China’s folk religion venues, an integral part of rural life for generations, suffer severe crackdowns, as the communist regime aims to eradicate all religions.
by Shen Xinran
Indigenous folk religions are deeply rooted in China’s rural communities, helping preserve local culture, customs, and traditions. Harshly suppressed during the Cultural Revolution, these venues now suffer a new wave of crackdowns nationwide under President Xi Jinping’s rule.
Since April, the government of the northern province of Hebei has been cracking down on folk religion temples in its rural communities. Bitter Winter has already reported about the destruction of 85 venues since April in the province’s prefecture-level city of Handan. According to the newly received information, the number of the destroyed temples had risen to 104, and 110 temples were shut down or repurposed.
In early May, Yangxian and Wenzhangye temples in a village of Handan’s Hanshan district were leveled to the ground by an excavator on orders from local officials. All statues of deities were destroyed as well. The icons in nearby Nainai and Jiuye temples were removed, and entrances to them blocked.
“It’s a national policy to demolish all temples,” said a village official who took part in one of the demolitions. He was unwilling to do this, but he had no choice but to implement the order to keep his post. “I gave some offerings before the demolition, telling deities that I didn’t want to do that, but my higher-ups pressured me,” the official confessed.
Hoping to evade demolitions and fearing that this would offend deities, owners of some temples covered the statues dedicated to them and converted the venues for public use as activity or fitness centers. One temple has been turned into a “Chairman Mao Zedong memorial hall.”
“This is no longer a temple,” the custodian of one of the temples said helplessly. “The signboard now reads that it is an activity center, and the incense burner has been replaced with the national flag. But if the temple were not converted, the local government would have demolished it. It’s like during the Cultural Revolution.”
The temple demolition campaign is also widespread in the central province of Henan. After the coronavirus lockdown has been lifted, the government of the county-level city of Linzhou started a comprehensive drive to demolish folk religion temples within its jurisdiction.
A village official from Linzhou-administered Hejian town told Bitter Winter that he had received a notice on WeChat, a messaging app, from the local Religious Affairs Bureau demanding to “demolish and repurpose folk religion temples before the end of May.” The message also warned, “not to take any chance, as every village must complete this task.”
A resident in one of the villages commented that this is yet “another government campaign that no one can stop.”
The Guandi Temple in Pingfangzhuang village in Linzhou’s Zhenlin district was demolished at about 3 a.m. on May 16. An eyewitness told Bitter Winter that a local government official, accompanied by over 30 personnel, brought an excavator and a front loader to the temple. Its 84-year-old owner was brutally dragged from the temple and tossed on the roadside. The workers first smashed the statues of deities and then demolished the temple. “They stood hand-in-hand surrounding the temple, forbidding us from approaching,” the eyewitness said.
“Why did they come to demolish the temple at night, like bandits, not during the day?” another villager said.
Two other folk temples in the village—Earch Temple and Child-Giving Guanyin Temple—were also destroyed in the small hours. So were Nainai temples and Earch temples in Zhenlin district’s Xiquan village and Tumen village in Caisang town.
A village official explained that the local government had specifically allocated funds to demolish folk religion temples. “They give subsidies to compensate for all expenses, including the rental of excavators and front loaders,” the official said. He added that over 20 temples were demolished within one day in neighboring eight villages. Local officials are demanded to report about demolitions every day to the Religious Affairs Bureau through a WeChat group.