Urban Gentrification and Temple Agency in Shanghai

Responding to: Religion and Urban Planning: Challenges and Possibilities

By: Weishan Huang

November 8, 2019

When Buddhist temples were recovered from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, central government officials followed the principle of prioritizing Key Han Temples as important historic sites during the first ten years of the recovery process. In a series of interviews with a senior member of staff at the Shanghai Buddhist Association (SBA), I inquired about criteria used by the SBA and the Religious Bureau to decide which Buddhist temples should be recovered. I also asked how the prioritization for recovery was established, as there were 149 temples documented before World War II and 115 temples recorded in a 1947 survey. The SBA senior staff member, who joined the first recovered temple in 1982 and witnessed the whole process of recovery for 36 years, responded, “Regarding which temples rated to be recovered in 1980s and 1990s, I could guarantee you that we were definitely accountable to history. The first principle was to recover temples well known in the history, as the ancient cases. Secondly, we revived those that were once historic sites, important sites.”

In 1982, religious toleration was formally reinstated in China. The state owns all of the land in the cities. While the predestined recovery of religious sites has always been considered, it has also been restricted in urban planning. Based on political opportunities for religious revival, I have identified the phenomena of “monastic-centric” and “temple-centric” revivals of Han Buddhism and the separation of Buddhism from popular religions in urban areas. At the same time, we have witnessed state-planned urbanization on the national level and gentrification on the city level.

Since the recovery, the most pressing issues in the last forty years center around the rehabilitation of the Buddhist tradition. Many efforts have focused on restarting material construction, such as temple building, the training of clergies, and the establishment of a Buddhist academy. The first generation of Shanghai Buddhist Academy graduates have occupied leading positions in over 74 temples in Shanghai since the early 2000s. The leadership of those temples is now set for the next 20 years, or more. 

The new temple economics and the issues of leadership in the monastic, district, and city levels have assumed vital importance. A reopened Buddhist temple is compelled to find new niches when it encounters changed patterns of religious and urban identity brought on by accelerated gentrification. It is challenged to find new ways of cooperating in its immediate neighborhood and around the city.

Under these circumstances, Buddhist temple revival is chiefly dependent on three key factors: the ability of religious agents to engage cooperatively with local state forces; productive collaboration between religious leaders and commercial interests; and, most crucially, the vision and determination of the temple’s abbot. As demonstrated in my recent article, “Urban Restructuring and Temple Agency—A Case Study of the Jing’an Temple,” after establishing its legitimacy, the temple collaborates with commercial partners when rebuilding in order to cope with construction costs. Under conditions of neighborhood gentrification, temples have created their own niches by which they relate to the population in the district and beyond. At each stage, the temple’s assertion of agency and influence has been facilitated by the determination, resourcefulness, and political savvy of their abbots or abbesses.

Drawing from the findings of my other case studies on temple expansion, renovation, and relocation in recent years, another significant development is an increasing divide between city center and suburban areas in revitalized religious and educational spaces in Buddhist temples. This can be traced back to new political opportunities, and the new relationships between religious clergy, land developers, and lay practitioners created by economic opportunities. One prominent hypothesis is that gender is a significant factor in attracting financial supporters; location also seems to be an important factor in determining temple development. My previous publication on rural temples, such as the Longyin Temple in Minghang District and Daoist temples in Pudong districts, also suggests that space differentiation between the concepts of city center and suburban area has a clear correlation to the economy of a monastery.

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Urban Gentrification and Temple Agency in Shanghai