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17 Apr, 2013

Chinese Buddhist Monks fight to keep UNESCO out

Global Times

Xi’an, (Global Times) – April 17, 2013 – Getting up at 4 am. Morning prayer. Breakfast. Studying Buddhist classics. More prayer. Master Kuanshu’s daily routine is an example of that practiced in temples for millennia.

In the past few days, however, Kuanshu and other monks have diversified their habits a bit to handle interviews from the press and negotiate with the local government. This is because the temple is about to be targeted as part a government demolishment plan.

Xingjiao Temple, a renowned Buddhist site, tops a hill in the Chang’an district of Xi’an, the capital of numerous dynasties and now the capital city of Shaanxi Province.

The temple was originally built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Its pagoda contains the remains of Xuanzang, a famous Tang Dynasty monk and translator, whose 17-year journey to bring Buddhist scriptures from India to China became immortalized as part of The Journey to the West tales.

According to the government’s plan, some newer buildings which were added in the 1990s that don’t fit the 1,300-year-old temple’s architectural style, including the dining hall and dormitories, are to be demolished by June 30.

The move is part of preparations to apply for UNESCO World Heritage status for several sites in Shaanxi Province that formed part of the Silk Road, an ancient trade route running from China to the Middle East.

To demolish or not to demolish

For the past decade, Kuanshu, the temple spokesman, has lived in the buildings that are to be knocked down, and never imagined he would one day be asked to vacate the premises.

To demolish these buildings means to expel the monks from the temple, Kuanshu told the Global Times.

“If they demolish the buildings, we won’t have anywhere to live so we have to move out. If a temple doesn’t have any monks living there, it becomes a park rather than a temple,” he added.

However, the monks worry that they will not be able to return even if the UNESCO application fails as the government may just turn the temple into a tourist site.

The local government has stated that it is planning to build a new block of apartment buildings where the monks can live, at the foot of the hill just 300 meters away from the temple.

“That is a ridiculous plan. How can monks not live in the temple and commute there daily like office workers?” one of the temple residents, named Kou, told the Global Times.

Yue Luping, a teacher from the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, who has launched an online campaign to boycott the commercialization of religious relics, told the Global Times that evicting the monks was the first step toward the temple losing its religious function and turning the monks into mere performers for tourists.

Kuanshu pointed out that all the buildings were built from donations received from visitors, and that these successes had been a result of the influence of Xuanzang and Buddhism as a whole.

“If we agreed to demolish the buildings, it would also mean letting our followers down,” said Kuanshu.

The Buddhist Association of China made a statement on Thursday, requiring that the demolition plan be stopped and the will of the monks be respected.

On the same day, the country’s religious affairs administration urged religious authorities in Xi’an to investigate the case and consult local Buddhists before acting.

Liu Zheng, a member of the Chinese Association for Cultural Relics, told the Global Times that most of the buildings earmarked for destruction were built by the temple without being reported to the State Administration of Culture Heritage.

Since the temple is on the State Relics Protection List, no new buildings can be built within the temple area and any repairs made to relics should be reported to the administration.

In reaction, the monks said the number of residents has been increasing. Currently, the temple houses some 30 monks as well as a number of other Buddhist faithful. The original living quarters date back to the Song Dynasty (960-1270) and are not suitable or spacious enough for current living requirements.

Liu said the monks’ demands were reasonable but not conducive to appropriate protection of the temple’s relics. He explained that during the Tang and Song dynasties, the central pagoda was surrounded by trees and grass but new halls and buildings are pressed right up against it.

Modern amenities such as electricity and central heating could potentially wreak devastating damage to the relics.

“It is important to protect the integrity of religious culture by allowing the monks to reside there but it is not suitable to have them living inside the temple in such conditions. So I do think the government plan is acceptable,” Liu said.

Tourism boost

Located in a hard-to-reach rural setting, the temple is not an immediate candidate to be a tourist hotspot. This made it a perfect retreat for monks and Buddhist worshippers, with visitors praising its quiet and calm locale.

However, even without applying for UNESCO World Heritage status yet, the temple has become crowded of late due to increased media attention.

Cars were parked from the temple door all the way down the hill as tourists flocked there after hearing the news.

Outside, a few enterprising villagers have set up vending stalls, peddling incense and refreshments. A vendor could earn over 300 yuan by selling incense during this weekend, which was nearly twice compared to other weekends, according to several tourists who visited the site over the weekend.

“Some people came because they worried the temple would change if the buildings were demolished,” Kuanshu said.

In the past, the temple charged 10 yuan for entry tickets from the non-Buddhists. But after the number of visitors soared, the temple opened its doors freely to all.

Kou said that the monks appreciated the widespread public concern and refused to take advantage of this attention.

“I was stunned that the temple decided not to charge entry fees. If it was taken over by the authorities or other parties, could such a thing happen?” Lei said.

Along with other Buddhists working at the temple, Kou had to stop his original duties and joined a team to help cope with the visitors and interview requests from the media.

Although feeling a bit tired after accepting so many interviews, Kuanshu is glad that the buildings remain up for now and is leading the monks in preparing for upcoming religious festivities.

For years, the temple’s income has relied heavily on visitor donations and the monks live humbly.

“Some people might think we are being foolish as attaining the UNESCO status would bring in more money and help develop the temple. But to us, nothing is more important than staying here and following the old practices, as Master Xuanzang did long ago,” said Kuanshu.

No UNESCO status

The temple officially asked for the World Heritage Status application to be dropped last week, although Kuanshu acknowledged the move was unlikely to make a difference.

Liu fed those fears by saying that government organs will have the final say in going ahead with the application or not.

At the same time, the Silk Road application as a whole involves three countries and the UNESCO deadline is drawing near, making it difficult to say exactly how much sway the monks’ opposition will have.

Local officials labelled the monks as selfish during an interview with the Xinhua News Agency on Friday, adding that the application was in their interests and that of the nation.

“It is a pity that the temple doesn’t support the application but this is not the problem. This reflects that both understanding of the World Heritage Status and the application process and are still lacking,” Liu said.

The purpose of getting UNESCO World Heritage Status is to better protect heritage. As such, it is routine for many buildings around cultural sites to be demolished during the application process before supervision is brought in, should a bid be successful.

Experts openly admit that many authorities are gunning for their area to win the status as it brings in numerous tourists and considerable revenues. This has meant that applications for UNESCO World Heritage sites have been filed thick and fast in China in recent years.

“We would support the UNESCO application if it brought real protection to the temple. But we question whether some people just want to take advantage of this to make money,” Kou said.

The local authority has strenuously denied that it is planning to turn the temple into a tourist site by taking advantage of its religious value. It has also stated that no private company is involved in the plans.

However, these claims have largely fallen on deaf ears, as a document from the Chang’an government that was leaked in March 2012 showed that the district government planned to invest some 230 million yuan ($37 million) to turn the temple and the surrounding village into a tourist attraction spot.

Yue said the public had lost faith in the government on this issue. Should the authorities seek to rebuild this trust, making real efforts to protect the relics instead of seeking to make a quick buck would be a good first step.

Liu echoed Yue’s opinion, adding that the Xingjiao Temple case could be a warning or precedent in the future when other local governments seek to apply to UNESCO while riding roughshod over the wishes of the public.