Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Predicament of a Buddhist Temple in Chongqing

I have been occupied by several other commitments in the past two weeks, including teaching a fiction workshop for the New Hampshire Writers Day. As such I haven't posted much or kept up with current China news. (I even briefly toyed with the idea of taking refuge from the China-blog world: being an independent blogger is such a lonely business, for she pleases neither lovers nor haters of China.)

Yesterday, however, a blogger friend sent me a link to a post in CDT titled "Thousand Year Old Temple to be Demolished, Luxury ‘Bathhouse’ to Take its Place." Upon reading it, I could no longer sit steadily minding my own business. The Hot Spring Temple, 1586 years old, is located in my birth town, Beibei, a suburban district of Chongqing, and in my childhood that temple and the north hot spring were my family's regular weekend retreat.

I began to search my Chongqing contact list, needing to do something to help stop the commercial developer from demolishing this historical treasure. But I still had questions. What exactly is going on? Who owns the property rights of the Buddhist temple? What is the government's position on this?

From the Chinese blog post translated by CDT, it is unclear what exactly is happening, other than the fact that the monks and local worshippers are very angry at, and frustrated by, the developer's activity around the temple. Though the word – "destroy" – is used in the post, no demolition plan is mentioned.

Following a link provided by the Chinese post, I found a blog written by an abbot of the Hot Spring Temple, in which he complained about the media's dismissive attitude toward their appeals for help. (One strange thing is that the blog uses a propaganda image of Lei Feng as its header. There must be some reason for this but for now I don't have time to research that.)

In his April 25 (yesterday) post, the abbot blogger said he received a call from Chongqing's government-run "Buddhist Association" ordering him to stop leading Buddhist demonstrations in Beibei's streets, which he said he had not done. Clearly, the government is not on the monks' side.

But a big crowd of the Chinese netizens are; the monks' appeal has been circulated and echoed on major web portals. Probably because of the internet anger, some reporters did take notice. China Economic Times (run by the Development Research Center of the State Council) published a report Friday, which is linked to by the abbot's blog. The report cited arguments from both the developer's and the temple's sides.

The developer, Yunnan's 柏联集团, was actually found and appointed by the Beibei district government, and they signed an agreement to build a giant spa center surrounding the Hot Spring Temple, using the hot spring and the temple as attractions for the spa business. The developer felt wrongly accused of "destroying" the ancient temple. "A vast cursing voice on the internet, we've been treated too unfairly!" A company executive cried to the reporters. He said he couldn't understand, "[The project] should be beneficial and a big promotion for both sides, why do things have to be like this?"

From the monks' perspective, however, a modern spa center encircling the temple breaks the tranquil Buddhist environment and atmosphere, and the massive view of exposed bathers is unacceptable to worshippers. To date, the chaotic construction activities have already damaged some cultural relics and interrupted the temple's religious affairs. Since the construction began, worshipers have been prohibited from entering the temple, the joss sticks and candles stopped burning.

In negotiation, the temple has proposed that the developer builds a wall around the temple's property, in order to block the unsightly entertainment scene in the spa and leave the temple in peace. The managing abbot also wanted to block vehicles from passing through the temple. However the developer rejected those ideas, threatening to withdraw the investment if the temple insists on its position.

The report mentions that the blogger abbot was beaten up by a mob last week and suffered many injuries. But it does not say who the mobs were and how the beating happened.

The report also answers my question about the temple's property rights: It still belongs to a government agency. Even though urban residents in China now enjoy property rights to 70 years, nothing has changed with regard to religious properties. We are talking about the officially legal religions in China, one of which is Buddhism.

Though it turns out that the CDT post has an inaccurate title and it's not a demolition case, I felt little relief. It appears to me this is another serious clash between cultural and commercial interests, and clashes like this have been happening in China frequently ever since the economic reform began. The Beibei district government and the developer see only the commercial benefits the spa project would bring, and have no regard for the cultural significance of maintaining the temple's non-commercial environment. I am not a practicing Buddhist, but I have tremendous respect for Buddhism. I applaud the monks' courage to fight commercialization; their stance is especially commendable given that many temples I have visited in China in recent years have already been willingly commercialized, worshiping money instead of Buddha.

A small comfort brought by the report is that an official from Chongqing's city government has rejected the developer's notion to take over the management of the temple and make it part of their spa business. However, for a more thorough resolution, it may be time for the government to return the property rights to the temple as they had been before 1949.

I will continue to watch the case and report back developments as I can. Meanwhile, dear readers, if you have connections in Chongqing, please do something to help the Hot Spring Temple 温泉寺.


pug ster said...

I have noticed that CDT post stuff that is tentatively biased against China. I guess that this is one of its many reports based on rumors rather on fact.

Adam Minter said...

Thanks for this very informative post. I wonder: could you mention the name of the gov't agency that owns the temple? Beginning in the early 80s, the central government made the return of religious properties one of the central policy initiatives of its evolving religious administration. The hope was that, by returning properties to sanctioned religious groups, those groups wouldn't then have to rely upon foreigners for their support. In some areas of China, the properties were, in fact, returned. But in others, local governments have long defied religious groups and national regulations and continued to maintain (and earn money from) seized properties as their own. If that's the case here, there might be a relatively easy solution.

Other Lisa said...

Xujun, thanks for looking into this and clarifying some of the issues. It does seem fairly absurd that a commercial "spa" and a place of worship can coexist. So many of China's Buddhist sites have been turned into tourist attractions drained of any spirituality (I am not a religious person either but I find much to respect in Buddhist/Daoist traditions). On a trip to Sichuan I took a few years ago, I visited Qingcheng Shan and Leshan. The contrasts were enormous. Leshan was a tourist trap. There was nothing sacred left about it. Qingcheng Shan was entirely different, at least to me. It seems utterly absurd that an investor with the collusion of the local government could turn a place of worship into a bathhouse, but that seems to be what's happening here.

Best of luck on your campaign. I hope Chinese netizons' outrage slows down this trainwreck.

Anonymous said...

The modern red guards of China. Destroy the past and create a new boring future.

Alfonso said...

I wonder if a middle ground could be found. A way to make compatible both the 'new facility' and the former Buddhist temple.

There ares some "lodging business" more oriented to spiritual or meditation retreat Not uncommon in EU. Some even driven by religious orders. Quite popular among stressed executives.

I knew once a monastery that had reserved a corner of its facilities for people who wanted a quite and restful place. Simple rooms but with nice decoration. Lot of nature around. Quite popular for people wanting to prepare for govt exams. Tranquility was guaranteed. There was even no mobile phone service. Also one of the conditions was respect to some rules of the monastery. There was even the possibility to participate in some of the monastery chores if the customer wanted.

In Austria, specially in the Alps, there is a type of resort, quite away from the busy and noisy usual tourist bustle. They are oriented to people that want to find a peaceful moment and recover from a stressful live, and they are specifically designed to provide that. And it is not cheap or easy to get a reservation there. Reservations must be made with lot of time.

Giving the popularity of Buddhist philosophy in the West and in China it could be an interesting combination to consider.

pug ster said...

This place reminds me of a run down temple that I visited about a year and a half ago in Hong Kong that don't get alot of visitors. It was run by a bunch of nuns aged 60+ and they tried to get some prospective nuns from China, but they quit and decided to live a civilian life instead. Many of the people who used to go to this temple went to other temples instead because it looks more modern and more tourist friendly. My fear is that this temple won't be there 10-20 years from now. While it is wrong to worship money, sometimes these temple does need commercialization in order to survive. I'm afraid that this Buddhist temple in Chongqing may suffer the same fate.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Adam, perhaps you are talking about the rights of usage and management for religious places? According to China's regulations, the religious monasteries and temples have those rights but not the property ownership. In the case of the Hot Spring Temple, the property rights belong to 重庆市机关事务管理局房屋管理处, or the Building Management Department of the Chongqing City's Administrative Affairs Management Bureau. (What an awkward name when translated to English.)

Xujun Eberlein said...

Lisa, thanks again for sending me the link! And I know what you are talking about re: the difference between Qingcheng Shan and Leshan. I hate seeing a cultural site turned into something completely commercial!

Alfonso, I think what you describe is actually similar to the developer's idea, at least in their paper. The problem as I see it, is that the developer wants to use the cultural cite to serve a commercial purpose instead of the other way around. And the temple's resistance is very understandable to me. Only if the developer respects the position of the temple, will compromise be possible.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Pug ster, though I agree with you that a blogger/reporter should be more careful about facts vs. rumors, I must say CDT has lots of good and informative posts about China. I also think a critical attitude is essential to a journalist.

As to the Hot Spring Temple, don't forget it is nearly 1600 years old. It's not commercialization that is needed, but repair and maintenance. It looks like the local government is too restrictive on the latter activities. Again, there is a lack of respect here.

perspectivehere said...

This post reminded me of a visit to Paris a couple of years ago. On a tour of one of the historic Parisian cathedrals, I was surprised to learn that all church buildings are owned by the French government, although they are managed by religious organizations.

The French government takeover of the churches took place at the early years of the 20th century, see

As a result of government ownership, there are often insufficient state funds to upkeep church buildings, with many falling into decay.

For example, see this
article from the NYTimes in 1912:

This website has complaints on the destruction of historic French churches and other historic sites that sounds somewhat comparable to the present conflicts now in China:

This page shows pictures of the destruction of a church building by municipal authorities:

Yet, France is able to successfully market its churches and cathedrals as tourist destinations (presumably to earn tourist revenues). See the official France tourism website:

Considering the reputation that France enjoys among international tourists for the beauty of its religious buildings, it is interesting to see that beneath the surface, very similar issues arise as in China between the conflicting aims of secular authorities and religious organizations.

It seems that conflicts between secular authorities and religious organizations over the maintenance of, and land use around, religious buildings are not an uncommon issue around the world.

Alfonso said...

"Only if the developer respects the position of the temple, will compromise be possible."

Yes, that is one problem

Paulina said...

Xujun, thank you for your correction and additional information; the CDT post's title has been revised accordingly.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Thanks for letting me know, Paulina!

Anonymous said...

Xujun Eberlein,

I dont understand why you ask the following question in one of your blog about Hu Jia while talking about the stupidity of chinese government :

I don't know what the criteria are for the "prize for freedom of thought," but why not give it to those people?

What made you believe that Western politicians ever gave a damn about human right in China ?

I usually visit fool_mountain, did you ever visit that site ?

alfaeco said...

"What made you believe that Western politicians ever gave a damn about human right in China ?"
What made you believe they don't?

"I usually visit fool_mountain, did you ever
visit that site ?"
I heard, I visited and after some time.. I leaved.
Wise people there, but wise fools. You will find it interesting anyway xunjun, one have to live all experiences after all.
Wouldn't mind to heard your opinion about that mountain and their wise men if you decide to make the trip there.

Not a bad place is Chinasmack. One can get, often in a lighthearted way, a better view of Chinese minds and opinions. Maybe they do not noticed the are being translated ;-)

alfaeco said...

Alfaeco formerly known as Alfonso. ;-)

alfaeco said...

Ah yes. Forgot to tell. If you reach the mountain, you will find some posts by an ecodelta guy. My Alter ego.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Yes, I do read Fool's Mountain now and then. It had been in my blogroll for a long time. I only dropped it recently as it has become less interesting lately. But that doesn't mean I no long read it.

Sutra said...