The shift in population dynamics has made communities more vulnerable, loosening or dissolving traditional ties and shifting focus away from the extended family. As a result, many Chinese actively seek new forms of community, often turning to sports groups or clubs, but increasingly also discovering or recovering religious organizations as a way to create social stability and support.
In this context, Daoist temples are becoming active community builders. Numerous in the old days, dotted across villages, towns, and mountains, with colorful frescoes, imposing statues, ornate furnishings, and gorgeous gardens, they were massively decimated after 1949 and completely eviscerated during the Cultural Revolution. Torturing leading monks as “rich land owners,” as Liao Yiwu describes in his interview with the 103-year-old Buddhist abbot Deng Kuan, Red Guards would destroy paraphernalia and smash up statues, whitewash walls and spray-paint slogans, then turn the place over to the locals. Many temples were completely razed, their building materials used by the peasants. The majority were reassigned, becoming military depots, kindergartens, or housing projects, their lands taken over by towns and local people, while monks and nuns practiced in secrecy. Leaving the area or dying, few survivors remained, and some places have lost all memory of a temple’s presence. For example, the Daoist sanctuary to Bixia yuanjun in Caishan 蔡山 near Xuzhou was discovered only after heavy rains in 2012 caused the roof to cave and plaster mud to wash away, uncovering murals that had been concealed for decades.
Most temples’ locations are known and, beginning in the mid-1980s, many have been rebuilt—leading to a three-fold increase in numbers over the last two decades. The process took many years of patient plodding, always respecting the population, honoring lay donors, cooperating with the authorities, and working very, very hard. As Adeline Herrou (2013) says about the Wengongci in Hanzhong, Shaanxi, when the first three monks returned, “the compound looked less like a temple than like an accumulation of houses without proper wall or context, singularly lacking in splendor” and partially occupied by lay families. However, the monks made it into a holy place through their vision: “They accurately described what had been there in the past and fervently outlined what they had planned for the future.” This future, moreover, is not a mere replica of the past. Daoists rebuild differently, not only because the earlier forms are irretrievably lost, but also because they wish to transform and adapt the religion to the new century.
In this process, Daoist temples often become a pivot in community building. As Adeline Herrou shows in her amazing video, “Master Feng: Portrait of a Daoist Monk, Rebuilder of Temples in China Today,” Master Feng first returned to and restored his home temple, then assisted in the relocation and revitalization of a nearby city temple, and afterwards turned his attention on largely ruined sanctuary in a remote village in the mountains of southern Shaanxi. The village, a single dirt road with a cluster of run-down houses, was too remote for people to find work, leaving behind only children and the elderly. Utterly dispirited, they had largely given up hope and were just vegetating along.
When Master Feng arrived with his crew of builders and craftsmen, supported by state funds and city donors, they took notice. For the first time in years, someone looked at them as if they mattered. Their spirits rose and, as the temple started to look better, they began to renovate their houses. When it offered the first services to newly installed deities, they applied for government grants and paved the main road, constructed a community center, and began to take pride in their home.
As the temple grew, moreover, tourists started to arrive, looking for peace and quiet as well as clean air and open nature. This opened a whole new level of economic opportunity, houses offering B & B stays, local shops stacking more goods, and vendors selling religious paraphernalia. Adults could now make a living, and some of the migrant workers returned. The Daoist temple, in other words, not only rebuilt religious structures but gave the community a new lease on life, transforming it in the process.
Read: Wei, Yanli. 2017. “The Caishan Goddess Temple: Then and Now.” Journal of Daoist Studies 10:196-210.
Liao, Yiwu. 2009. The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up. New York: Anchor, 73-92.
Herrou, Adeline. 2013. A World of Their Own: Monastics and Their Community in Contemporary China. St. Petersburg, Fla: Three Pines Press.