Recently I have noticed that buddhist iconography is seeping into local shrines, which have been growing stronger this past decade. At the Daxin Tianhou Temple, for example, Guanyin (boddhisattva of compassion, but also the Goddess of conception) and 天花娘娘 (Tiānhuā niángniáng the Goddess of pox -cow, small, and vaccines thereof, who also heals disease in general and is somehow related to conception) have joined Tianhou on the alter. Also, popoular Buddhist texts and sutras are being distributed in local shrines and temples. In fact, the Shenzhen Hongfa Temple in Fairy Park is actively publishing and presumably delivering these tracts. Other sutras are published by very local printers, whose addresses include place markers such as “side alley”.
In addition to the activity of the Hongfa Temple, another clear sign of the times is the unremarked upon abandonment of the Nantou City Walking Museum, which had been built to celebrate the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. A few days ago, I discovered that the old Xin’an walking museum entrance, which had marked the southern entrance into the walled city had been dismantled. At the city gate itself, the door god shrine used to house just the Jade Emperor. Now a Buddha also receives the incense of devotees.
Likewise, the Guandi Temple (located in front of the city wall) has been renovated and popular Buddhist scripture, including mass printings of the heart sutra and the 玉历宝钞 (Jade Record – a popular scripture which includes illustrations of ten levels of heaven, used to frighten people into good behavior) are being distributed freely. The first page of the Hongfa edition of the Jade Record opens with a series of blubs by famous Western and Chinese political figures on buddhism. In order, the blurbs cite Engles, Mao Zedong, Jiang Zeming, Hu Jintao, and Sun Zhongshan, retracing the steps of the Chinese revolution with a return to the leader of the Xinhai Revolution. The back page of blurbs cites famous Western and Chinese scientists and a playwrite, including (and in order): Einstein, Shakesphere, You Zhibiao (who introduced the idea of “Buddhist Science“), and Huang Nianzu (1912-1992，also a scientist, who wrote extensively on all forms of Buddhism).
Chinese folk religion has always mixed elements of Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Imperial iconography, contemporary politics, and now science, Marxism, and Shakesphere. Indeed, the deification of Mao Zedong, both during his life and after has consistantly captured Western imagination as a way to understand life in the People’s Republic. However, what is rarely commented on how popular culture in China is both non-challenging and subversive at the same time. Whether or not a scene or a text or a song manifests a particular “protest” is a question of interpretation. The popularity of Cui Jian’s song 一无所有 (Nothing to my name – translated by Joel at chinahopelive) demonstrates how dense ambiguity – is the song addressing a lover or the Party? and if addressing both what does that mean about love and politics? – allows for rather mundane lyrics to take on revolutionary meaning .
Likewise, the extent to which popular forms of Buddhism are being spread and taken up in Shenzhen popular culture is notable because it is both non-challenging and subversive. On the one hand, there is no large-scale debate about religious freedom in the city. Westerners who would look for movements and protests to establish the right to faith would look in vain. On the other hand, popular efforts to reclaim religious sites throughout the city have generally been successful. City and District level officials who worked to establish historic monuments now discover that their museums have been effectively appropriated as shrines and temples. In addition, Shenzhen’s urban villagers are using their wealth to (re)build ancestral shrines and temples, silently weaving Chinese fok religion back into the fabric of city life. Reform and Opening with Guangdong characteristics. So to speak.
To visit the Guandi Temple and nearby Nantou Museum (with exhibition of shards and maps of archeological digs in the area) take any bus that heads north on Shennan road to the Nantou checkpoint and get off at Nantou Pedestrian Overpass (nántóu tiānqiáo ). Coming south, Nantou Tianqiao is the stop just after the checkpoint. For more stories about Shenzhen’s emerging religious landscape, click cosmography.