Thangka-Making in Beijing’s Yonghegong

July 31, 2016 By Tamara Treichel

I first heard of the term “thangka” when I moved to my present neighborhood in Beijing, Yonghegong. Yongehegong is a mecca for Buddhists as it is the location of the Yonghegong Lama Temple, from which the area derives its name. I would say the main characteristics of my neighborhood are the smell of incense, wafting through the allies, fortune tellers, or 算命, and recorded announcements warning citizens not to be cheated by the fortune tellers. And thangkas.

Next to some shops actually selling thangkas you can watch some young men crouching, painting thangkas stretched on a canvas, and that is what first got me interested in that art form.

My first (and up to date last) hands-on experience with thangkas was this winter, when I was going through a difficult period in my life. Among other issues, it was the first Christmas I was spending without my father, who had died of cancer in January 2015. Plus, the winter months in Beijing can be hard on the psyche, with lack of sunlight and the harsh Siberian winds and haze compelling one to stay indoors. Winters in Beijing give me a “白加黑” (“black and white” ) feeling.

Winter in Beijing gives me a "black and white" feeling

Winters in Beijing give me a “black and white” feeling

However, I discovered a thangka workshop in an alley near my home, a godsend! The staff ‒ a lady from Dongbei and an elderly man who liked to smoke as well as a cat who spent some time outdoors but felt very comfortable in the workshop as well, schmoozing with customers or snoozing ‒ provided a haven for me in those difficult months when I badly needed some diversion away from home.

The workshop cat

The workshop cat

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