China diary: We got religion

Moganshan, east China
April 24, 2012

Buddhist temples are springing up on the mountainside like bamboo shoots. Old ones have been rebuilt and bright yellow new ones have appeared in the forests. From the top of the mountain I can count ten. There is definitely a religious revival taking place. The village of Moganshan’s main temple, the Heavenly Pond, built in the Warring States period and once visited by a Song dynasty emperor, is in the process of restoration.

I shouldn’t call it a restoration. The building has fallen or been knocked down many times; by the Red Guards in the 1960s and the Taiping rebels in the 19th century. Last year it was knocked down and inside four months workmen replaced it with a stunning wooden structure, 30 metres high, with beautiful storytelling panels. There is hardly a nail, let alone steel support. The main beams were imported from Malaysia. Stage two, the accommodation halls for monks and visitors, will commence soon. The cost of stage one was approximately£500,000. The giant statue of Buddha is being carved in Hangzhou. For the moment there is a floor-to-ceiling photograph.

The rebuilding of the Heavenly Pond temple has been almost entirely funded by private donations, some amounting to tens of thousands of dollars. According to the person overseeing the project, the rash of temple construction is spurred by the desire of wealthy individuals to “put something back” (also known as “buying merit”). But the temples serve a wider need. People are looking for moral guidance, wisdom, he says. In modern China it is easy to see why. Last month we had national “Emulate Lei Feng Day,” in honour of the “people’s hero” of the 1950s who performed an impossible number of good deeds before dying young. Thanks to social media the government-designated day has become a national “Take the Mick out of Lei Feng day.” It seems the people are taking Buddhism more seriously.

Children’s Safety

There are bright sides to living in China that make up for the pollution, internet censorship (no YouTube, Twitter, Facebook) and the threat from poisoned food. One of them is the way you can let your children wander off out of sight knowing they will return.

Our house sits in woodland on top of a mountain, 200 steps from the road. Strangers walk through the woods every day, as we are in a tourist spot—still, I encourage my two to explore. A friend in Britain who lives in similar surroundings was horrified when I suggested hers do the same.

In private rooms in restaurants it is common for the children to reappear from next door with new friends. When the car broke down on the way to school, someone stopped and offered to take them on. We accepted. Yes there are knife-wielding maniacs. There are maniacs in all countries. But compared to Britain for one, China feels safe as houses.