Buddhist and Taoist places of worship are continuously taken over by the government. Believers are dispersed, religion replaced with “red” cultural activities.
by Zhang Feng
A thousand-year-old temple becomes an exhibition hall
Dayun Temple, also known as Tiefo Temple (literally “Iron Buddha Temple”), is located in Yaodu district of Linfen city in the northern province of Shanxi. It was built in 632, the sixth year of the Zhenguan era during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The temple was destroyed during a major earthquake in 1695, during the reign of the Qing Dynasty’s (1636-1912) Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722), and was reconstructed twenty years later.
According to a local Buddhist, officials from Yaodu district’s Religious Affairs Bureau took over the temple last year and converted it into a “cultural relic management office,” proclaiming that this was no longer a temple, and no one is allowed to hold Buddhist ceremonies or worship. Ceremonial Buddhist attire was also banned, and all the monks have been driven away. The Bureau of Cultural Relics now controls the temple, the officials said.
Immediately after the statues of deities were removed from the temple’s main Mahavira Hall, local officials organized a calligraphy exhibition, dedicated to the special battle “to clean up gang crime and eliminate evil” – a nationwide campaign to fight organized crime, though often used by the authorities a pretext to crack down on religion.
In late April this year, a graduation exhibition for an adult calligraphy class was held in the former temple. Numbered signs were hung outside the main hall and two other rooms, indicating the locations of the show. The incense cauldron has disappeared from the temple’s courtyard, and a row of conspicuous banners promoting the calligraphy class were displayed instead.
In June, a security gate with an electronic counter was installed at the main entrance to the temple to control the number of visiting people. A registration form was displayed on the table next to the gate, requiring all visitors to write down their full name, ID number, phone number, workplace, and other personal information, as well as specify the reason for their visit.
“The current situation is worse than that during the Cultural Revolution when people were punished in the open. Now, the government is punishing them in secret,” a local resident commented angrily. “The government forcibly occupied Dayun Temple, even though everyone knows that it doesn’t belong to them.”
Taoist priests forced to climb over the wall to enter their temple
Qingxu Temple, a Taoist temple located in Zhen’an district of Dandong city in the northeast province of Liaoning, was built in 1906, during the reign of Guangxu Emperor (1871-1908). Partially destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the temple was renovated in 2013 with investments from several individuals and became very popular among the local people.
In late May, the city’s Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs sealed off the temple, claiming that it was unlicensed. Everything was ordered to be removed from the temple – statues, incense burners, and other items. Everything containing religious wording inside and outside the temple was smeared over, and two Taoist priests were ordered to leave the temple.
A month later, the town government replaced the signboard with the name of the temple with “Antique Books and Cultural Services.” All entrances to Qingxu Temple were sealed off with galvanized iron sheets, so the two priests had to climb over the wall to get inside the temple – a strenuous activity that has caused injuries to one of them. To date, he still hasn’t fully recovered.
Temples elsewhere in China are continuously being repurposed on a variety of pretexts, officials prohibiting any religious activities there. In late April, Tianhou Temple – a historical and cultural site protected by the city – in Huanren Manchu Autonomous County of Liaoning Province’s Benxi city was taken over by the local Bureau of Cultural Relics on the grounds that it was unlicensed. Temple fairs and all other religious activities were ordered to be ceased, visitors turned away, and all of the temple’s priests and nuns forced to leave.
Around the same time, the United Front Work Department of Xiuyan Manchu Autonomous County under the jurisdiction of Anshan city in Liaoning issued a document prohibiting the burning of incense in temples “to prevent air pollution.”