Ebb and Flow - What is Old Becomes New Again

By Larissa Mueller
Meng Zhi Lin, a Taoist monk from Shandong teaches students at the White Cloud Temple in Beijing, one of the worlds biggest and most famous Taoist temples.

Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism each find their niche within China's evolving religious landscape.

"What is well-planted cannot be uprooted. What is well embraced cannot slip away. It will be honored from generation to generation."

- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 54

Li Kisong, 23, sells incense and statues of the Buddha in an alley near Beijing’s Yonghe Lamasery, the most famous Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet. He is not a Buddhist, but he says he’s seen how the religion can bring people together.

“More and more teenagers are believing in Buddhism,” says Li. “It is a good religion because it is a part of Chinese culture.”

Sun Dapeng, a philosophy professor at Zhejiang University of Technology, echoes that sentiment.

“There are more young people who believe in religions,” says Sun, 36. “And you can see a lot more people who go to temples, every year.”

Those young people, born within 30 years of China’s opening to the outside world and its introduction of economic and social reforms, have grown up in a very different country than the one their parents and grandparents knew. They connect to the Internet and study abroad. They consume foreign films, music and fashion.

For a generation raised on MTV rather than Mao Zedong Thought, Buddhism, along with other traditional Chinese ideologies such as Confucianism and Taoism, offers young people a way to reconnect with their Chinese identity in the face of increasing globalization.

“Buddhism has a long, complicated history in China,” says Sun. “Sometimes it is good, sometimes it’s not very popular.”

Sun refers to the Cultural Revolution, the time period between the late 1960s and mid-1970s when Communist Party tried to rid China of its old traditions, labeling them a product of superstition, bourgeois thought, foreign imperialism, or all three. Temples were razed or converted to secular use, while intellectuals and monks were sent to the countryside to labor on farms.

After Mao’s death in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping’s subsequent introduction of sweeping reform policies, interest in traditional Chinese culture and religion surged.

“From the Buddhist point of view, it is normal,” says Sun. “It’s a relation between reasons and consequences. The popularity of Buddhism now is the consequence of what the Chinese people have done in the past.”

It’s also the result of China’s rediscovered commercial flair since religious tourism is a hot and lucrative market. At the Yonghe Lamasery, for example, local worshippers inevitably bump elbows with foreign tourists, and an audio tour guide can be rented to narrate your journey through the large temple’s many halls.

A more authentic glimpse of the past lives on at Guanghua Temple in another part of Beijing, where the events of the 20th century seem to have left the small neighborhood Buddhist establishment all but untouched. Located in an alley near the bar district of Houhai Lake, it stands in stark contrast to the Yonghe Lamasery.

Yan Jun, 28, says his grandmother was a Buddhist, and so he grew up learning about the religion. There is something profound in the artwork, he says.

“[The temple] is very near to my home,” says Yan. “It only takes 20 minutes, so I will come here with some friends if I have free time.”

Wang Xianhua is from Shangdong, but he rents a house and sometimes works in Beijing. When he is in town, he frequently visits the temple to worship.

“This… is a very holy place for the Chinese culture,” says Wang, who is 40. “It is very different from your Western culture.”

But in a twist made possible by a climate more open toward religion, Wang, who also studies the Bible, goes on to make comparisons between Christianity and Buddhism.

“The essence of Christianity and Buddhism is exactly the same – the expression of a good wish and good hope,” he says. “The difference just lies in the appearance.”

Aside from being able to openly display holy images and visit temples, another way Chinese people are getting in touch with their cultural heritage is by putting a modern spin on old philosophies.

One of China’s best-selling books of 2008 is a modern interpretation of the ancient Confucian Analects.

Yu Dan Explains the Analects, compiled from a popular series of televised lectures, has sold an estimated 10 million copies in less than two years since its release, more than J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, the second best-selling book in China.

Confucianism is not technically a religion, but rather a set of teachings that for centuries provided a framework for Chinese society. In traditional China, those who wanted to hold public office had to take the Imperial examination, which tested their knowledge of Confucian classics as well as the arts and military strategy. Sitting for the exam sometimes took up to three days.

Now, parents and students visit Confucian temples seeking educational guidance.

Yu Fang, 21, sells “happiness boards” at the Beijing Confucian Temple. They are about the size of a deck of cards, painted red with the character for “happiness” on one side and an image of Confucius on the other. Parents will often buy such tokens in the hope that they will help their children’s education and career, Yu says.

Inside one of the halls, a group of recent college graduates dressed in Western style academic robes pay respect to the ancient scholar.

Wen Sai, from Hunan province, says she hopes that by visiting the temple, her schoolwork will go very well.

“Confucius is a very important part of Chinese history and culture,” says Wen, 25.

Some others take a more extreme approach. Instead of incorporating old rituals into their daily life, they shun all aspects of modernity and retreat into isolation.

Meng Zhilin did that 10 years ago. He went to live with a Taoist master in the mountains of eastern Jilin province where he spent his days digging holes and contemplating nature.

Recently, a group of monks from Beijing’s White Cloud Temple, one of the world’s largest and most famous Taoist temples, sought him out and asked him to come teach.

With 110 students ranging in age from 18 to 30, it is the largest class to have come through the doors of the temple in recent history, says Meng, 50.

"The people who come here are looking for simplicity in life and how to live harmoniously with the natural and heaven," says Meng. "We must choose a silent place in the beginning, but after you have succeeded in getting the Tao you can find peace even in a very noisy city like Beijing."

With the coming of next month's Olympics Games, Beijing, and the rest of China, will no doubt grow even noisier and more crowded. The Beijing Olympic Economic  Research Association estimates roughly 600,000 foreigners and 2.5 million Chinese tourists will visit Beijing during the games, with the number of foreign tourists visiting China set to grow up to 9 percent annually through the following decade.

But even in the face of China's monumental growth, the country's old traditions will continue to survive, Meng says.

"There is always someone who wants to go practice Tao and thinks nothing of daily life," Meng says, "so the Taoist can survive for a long history, even 2000 years."