After moving to Shanghai early this year, my husband and I eagerly visited the Bund, Pudong, Yu Gardens, and several other classic attractions within our first few weeks in China. One of several temples we visited was Jing’an Temple, which was closest to our home. All of the temples had ornate incense burners and pagodas,… Read more »
After moving to Shanghai early this year, my husband and I eagerly visited the Bund, Pudong, Yu Gardens, and several other classic attractions within our first few weeks in China. One of several temples we visited was Jing’an Temple, which was closest to our home. All of the temples had ornate incense burners and pagodas, as well as a plethora of Buddhas, but this one also had intricately carved wooden structures and was entirely gilded with gold. Detracting from the beauty of this sacred site, however, were the billboards advertising high-end retail, the Old Navy store flanking one side, and the high-rise towers that ended up in almost every camera shot. In sharp contrast to the Jing’an Temple location was that of Fa Zang Jiang Temple, in Old Town Shanghai. It sits about a block off a major thoroughfare on a small commercial street and portrays itself in a much more nondescript manner.
The two temples got me thinking about how historical sites are integrated into their urban fabric, so I researched these two particular temples to further understand their evolution amid the ever-changing city around them.
Situated in the Jing’an District of Shanghai, Jing’an Buddhist temple, originally built in 247 AD, has been in its current location since 1216. As with many historical sites, it has seen many transitions. During China’s Cultural Revolution it was converted to a plastics factory for a short time. The temple also suffered many fires throughout its history and burned to the ground in 1972. In 1983 the site was deemed important enough to become a protected national treasure and was returned to its original purpose as a temple. The process of renovation began in the early ’90s and still continues today. As the city developed around the temple site, transportation infrastructure began to impact it. Nanjing Road, a major four-lane connector, passes immediately in front of the temple and bisects it from the very popular Jing’an Park, built in 1954. In 1995 the 32-story Universal Tower was built directly behind the temple and since that time retail towers have begun to crowd around this popular area.
Fa Zang Jiang Temple, along with three other temples including Jing’an, is one of the four most important Buddhist temples in Shanghai. Its unique architecture makes it a top tourist destination. Located in Old Town, the temple was built in 1924 and occupies 0.4 hectares. Like Jing’an, it too was used as a factory during the Cultural Revolution and then restored.
The two temples, equally important historically and to the Buddhist community, both encountered the same massive urban growth around them. The approach to integrating them into this ever-changing landscape, however, could not have been more different.
Jing’an is situated in an area of rapid urbanization and expensive real estate. It has evolved to compete with the showy retail and towers, and some would say has even threatened its identity as a traditional temple. Its loud location contributes to its feeling very busy even within the temple walls. Within the last ten years the temple has added its golden pagoda and roof plus an overall embellishment update valued at about 4.8 million USD. The temple sees a lot of tourists, as buses drop off groups every hour, and entry fees can be high depending on the day of the week and if there is a holiday.
Fa Zang Jiang, on the other hand, does not advertise itself. Along the city street it appears just to be another gated entrance into a neighborhood. It remains sheltered from the neighborhood by a very tall neoclassical temple wall that lines the entire block on which it sits. Nothing about it screams TEMPLE, and without stepping through the doors, you would never know that it is there. The feeling inside is quiet, even with people praying and burning incense. There is no fee and even some Shanghainese do not know about it.
Fa Zang Jiang has kept its historical identity intact and maintains a serene character within the hustle a bustle of a very busy city. Jing’an is forever changing and updating its identity as the urban fabric around it continues to evolve. It begs the question of how this change is managed and what is considered an acceptable level without the loss of historical value. For a temple site that has existed for nearly 800 years, it would seem critical to retain a sense of that history, even among the unprecedented pace of urbanization and development.