While religion was all but outlawed when the Communists took power, plenty of beautiful Buddhist temples remain in Shanghai – many of which are still used by those wanting to worship in a country with no official deities. Some temples were put to secular use during the Cultural Revolution, while others fell into disrepair. The following are our pick of the best, most interesting, and most beautiful.
One of the most famous Shanghai temples is the Yu Fo Si, or Jade Buddha Temple on Anyuan Lu. It is run by the Chan sect, and has two Burmese Buddha statues carved from white jade. To see the seated Buddha with its jewel decorations, you’ll need to pay an extra ¥10 on top of the ¥15 entry fee, but it’s well worth the extra spend. This Buddha symbolises Gautama meditating under a bodhi tree. Then there’s the Hall of the Sleeping Buddha which has two jade statues depicting the Buddha’s ascent to nirvana. The small statue came from Burma, and the larger one was brought to Shanghai from Singapore in the 10th century by Buddhist master Zhen Chen. The Great Hall contains the San Fo, or three golden Buddhas – Gautama, Amitabha, and Bhaisajyaguru – as well as shrines to the 18 Arhats.
Another famous and popular temple is the Wen Miao (Confucius Temple) situated in the Old Town. It was set up in 1294 in a different part of the city, moving to the Old Town in 1855 when the Small Swords Society used it as a base for an attack on Shanghai. During the Cultural Revolution the temple was destroyed, and owes its modern image to reconstruction in the 1990s. Entering the temple is to escape the bustle of the Old Town. There are pagodas, bridges, miniature lakes, gardens, and statues. An atmosphere of peace and tranquillity is encouraged by areas like the Hall for Listening to Rain, and the Sky and Cloud Reflection Pond. Other temple sights are the Kui Xing Pavillion with its 20 metre pagoda, the Da Chang Bell and Da Chang Hall, and the Music Terrace. The complex is also home to a school and library, and housed the Shanghai national library in the 1930s. Look out for the Ming and Qing dynasty calligraphy displays in the Wu Hall, along with the Ling Bi stone from Anhui province.
The largest temple in Shanghai is the Longhua Si. Like the Yu Fo Si, it is run by Chan Buddhists and is the most active place of worship in the city. It was built in the Song period between 960 and 1279 AD and is famous for its shrines to the Four Heavenly Kings – Maitreya, Guanyin, Sakyumani, and Amitabha. If you don’t already know about Buddhism, a visit to Longhua will inspire you to learn, just so you can understand who is who among the pantheon of incarnations. There are the Lohans, the Bodhisattvas, the arhats… and that’s just for starters. The seven story pagoda is unmissable. It was built during the Three Kingdoms era to guard the jewels which sprung from Buddha’s ashes after his cremation. There’s also the giant bronze bell which weighs in at over three tons. It is struck 108 times on New Year’s Eve, bringing good fortune to all who hear it. Rather more profane than sacred is the Longhua tourist city, whose shops sell a plethora of Buddhist souvenirs, junk food and clothing.
A picture-perfect depiction of modern and ancient Shanghai co-existing is the sight that greets you from the cross-roads of Nanjing Xi Lu and Wanhangdu Lu. The winged rooves of Jing’an Si are dwarfed by the enormous, neon-lit shopping malls and office blocks which have sprung up around it. The outer walls of the temple have even been turned into shops. All this modernity belies a long history. Jing’an Si is the oldest temple in Shanghai, originally built in 247 AD. It was used as a plastic factory during the Cultural Revolution, but put back to religious use in later years. It is currently undergoing renovations in preparation for Expo visitors and admission, once free, is now ¥20. Its treasures include gold seals, sutras, 5th century statues and a Ming copper bell.
Shanghainese Daoists worship at the Bai Yun Guan (White Cloud Temple), which is the main headquarters of the Shanghai Taoist Association. It is twinned with the Bai Yun Guan in Beijing, and shares a collection of Ming scriptures. The temple we see today is not the original. The building dating from 1863 was pulled down during the Cultural Revolution and wasn’t rebuilt until 2004. There’s another Daoist temple in the Old City, called Cheng Huang (City God). Like Jing’an, it was turned into a factory during the Cultural Revolution, and put back into religious service in 1994.
An architecturally interesting temple is the Fa Zang Jiang Si, close to Dongtai Lu. It was built in 1923 and part of its design incorporates Art Deco style. There’s also the Chen Xiang Ge Buddhist nunnery in the Old Town, which was built in the Ming era.
Shanghai’s temples provide pockets of tranquillity away from the buzz of city life, whether or not you are a believer. They are well worth exploring, both to soak up something ancient in a city which is so modern, and for some quiet contemplation.
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