The hour-long commute from classes to my internship in downtown Shanghai is punctuated by a stroll past the Jing’An Temple. This temple — which literally translates as “The Temple of Peace and Harmony”— is unique in its immense size. Gold roofing, red archways, ornate beasts and twisting pillars form an absolutely resplendent example of Chinese architecture. The Kings of Wu constructed the temple’s first instance in the third century. Although it’s been rebuilt a number of times, the power of history looms over passersby as much, if not more, than the physical presence of the building.
I’ve spent my entire life in a religious family. My father decided to dedicate his life to the Christian Episcopal faith around the same time I was waddling around suburban Knoxville, Tenn., in diapers. Of the 16 years I spent living in my dad’s house, 10 of those were spent with a church within a 100-foot radius — I even lived on the grounds of a spooky cemetery for a couple of years.
My intense exposure to religion led me into a sort of a cooling-off period, and I’ve spent my years at BU taking a step back from all faiths in order to try to critically analyze my position. No matter how hard I try, I can’t get specific Christian thoughts out of my head, and I assume many of my values are either consciously or subconsciously shaped by my upbringing.
As months turned to years, I grew acclimated to life without weekly trips down the street to church. In place of this stimulation, the remnants of my high school education began to take root. In an interesting turn of events I spent my four formative years in a school that was not affiliated to a particular religion; rather, our education focused on all religions. Our education began every day at 8 a.m. sharp, with 300 some-odd students gathered together in a big room meditating for five minutes. Our Buddhist chaplain, though not especially popular amongst the students, tried to ingrain in us basic tenets of Buddhism.
My decision to come to China led me to researching Chinese philosophy, most notably Daoism and Buddhism. A quick note on Confucianism, which I’ve personally had a hard time grasping — the Chinese government is currently attempting to revive Confucian thought in modern society; a professor of mine noted that Confucianism serves as a sort of stopgap between the end of Communist thought in China and the beginning of something else.
I became interested in the philosophic implications of Buddhism and Daoism. From what I’ve been able to tell, the synthesis of these schools of thought is Zen (Chan in Chinese) Buddhism. Though more popular in Japan today, Zen thought is rooted in the merging of Daoist and Buddhist thought in Mainland China.
Regardless of the religion entrenched in China’s history, religious activity is mostly dormant in cities like Shanghai today besides the occasional, looming temple. From what I’ve heard from my reliable sources on China (my professors and Chinese friends) many Chinese only have time for religion on the holidays. This phenomenon, similar to many Christians in America, is definitely not what I expected coming to China.
Honestly, I had no idea what to expect coming into China. During the height of Communist rule and the Cultural Revolution religion in China was shunned, ignored and even banned. Only after China’s Reform and Opening Period in the 1980s was religion allowed back into society as a legal, worthwhile pursuance.
I see Christian churches adorned with spires and crosses as much as I see Buddhist temples during my walks around Shanghai. I’m far from an expert on religion in China but from simple observation it seems that the Communist government changed the landscape of China’s religion immensely. I honestly see as many monks in full garb on the streets of Boston as I do in Shanghai.
Talking with a couple of my Chinese classmates, religion is viewed in a similar vein as honoring ancestors, another time-strengthened tradition. Holidays have always been important in Chinese culture, but now that many are distanced from religion they only encounter when they burn incense at a local temple on the high holidays.
What’s more, the Buddhist temples I’ve traveled to in Shanghai often charge admission — I understand the need to pay fees and upkeep but am a little confused as to how any daily worshippers can make use of temple facilities. Like everything in China, nothing is as it seems on the surface; I’m sure that the longer I stay here the more I will understand, but for now I content myself with appreciating the magnificence of temples such as Jing’An.
Tate Gieselmann is a College of Arts and Sciences junior studying abroad in China. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.