Rebuilding and Repurposing: China’s Selective Use of Temples
Any visitor to modern China will be witness to a flurry of construction. This is not just the high-rises and malls, but also heritage sites. While it is true that many are being lost on a daily basis due to development and unscrupulous practices within the construction industry, there is a boom in temple building. Throughout the various wars of the 20th century and then the devastating Cultural Revolution, much of China’s religious heritage was lost.
The Japanese War and the Civil War left many religious buildings bombed out and unsafe, leading to them being demolished rather than restored. At that time, China’s priorities were getting the country settled under the new leadership and more material concerns. Financially and ideologically, the Chinese Communist Party had bigger fish to fry.
During the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong’s Red Guard devastated what was left of the old religious heritage. Encouraged by Marshal Lin Biao, who was later demonized along with the ‘Gang of Four’, endorsing the destruction of the ‘Four Olds’ (Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas), wanton and uncontrollable violence swept the country and even the Premier Zhou Enlai could not stem the tide.
Fast forward a few decades and in the 1990s, a desire for Chinese cultural items coincides with the growing economy of the sleeping giant. Profound losses of their millennia-old culture begins to sink in. The government recognizes both Buddhism and Taoism among its five state religions, so along with the Confucian sites that were particularly targeted in the 1960s, rebuilding begins.
The Buddhist temples are the most striking. In Guangzhou, the totally destroyed Dafo Temple is getting a huge building added to it, to complement the main hall that was rebuilt a few years ago.
In Shanghai, the famous Jing’an Temple has been rebuilt almost from scratch.
This story is repeated in hundreds, if not thousands of locations across the Middle Kingdom. Confucian statues are being made to fill the void of those burnt by the Red Guards in their efforts to out-revolutionize each other. Even in Qufu, home of the main temple of Confucius, a new statue sits in the Great Sage Hall.
While this mad rush to rebuild some temples is in effect, the same cannot be said for all sites. In particular, folk religion temples seem not to be on the fast track to recovery, despite a resurgence among the population in its ancient practices. Some very popular temples are being rebuilt, like the money generating Mazu Temple on Meizhou Island in Fujian, or any of a series of city god temples across the country.
Other temples survived because they were turned into museums. Guangzhou’s Chen Clan Ancestral Hall became a famous folk craft museum in the 1950s, securing its future. Other temples somehow survived the zealous revolutionaries, such as the Zu Miao in Foshan, which contains most of its original contents. The same can be said of the Dongyue Miao in Beijing, which has needed only minor restoration.
The other side of the coin is temples that have now been totally repurposed.
Many have become shops or are used for other secular purposes. These are predominantly folk religion temples and ancestral halls. It seems that they do not have revenue potential in the 21st century in the way that large-scale Buddhist temples do. Buddhist temples in particular are being rapidly restored. With the surge in Buddhism’s popularity, many are flocking to temples to give money. This partly helps fund the rebuilding.
The most famous Buddhist temple of all, Shaolin Temple, is also one of the most famously rebuilt ones, the original being practically levelled during the dark days for the revolution.
The money-spinning aspect cannot be ignored. In modern China, money is the main god. A temple is looked at in terms of profitability and business viability. That is why there is so much stuff for sale in any Chinese temple you care to visit.
If a temple simply does not have enough appeal to make it turn a profit, then why spend the money to restore it to religious use? Why not simply do it up as a shop selling Chinese products and make it earn its keep that way? The argument could be made that the repurposing is keeping the building standing, even if it is not being used for its original purpose.
Often foreigners are shocked by the new ‘historical buildings’ and the disregard for old structures. They are looking at it through different eyes from the local people. China has never much cared whether a building is old or not, it’s the idea that counts.
Every dynasty that took over China destroyed much of what the previous ones built and constructed their own ones in their place. This regenerative attitude has carried through the centuries.
The question is: will these ‘historic relics’ that are being built last hundreds of years more, or will some future dynasty do away with them and build their own temples and palaces in their stead?
All images in this post copyright The Temple Trail