The site of Jin Ci is a large park with gardens and a lake, as well as pavilions, halls, and temples from various dynasties, beginning with the Song (960-1279). It isn't known when the original temple was built, but the earliest written reference to Jin Ci is from the 6th century. As you stroll the grounds, the one building that must not be overlooked is Shengmu Dian (Hall of the Holy Mother). Located at the back of the park, it is recognizable by its double-eaved roof and its extraordinary writhing dragons, each carved out of wood and coiled around one of the building's eight front columns. First completed in 1032, the hall was restored several times -- most recently in the Ming dynasty -- but without ever altering the original architectural style and design. Today, along with a handful of other Shanxi buildings, it is one of the earliest surviving wooden halls in China.

The contents of the hall are equally impressive. Inside is a statue of the honored matriarch -- the mother of the founder of Jin -- surrounded by a retinue of life-size handmaidens, actresses, and eunuchs. Dating from the Song, these gorgeous painted clay figures reveal much about court customs and dress. Sitting in lotus position, the Holy Mother is the picture of composure. Standing third in attendance on her right is a eunuch with one ear bigger than the other and one eye crossed -- from listening intently to his mistress while never daring to look at her directly. Some of the actresses are dressed as male characters, evident from their stances -- toes pointed outwards -- and flat-topped headdresses.

Directly opposite the Hall of the Holy Mother, across the Flying Bridge Over the Fish Pond (Yuzhao Feiliang), is the Xian Dian (Hall of Offerings), where offerings were made to the Holy Mother, believed to have magic powers. Built in 1168 and rebuilt 400 years later, the hall was last restored in 1955.