Temples for the masses

In northern China, overstretched local authorities are asking ordinary residents to restore historic monuments. But things don’t always go according to plan.

Shanxi, North China

Feng Cai opens the doors to Longquan Temple, the centuries-old monument near his home in northern China, and walks slowly to the back of the room.

Without saying a word, he grabs a chunk of wallpaper and starts tearing it from the temple walls, reams of paper piling up on the dusty floor.

As the 67-year-old continues pulling, a hidden alcove slowly materializes: a brick ledge lining the entire chamber, on which dozens of clay Buddha statues solemnly sit.

Feng stares at the figures for a beat, then mutters: “When I see them, my heart feels conflicted. Look at these Buddhas.”

Compared with the rest of the building, the statues are in a pitiful state: chipped, discolored, and dirt-stained. It’s a contrast that clearly pains Feng.

A short, round-faced man with sleepy, mournful eyes, Feng has dedicated years of his life and millions of yuan to restoring the ancient temple, which sits near the entrance to his home village of Nanlinjiao in the northern Shanxi province. But he’s never been allowed to complete the project.

Feng Cai, an entrepreneur, has invested his savings to “adopt” a temple he considers attached to his childhood memories in Nanlinjiao Village, Shanxi province.

Halfway through the work, Feng was told repairing religious icons was banned in China. The Buddhas have remained trapped in their paper purgatory for over five years.

The standoff over the statues is just one example of the tensions that have arisen since Shanxi province launched a campaign encouraging local people to “adopt” regional heritage sites a few years ago.

One of China’s most historic regions, Shanxi is overrun with ancient artifacts. Local authorities have identified over 53,000 “immovable cultural relics” — more than any other Chinese province — but the government has only been able to put one-fifth of them under official protection.

The adoption scheme — launched first at the county level, then rolled out province-wide in 2017 — aims to fix this problem. It calls on entrepreneurs and local communities to take over responsibility for unprotected monuments, funding the restoration of the relics themselves.

Shanxi authorities have already signed deals with 88 civil partners, many of them ordinary villagers who have long wanted to repair local ancestral shrines and other spiritual sites. The government says another 290 projects are in the pipeline.

But the adoption deals are also generating controversy. Experts have labeled repairs “destructive.” Disputes have emerged over spiraling costs. And policy restrictions have prevented some temples from being fully restored.

Archive photos show the repair construction site of Longquan Temple.

An archive photo shows the ceremony of Feng Cai “adopting” Longquan Temple.

Like many involved in the scheme, Feng’s desire to renovate Longquan Temple long predated his 2010 agreement with the local authorities. For years, he’d dreamed not only of patching up the damaged building, but also of making it a thriving place of worship once more.

A mainly wooden structure built in the traditional northern Chinese courtyard style, the temple was established in around the 14th century and had served as the center of spiritual life in Nanlinjiao for centuries.

But over recent decades, the temple had fallen into disrepair. During the 1960s, when anti-religious sentiment was at its height in China, villagers converted the building into a flour storehouse and vandalized its stone steles — the scratch marks covering the inscriptions still visible today.

“My whole family works as farmers. … I have feelings for our village.”
Feng Cai, temple adopter

For Feng, restoring Longquan to its former glory would allow the village to reconnect with its past. Like many locals in Shanxi, he’s fiercely proud of the region’s heritage. Over 2,500 years ago, the area where Feng now lives lay at the center of the state of Jin, one of China’s most powerful kingdoms during the turbulent era known as the Spring and Autumn period.

“My whole family works as farmers. … I have feelings for our village,” says Feng.

The adoption program appeared to offer Feng the chance to realize his vision. For decades, the government had directly undertaken historic preservation projects, but a few forward-thinking officials in Shanxi were beginning to question this approach.

Sun Yonghe, who served as the head of the cultural relics bureau in Quwo County — the area where Nanlinjiao is located — from 1995 to 2013, was one of those advocating a more flexible policy.

Murals of the four heavenly kings in Yellow Emperor Temple, Xiachen Village, Shanxi province, July 9, 2020.

“The country has taken care of all the maintenance of these ancient buildings, but in fact it’s not strong enough,” Sun, now retired, tells Sixth Tone. “There are many things the country has to do. If children are going to school in dilapidated buildings, how can you prioritize refurbishing ancient monuments?”

In 2002, Sun had turned to local entrepreneurs to help fund the restoration of Sipailou, a 400-year-old tower in Quwo. He’d first tried asking local cadres for donations, but had only managed to raise 165,000 yuan (then $20,000).

“If children are going to school in dilapidated buildings, how can you prioritize refurbishing ancient monuments?”
Sun Yonghe, former official

Feng Cai, who was running a successful iron and steel company at the time, chipped in 6,000 yuan. The generous sum impressed Sun, who realized the business community could become a powerful driver of the county’s conservation efforts.

“I found that entrepreneurs have money in their hands, and they’re keen to contribute to the welfare of their local area,” says Sun. “They’re not just profit-seeking businesspeople.”

Sun and his colleagues repeated the fundraising trick in 2006, during the renovation of another local monument. Then, in 2010, they went further by drafting a policy that would allow entrepreneurs to directly take responsibility for protecting certain relics in Quwo.

Feng was one of the first to sign up. He signed a deal with the cultural relics bureau to adopt Longquan Temple for the next 30 years.

The officials, however, inserted several conditions into the contract. Quwo County would retain the right to closely oversee any restoration work. Feng could only use government-approved contractors, and the plans would need to be cleared in advance. The bureau would also conduct regular inspections of the temple.

According to Sun, the controls were designed to avoid poor-quality repair jobs. Over previous years, Chinese media had uncovered many examples of botched restorations of priceless monuments, including several famous sections of the Great Wall.

“It’s about using the original craftmanship, the original materials, and the original standards,” says Sun. “Repairing it like it was originally.”

A kid sits in the main hall of Dragon King Temple in Xihai Village, Quwo County, Shanxi province, July 11, 2020.

But the approach had a side-effect Feng hadn’t anticipated: It sent the project’s budget skyrocketing. The former steel boss estimates he’s spent 4 million yuan restoring Longquan.

“My eldest son got sick and required two kidney transplants,” says Feng. “He fell ill after I started repairing the temple, so my heart is quite bitter … He can’t work, but I haven’t paid him a penny.”

Other projects have also become mired in budget issues as the adoption scheme has expanded.

In Beiniuchi, a village around 100 kilometers southwest of Nanlinjiao, local residents have adopted Xie’s Family Temple — an ancestral shrine dedicated to members of the Xie clan.

According to Xie Tianjun, head of Beiniuchi Village, the temple is the “heart and soul” of the community, and the villagers had wanted to renovate it for years. For many locals, the completion of the project in 2018 was an emotional moment, he says.

Xie Tianjun stands at the door of Xie’s Family Temple in Beiniuchi Village, Wanrong County, Shanxi province, July 8, 2020.

“This is our ancestral shrine, but it’s also deemed a cultural relic and so we dared not repair it without authorization,” the 38-year-old tells Sixth Tone. “Every village head had promised to repair it, but none of them had done it.”

The project appears to be genuinely popular in the village. On a warm July day, groups of elderly residents sit chatting in the shade outside the temple. Several tell Sixth Tone they’ve donated money to fund the repairs and are happy with the works.

Yet the construction has also plunged the village into a financial quagmire. Local people raised 310,000 yuan through donations, but this only covered around half the total costs. The project was halted four times over payment issues, forcing Xie to scramble to raise more money.

“The project was originally expected to cost 400,000 yuan, but it wasn’t like that during the restoration process,” says Xie. “Once the repair work starts, you must do it well … We still owe the contractor hundreds of thousands of yuan.”

The village had little control over the budget. The design plan was created by Shanxi’s provincial ancient architecture research institute, which set high standards regarding materials and craftsmanship, Xie says.

The exterior of Xie’s Family Temple in Beiniuchi Village, Wanrong County, Shanxi province, July 8, 2020.

The ancestral hall of Xie’s Family Temple in Beiniuchi Village, Wanrong County, Shanxi province, July 8, 2020.

Shanxi has won praise for this focus on authenticity, with the government ordering planners to adopt a principle of minimal intervention and banning contractors from demolishing and rebuilding monuments. Experts, however, have questioned the value of some projects.

After photos emerged of two colorfully restored temples in northern Shanxi, critics labeled the repairs “destructive,” as the buildings looked “entirely different.” Some argued the government should focus on simply protecting historic monuments from damage, rather than actively renovating them.

But provincial officials insist the criticisms miss the point. From their perspective, local temples aren’t simply ancient relics: They’re part of a living tradition.

“These temples have been built and rebuilt continuously over generations,” says Zhao Shuguang, deputy director of the Shanxi Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau. “In archaeological terms, every repair is like a different level of an excavation site. Each layer is valuable.”

For the government, the adoption scheme is part of China’s wider push for “national rejuvenation” — a strategy that aims to restore pride in the country’s traditional culture and promote a stronger sense of national identity.

“These cultural relics are like elderly family members,” says Zhao. “As the old saying goes: ‘An old relative is more valuable than treasure.’ This is the cultural heritage of our Chinese nation.”

Unfinished Buddha statues in the main hall of Longquan Temple in Nanlinjiao Village, Shanxi province, July 10, 2020.

In many ways, the local adopters Sixth Tone meets share a similar attitude: Their goal is to revive local traditions and reconnect with their region’s cultural heritage. Feng says he longs to see Longquan Temple host Buddhist monks and ceremonies once more, as it did for most of the past 1,500 years.

In the current policy climate, however, fully renovating the temple has proved impossible. While the work at Longquan was still underway, a family living nearby objected to Feng’s project, citing a 1984 national guideline banning the restoration of damaged religious icons.

Unable to touch the statues, Feng was forced to halt the project. Now, the temple looks clean, but half-abandoned. Wild grass can be seen growing from the incense holder at the front gate.

A temple incense burner is overgrown with grass at Longquan Temple in Nanlinjiao Village, Shanxi province, July 10, 2020.

Feng says he has no regrets, but confesses he rarely visits the temple, as the place tends to make him feel melancholy.

“Right in the thick of it, the country just left the matter unsolved,” he says. “How could it not feel bad? You can’t retreat; you can’t move forward. You can only leave it here.”

It’s unclear whether Feng will ever be allowed to repair the statues. Under China’s political system, culture and religion are deemed to be entirely distinct phenomena and are handled by two separate bureaucracies: Religion falls under the purview of the United Front Work Department, a branch of the Communist Party of China, while cultural relics are managed by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, part of the state bureaucracy.

“Right in the thick of it, the country just left the matter unsolved.”
Feng Cai, temple adopter

Zhao, the provincial official, says he’s eager to see restored temples reprise their former roles as important community centers. At the same time, he says not all the temples’ traditional functions can be retained.

“We have to make a conceptual cut with the past,” says Zhao. “Of course, they (village temples) are still related to the past, but they need to be repositioned — no longer a religious place, but a cultural relic.”

Feng, however, hasn’t given up hope. For now, he plans to leave the Buddhas uncovered, while he waits for the day he’s finally allowed to restore them.

“I’ve always wanted to protect what I can during my lifetime and leave something for future generations,” he says. “This is my belief and ideal.”

Yellow Emperor Temple

Location: Xiachen Village, Shanxi province. Date built: unknown, with its earliest recorded restoration in 1591 and several repairs throughout the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). In 2019, a local steel company invested around 2 million yuan (then $290,000) to “adopt” the temple, which is currently in repair.

Longquan Temple

Location: Nanlinjiao Village, Shanxi province. Date built: unknown, with earliest restoration in the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) and several repairs throughout history. In 2011, a local entrepreneur named Feng Cai invested more than 4 million yuan (then $620,000) to “adopt” the temple to renovate it. After completing the main building in 2012, Feng started making Buddha statues in the temple, which led to disputes with a nearby family. The construction has since been suspended.

Dragon King Temple

Location: Xihai Village, Shanxi province. Date built: Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), with the existing building rebuilt during the Daoguang period of the Qing dynasty (1782-1850). In 2011, local entrepreneur Huang Wensheng and another entrepreneur invested around 6 million yuan (then $925,000) to “adopt” the temple to renovate it. Construction was completed in 2012.