Praying in Chinese

Within earshot of the Yuyuan Gardens thronging with loud tourists, there is a quieter and more serene area that houses the unassuming entrance to the City God Temple. Like much in contemporary China, the temple has blurred the line between tradition and modernity. Although the City God temple is ostensibly rooted in ancient rituals, the current commercialization shows the tension between modern development and traditional beliefs in Chinese culture.

The City God Temple is officially a Daoist space dedicated to the worship of the Tudi Gong, or City God. The temple is more linked to popular or folk religion than Daoism, but the government does not allow popular religion spaces. With the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, China officially became an atheist state in conjunction with the Marxist concept of rejecting religion. Despite the CCP’s campaign for secular faith, many religions and philosophies, including Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, continue to flourish in China. Popular religion worship continues too, but it is rarely identified publicly as such.

Traditional belief dictates that the City God is like a spiritual governor that watches over the area and its people. There are other minor gods throughout the temple as well. In Chinese popular religion, there is a hierarchy of bureaucratic gods that protect and regulate their constituents. Each human bureaucrat has a counterpart office in the spiritual world. There are bureaucratic gods at each level with progressively increased power all the way up to the Jade Emperor.

Outside the temple, there is an open area for making incense offerings. For 5 or 10yuan, a worshipper can buy incense and then perform the appropriate ritual. With the guidance of a peer, I gave an incense offering. First, I let my incense burn in a pit (without lighting it). Once my incense has charred, I bowed three times to each cardinal direction. While bowing, I thought about my prayer or wish. Afterwards, I put my incense in a large cart with the rest of the smoldering incense. I noticed that the physical act of offering incense made my ritual feel more significant. More than simply thinking my wish, acting out the ritual helped me connect to the practice.

At this spiritual space, the tension between modern development and traditional faith is clear. The temple is under construction to maintain its traditional appearance, but it is still well within sight of urban development. Even at the temple, a visitor is never far from a Western franchise or a skyscraper. While there are clearly sincere worshippers at the temple, there is also a souvenir shop. Tourists taking pictures stand alongside worshippers offering gifts in ritual. Worshippers must buy a ticket to enter the temple, and purchasing offerings is another cost. Like at this temple, it seems that the commercialization of traditional Chinese culture is widespread in Shanghai.

Modern China has felt this tension between the past and present throughout the country. Although China is often presented as one continuous and uniform civilization, public opinions on the past and the country’s traditions often change. For example, Chairman Mao decried the Forbidden City as opulent and decadent. Now, however, the government embraces the Forbidden City as a symbol of the past’s glory and grandeur. Likewise, the Cultural Revolution infamously called for the new, young, and modern. Older ideas were passionately persecuted. Now, the Cultural Revolution is considered a mistake. In a similar cycle, Confucianism went out of fashion during the Communist push for egalitarianism, but the government supports Confucianism again because of its connection to tradition and continuity.

China now has a combination of modernity and tradition, but the balance still seems uneasy. In particular, Shanghai seems like a glittering Western city, but people actually denounce it for that exact reason. Tourists expect a traditional Chinese experience, even as the business world encourages China to modernize and commercialize.

Visiting the City God temple was a really memorable day because I could see how traditional beliefs flow and intermingle with modern urban development. Personally, I really like that ambiguity about China. Almost simultaneously, the country seems to push rapid development while also fighting to hold on to its traditional Eastern qualities. The contradictions are ubiquitous and unforgettable. The tension between the old and the new is what makes Shanghai so interesting and irresistible. 

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