In the heart of Baxin | The Guangyin Temple

In a previous post, I started to introduce Baxin (坝心), literally the ‘Heart of the Embankment’, a small impoverished township located between Jianshui (建水) and Shiping (石屏) in Honghe (红河), a prefecture of south Yunnan province. Our first stop in Baxin was the Huilan Pavilion (洄澜阁) whose architecture is reminiscent of the Double-Dragon bridge (双龙桥).

Today, we keep visiting Baxin township and we head over to the village of Longgang (龙港) to visit an ancient temple that faces the Yilong Lake (异龙湖).

Master Wang looking at the structure of Guangyin Temple's Gate.

Master Wang looking at the structure of Guangyin Temple’s Gate.

Guangyin Temple

Master Wang parked his tuk-tuk in front of the temple, under a tree. He said that, before, this was the Guangyin Temple but it has been transformed into Longgang village’s primary school.

Do not make the same mistake as I did. We are not talking about a temple dedicated to the Chinese avatar of Avalokitesvara, the Boddhisatva Guanyin 观音菩萨, but Guangyin 广胤寺 which means the ‘Great Posterity’. There is indeed a Guanyin Temple (观音寺) in the nearby village of Longgang (龙港村), but it was recently renovated and was closed that day.

The Guangyin temple is a historical structure protected at the county level – Baxin depends administratively on Shiping county (石屏县). It was built during the early Qing dynasty in 1707. Completely rebuilt in 1898, it is considered as one of the most important historical temple of the county.

Behind the gate, the temple include a main hall located on top of stone stairs and overlooks two wings articulated around a square courtyard.

You won’t find any statues of any Buddhist or Taoist deities and immortal here. The temple was secularised and is now home to a school and a meeting room of the local branch’s communist party.

The only thing close to godliness are the and meticulously carved dougong (斗拱) which I introduced in my post about the hidden treasure of the nearby Baoxiu Township (宝秀镇).

Guangyin temple's main hall view from the courtyard

Guangyin temple’s main hall view from the courtyard

Secularisation and plasticity of Chinese temples

During my first journey through China, I was sometimes shocked at the ‘unholy’ atmosphere that I encountered in some Chinese temples where elderly people play cards or mahjong, where men smoke and cans of soda find a new life as an incense burner. This observation is not valid for every temple I visited over my ten years in China.

Like many, I failed to understand the peculiarity and history of Chinese temples : many of them taken out of the sacred realm and secularised.

The dougong of the Guangyin temple's main hall.

The dougong of the Guangyin temple’s main hall.

 A short history of temple destruction 

When I write ‘temple destruction’ in the context of China, people will immediately think about the Cultural Revolution (文化大革命). First, ‘temple destruction’ here does not mean physical destruction, rather it means a removal of temples from the religious authorities and re-assignment of the temples purposed to non-religious activities. That is to say ‘secularisation’. Then, if the Cultural Revolution contributed to the destruction of temples, it did not started it. 

The word and concept of religion (宗教) arrived in China during the late 19th century from Europe. In the concept was embedded the idea of a church-like and organised institution. The concept of religion also allowed for introduction of the notion of superstition (迷信). 

In post-imperial China, the Republican government wanted to regulate and standardise religions. Reformists of early 20th century China made the distinction between what was acceptable (religion) and what was unacceptable (superstation). Religion could remain and what was deemed superstition had to be destroyed. 

According to Gossaert, a scholar who conducts research on Taoism at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), there were one million temples in China in 1900 and half of them were ‘destroyed’ before 1937 and re-assigned into schools so that normal citizen could get an education. 

Local communist party remember inside the Guangyin Temple.

Local communist party remember inside the Guangyin Temple.

Temple, secularisation and destruction : Mao

In his 1957 speech on the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People, Mao Zedong first stated that “religion cannot be abolished by administrative decree or by force” (我们不能用行政命令去消灭宗教,不能强制人们不信教). 

A few months before the start of the Cultural Revolution, theorists explained the reactionary nature of religion and proclaimed that religion and superstition were the same. With the campaign against the ‘Four Olds’  (old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits), it became obvious that religion had to be eradicated. A radical and militant atheism was adopted, allowing for the destruction of religious artefacts, temples, mosques, monasteries, churches, and sacred places. 

Although destruction was systematic and organised, it was also uneven. In the same time, religious places that had been secularised under the Republican government were of course spared by the Red Guards. 

Detail of the temple front gate.

Detail of the temple front gate.

Temples in the post-Mao era

There has been an obvious religious revival since the death of the great helmsman. In each temple, you will find a stele on which the names of all the people who donated money (and how much they donated) are listed. Chinese believers have diverted a lot of money into the restoration of ancient temples and the building of new one in their community. 

In post-Mao China, religion is striving and the government officially guarantees religious freedom which means the freedom to believe and the freedom to not believe.

A document titled “Basic viewpoints and policies on religious issues during China’s socialist period” issued in 1982 by the central leadership became the official guideline for the handling of religious affair. At the core of this document, we find the historical materialist’s premise that religion will become extinct. Nonetheless, the central leadership does acknowledge that religion will still be around for a long time. 

Patterns on the window cover of the temple's main hall.

Patterns on the window cover of the temple’s main hall.

Looking back at the Guangying Temple

Beyond this very short history of temple secularisation in China, Guangying Temple which is the school of Longgang village is still very well preserved. From the temple’s front gate, we have a breathtaking view on the Yilong lake. 

Master Wang was on the phone talking in local dialect. After he hung up, he announced we were going to his home for meal before spending the afternoon driving towards Luzigou. 

The Yilong Lake viewed from the Guangying Temple in Longgang village.

The Yilong Lake viewed from the Guangying Temple in Longgang village.