China’s believers are trying to conceal religious statues and icons in order to save them from destruction.
To keep religion out of sight, the State Administration for Religious Affairs in 2017 issued a document forbidding anyone – organization or individual – to build large outdoor religious statues. And the construction of statues inside religious buildings is also strictly controlled.
As a result of the no-statues edict, which authorities present as the fight against the commercialization of Buddhism and Taoism, there has been a steady stream of news of large religious statues being forcibly demolished across China. Even statues of Lao-Tzu, a world-renowned cultural figure revered as the founder of Taoism, were not spared.
To preserve religious statues from being demolished, believers are coming up with ingenious ways to hide them from authorities.
Villagers from Lintao county, under the jurisdiction of the prefecture-level city of Dingxi, in north-central China’s Gansu Province, decided that the best way to protect the statue of Guanyin – Buddhist Goddess of Mercy – at Nanhai Guanyin Temple from being demolished was by covering it.
The villagers say they got the government notice ordering them to remove the statue barely a year after it was erected. An official from the United Front Work Department, or UFWD, told the directors of the temple: “You need to cooperate well with the Communist Party. Otherwise, it [the statue] will definitely be demolished. No matter what method you think of, in any case, this Guanyin statue can never be seen again.”
Under pressure from government officials, the villagers had no choice but to sheathe the entire Guanyin statue in a huge black sunshade mesh in October 2018. Since then, the Guanyin statue has been secluded from the world; from the outside, the entire appearance of the statue is indiscernible.
Although hundreds of open-air statues of Arhats – Buddha’s disciples who have gained insight into the true nature of existence and have achieved nirvana – in the southeastern province of Fujian were veiled differently. Nanshan Temple, located in Zhao’an county, which is part of the prefecture-level city of Zhangzhou, had more than 600 Arhat statues. According to a source, the central government previously gave an order that no more than ten Buddhist statues may be placed out in the open.
In December, the temple had no choice but to move them into the Temple’s hall, with some placed together under an overhanging roof, while some stone-carved ones were put under iron sheds. Some statues were even covered in conical bamboo hats, giving them a comical appearance.
A 22-meter-tall Guanyin statue in Nanbu county, under the administration of the prefecture-level city of Nanchong, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, did not manage to escape the demolition drive: It was forcibly destroyed at the end of September 2018, with a destruction price tag of 1.2 million RMB (approximately $175,600). Although it reportedly cost 8 million RMB (over $1,170,000) to build the Guanyin statue.
“We’re very angry, but there is nothing we can do with the Chinese Communist Party,” one villager said.
But still the destruction didn’t happen quietly: More than 100 villagers came out to protest the demolition. Then police officers threated them, saying: “This is the policy of the central government. Anyone who obstructs will be arrested.”
Fifteen police officers guarded the scene and prohibited villagers from watching or taking photos. One government official tried to explain away his behavior, saying that if he didn’t destroy the statue, he would be punished for dereliction of duty; he was also required to report his progress to his superiors on a daily basis.
“Freedom of belief is a basic human right. However, in this land ruled by the Communist Party, no freedom of belief is visible,” one monk said. “All that is visible is the scene of the dictatorship oppressing the people.”
Reported by Yao Zhangjin