreds of crumbling red papers with the names of contributors and the amount of their "donation."
Back at the museum I chatted with park workers about the closure list. As at all of the parks I’ve visited, there is concern and dismay about the situation, but it is usually accompanied by hope and a positive attitude. I was sensing something a little different here. Agitation? Anger?
Some suggest that the parks should be privatized. I personally am opposed to this idea, although it would not be the end of the world if it occurred. There are, however, laws in place preventing this. Today one of the park workers expressed support for commercialization and how they would love for the Joss House to be the first to have vending machines or other products. Well, we’re all entitled to our opinions.
What I heard next did not set well with me at all. It was suggested that the Joss House go to the Chinese Embassy and request a large donation. Not only would that keep the temple open, but it would “embarrass the State of California.”
My hackles were raised. China support the Joss House? China doesn’t even support temples in their own land. In Tibet alone, the majority of temples and monasteries have been destroyed in the last fifty years. And while religion in general has begun to creep back into Chinese culture, it must often be done privately and behind closed doors. To my mind it would seem the only reason China would want to support California’s temple would be to embarrass us.
Citing a “precedent”, I was informed that recently Fort Ross SHP and it’s Russian legacy received a million dollars when they went to the Russian Embassy and warned of their possible closure. My research found this to be not completely accurate. It is true that a very complicated and detailed arrangement was worked out with Governor Schwarzenegger, Park Administrator Ruth Coleman, and the Parks Department maintaining jurisdiction over Ft. Ross with the Renova Group, a Russian asset management corporation that is currently being investigated in Switzerland for criminal activities with one conviction already handed down. Can evil spirits take the form of hostility and half truths?
Since my visit, the supporting non-profit Weaverville Joss House Association has launched a campaign with the support of the park, volunteers and local politicians, to raise the $250,000 needed by May 2012 to keep the park open.
Guan Gong, one of the presiding deities at the Joss House, has a “world-awakening prayer” that curses for those who cheat the gods. But, this same prayer offers “prosperity and longevity to those who respect Heaven and Earth, and are kind to your neighbors and amass merit through anonymous good deeds.” Perhaps this would be the best route to keep the evil spirits away.
I hope to see you at the parks.