Daoist and other popular temples are part of the positive dynamic of the Chinese economy. Situated centrally in major cities, they are often the focus of commerce and the site of fairs and markets, plus they offer an opportunity to pray for protection and prosperity.
A prime example is the temple of the City God of Shanghai, smack in the middle of a vibrant tourism and shopping district called Yuyuan 豫园 (Pleasure Garden) after a beautiful Qing-dynasty garden, complete with ponds, bridges, pavilions, and rock formations. Pedestrian walkways meander among reconstructed traditional-style buildings housing all sorts of shops, from Starbucks through fashion accessories to souvenirs. Numerous stalls and vendors provide a mouth-watering selection of Shanghai street food, including cookies, buns, dumplings, and more.
The temple itself centers around a large open courtyard, where an incense burner smolders with numerous incense sticks. Various side halls, equipped with benches for kneeling and boxes for money offerings, worship a slew of Daoist and popular deities, while the main hall is dedicated to Qin Yubo秦羽博(1295–1373), a local official under the Yuan dynasty and a distant relative of the late China scholar Julia Ching. Having done much to improve the plight of citizens during his lifetime, after his death his spiritual energy was considered too potent to be limited to just his own family as an ordinary ancestor. Accommodating petitions by the local elite, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, appointed him as city god of Shanghai. Believed to have greatly aided the city during times of crisis, notably in the 19th and 20th century under colonial rule and foreign occupation, by appearing to leading citizens in dreams and dispensing advice, he remained popular even after the founding of the People’s Republic.
As China’s economy expanded in the 19th century, the temple grew increasingly popular, offering an opportunity to express thanks and pray for good fortune. Growing to include various side halls and niches of worship to other deities, the temple also housed regular fairs and became the center of a popular market with numerous local businesses setting up shop. In 1951, it was subsumed under the Shanghai Daoist Association and made into a Daoist center. As a result, statues representing folk and Buddhist figures were removed and more Daoist deities installed. Closed during the Cultural Revolution used for other purposes, it reopened in 1994 and was renovated in 2005-06.
Today, as much as other city temples, it is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. It also contains a significant shrine to the God of Wealth, Guan Yu, originally a general during the Three Kingdoms, and offers the opportunity to pray for interference to the god of one’s year of birth, one among twelve supernatural administrators arranged according to the Chinese zodiac serving in of the Department of Destiny. In times of growing economic dynamic as well as insecurity, it provides succor and spiritual support, the opportunity to pray for wealth, success, and personal good fortune.
Read: Kohn, Livia. 1997. “The Taoist Adoption of the City God.” Ming Qing Yanjiu 5 (1997), 68-106.