As religion “sinicization” campaign sweeps across China, the state repurposes places of worship, replacing spiritual texts and symbols with propaganda.
by Zhou Xiaolu
Chinese Buddhism is experiencing the most severe crisis since the Cultural Revolution. Temples, which used to be peaceful places for worshiping and chanting, are now subjected to rigorous “sinicization” campaign and are changed beyond recognition after they are altered according to the government’s requirements. Religious symbols are being covered or removed from temples, replaced with communist propaganda and literature on traditional Chinese culture.
Da’a Mituo Temple in Xi’an, the capital of the northwestern province of Shaanxi, is one among the many temples that have been forcibly repurposed by the state: its Hall of Great Strength has been recently modified into a public library of national cultural studies.
“Give the Buddhist statues back to us! Give the Hall of Great Strength back to us!” more than 20 Buddhists were demanding outside the Temple during a visit by provincial and district authorities in early September.
An eyewitness said that some religionists were very emotional in protesting against the forced changes in the temple, crying and shouting, some kneeling in front of officials’ cars.
The officials accused the Buddhists of “besieging them,” despite the believers’ attempts to explain that their emotions were in response to the government’s actions, and they merely wanted to protect something very dear to them.
“For us, Buddhists, the temple is our home. You have occupied it. Where are we supposed to go? We must protect our home,” one of the protesting monks pleaded with the officials outside the temple.
A local Buddhist related to Bitter Winter the events that had led to such emotional reaction, uncharacteristic to Buddhists who tend to stay away from worldly affairs.
On August 27, the abbot of Da’a Mituo Temple received a notice from the local government that required to remove or hide all religious symbols from the Hall of Great Strength, including the statues of Buddha and Arhats. The hall was to be converted into a cultural library or a Chinese medicine clinic. The local government had previously cracked down on the temple, dismantling one statue and closing down the temple’s scripture library.
“The government is an evil force, aiming to conceal all Buddhist statues and occupy the temple step by step. We cannot act like sheep anymore,” the Buddhist added.
Local Buddhists signed with their fingerprints a petition letter in protest against the forcible conversion of their temple and hired two lawyers in an attempt to protect their rights legally.
The petition letter against the conversion of the Hall of Great Strength.
In late September, the Hall of Great Strength has been changed beyond recognition. The statues were covered up with plasterboard, and the temple’s signboard was replaced with one reading, “Public Welfare Library for National Cultural Studies.” The hall was filled with books promoting “Xi Jinping Thought,” traditional Chinese literature, Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” and books on China’s history and traditional medicine, while nothing on Buddhism can be found in the library. Despite their abundance, no one seems to be interested in reading the newly displayed books.
The library retains only propaganda materials, books on Chinese medicine and history, traditional literature.
To enforce the “sinicization” policy, Protestant, Catholic, and other denominations’ religious venues are also required to display in the most prominent places books promoting the communist ideology, core socialist values, and traditional Chinese culture, while religious texts are removed.