A while back I made a post about going to China & Taiwan, and a little of the history of the two countries. I might’ve been able to skip that post and just jump to this one, but that one provides the context of where I’m going now : artifacts of that history.
China has a very rich history going back thousands of years, through the dynastic period into the ancient period (before there were dynasties), but where are all those temples and statues and artifacts?
Well, mostly destroyed.
Or in Taiwan.
Back in the 60’s, China went through a cultural revolution, during which they destroyed a lot of things representing the previous eras. This kind of behavior is a pretty common and healthy behavior with fledgling regimes – getting rid of the old to make way for the new, not only physically, but more importantly mentally. Mind you, I’m not exonerating this behavior, only saying that it’s common and healthy for new regimes. Temples, books, various works of art, even cemeteries – nothing was safe. While the destruction was widespread, it was far from complete, because when you have thousands of years of history, it takes a while to get rid of it all.
On top of this, monks, priests, and basically any version of clergy in the country were either killed, sent to prison, or fled. Religion was seen as “superstition,” and one of the pillars of the old world which had to be purged. This is obviously an extreme version of religious persecution, and as a side note, I’d like to point out that doomsayers in our own country claiming that the government is trying to destroy Christianity or infringe on their religious rights, etc. have FAR more in the way of religious rights than they think. /soapbox
Why did all this happen? Well it likely had a lot to do with my previous post – the last few centuries were full of war and occupation and conquest by foreign powers and they didn’t ever want that kind of thing to happen again. They blamed the old ways, and by association, religion and all that history they’d come out of. Before anyone goes condemning them for all this, consider that we would likely do the same if it happened to us.
There’s actually a vigorous academic discussion about this whole phenomenon that continues to this day. Like China itself, it’s large and complex and can’t really be summed-up in a single blog post (lol).
Taiwan is / was a different matter. There were indigenous people living there, and when the Ming (often seen as the last dynasty of “Han” Chinese) retreated there, they forged a lot of alliances with those people. When Chiang Kai-Shek fled the mainland, lots of his folks looted artifacts and brought them to Taiwan, and when they heard about what was going on in the mainland, they enacted policies to preserve whatever heritage they had brought with them and what already remained on the island. Sure, the Qing eventually destroyed the last vestiges of the Ming, but the point is there was already an alliance with and tolerance of native cultures in place.
Fast forward to now. The Chinese realize the error of the regime at the time and have begun movements to rebuild and preserve what they have left. Still, people idolize Mao Zedong despite his hand in the cultural revolution – there was a lot of Mao memorabilia, from hats to shirts to miniature statues, etc. This is all to illustrate it’s STILL a complex thing. China has a LOT fewer temples and historic sites than it used to, and a lot of them have been turned into tourist traps. For example, we saw a 1,000 year-old banyan tree at a park. We had to pay to get in, which is totally fair, but there were all manner of boat rides, pony rides, and other touristy things happening in the same park, mere yards away from said banyan.
While in Guangzhou, we visited three temples, all of which were mostly empty of people, though not in disrepair. Except for the sounds of the city, I thought it was rather appropriate and peaceful, and found it easy to “step back in time” and see how it might’ve been 500 years ago. Two of the three charged an entrance fee. There were cameras all over and there was a large banner praising the country, not the Buddha. What got me though, wasn’t that sign – it was the one explaining how to burn incense offerings without burning down the temple.
Because that means it’s a thing, or was at one point. They’d lost so much of that tradition that a sign was needed to explain it again.
Meanwhile, it was a vastly different story in Taiwan. Longshan temple was literally packed with people, some singing, some praying or making offerings, etc. The incense burners spewed smoke and sometimes gouts of flame because they were loaded with so many sticks of incense. It was very much a “living” temple. Guandu temple was a lot less populated, but we went in the middle of the day when it was raining AND under renovation, so there’s that. However, what got me was the sheer number of temples and more than that, tiny shrines everywhere. People would carve out whole rooms from their living or working areas or even just a few feet of space to put in a shrine, and many were open to the public – none of these charged entrance fees.
Likewise, the National Palace Museum in Taiwan housed a lot of “stolen” artifacts. It was packed with people and too large for us to hit the whole place in a single visit. Chinese tourists were hurried by the greatest masterpieces so the next group could see them. We sort of had to see them from afar. This isn’t to say China had no museums, or that they sucked, just that many of the great treasures were in Taiwan.
In recent years, there’s been a lot of interest in restoring and preserving historical and religious sites in China. We visited a few places that had benefited from this, and I think they did a pretty good job with most of them. Others, like the giant Guanyin statue just outside Sanya, are new constructions and are little more than expensive tourist traps.