A profane fate for a sacred site

Demolition: After surviving recent decades of maltreatment, a 17th-century Buddhist temple may finally fall victim to urban renewal.

Demolishing Old Beijing

August 19, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - One morning this spring, a handful of government workers in camouflage fatigues and yellow hard hats marched to No. 99 Full Blossom Lane, mounted the roof of a Buddhist temple dating to the 1600s and began swinging away with pickaxes.

For a good 40 minutes, they jammed metal poles into the roof of the temple, like spears into a fallen animal, and flicked away ceramic tiles like cigarette butts. Just before lunch, an official with the city's Cultural Relics Bureau arrived.

"Don't knock down any more!" the man barked, standing on the roof with a cell phone pressed to his ear. "Television people will report you. Get down now!"

Slowly, reluctantly, the workers dropped to their rumps and slid down the tile roof. In the alley below, residents wondered what would be left of China's ancient capital once the government had finished its unprecedented demolition program.

"Is Beijing still Beijing?" asked Zhao Lianyu, a Buddhist and retired machine factory worker who likened the government's assault on the temple to the Taliban's demolition of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. "If they tear down something like this, they won't save any common person's home."

After more than a decade of destruction, Beijing still holds hidden treasures. Obscured by layers of dust and tucked away in a maze of alleys are ancient monasteries, 13th-century marble bridges and the remains of the towering Ming Dynasty wall that once surrounded the old city.

Two years ago, the municipality finally designated 25 protected areas within the city. But the temple along Full Blossom Lane, like most buildings, falls outside the zones and in the path of development.

Officials at the district demolition office ordered the temple destroyed to make way for a cross-town boulevard connecting Wangfujing - a neon-lighted shopping district - with Second Ring Road, one of the city's beltways. The state-controlled Buddhist Association, which oversees the temple, approved its demolition but refuses to discuss the matter.

Forced from the roof, the demolition workers gathered at the temple's gate in a standoff with the Relics Bureau official, who wore wraparound sunglasses.

"If you tear it down," said the official, blocking the entrance, "I'll stand inside and you'll have to kill me."

"You should bring proof from the Beijing government that they will protect it," snapped a worker squatting on the ground and toying with a handful of mah-jongg tiles.

A Buddhist nun wearing a golden robe knotted at the bottom chatted nervously on a cell phone as she strode toward the temple. "The temple isn't worth anything, only the painted timbers," she told the official.

She walked across the roof to survey the damage, the shattered tiles and shards of glass crunching beneath her shoes. A giant hole gaped where the workers had swung their pickaxes; it looked as if a dinosaur had taken a bite out of the peaked roof.

"What you've done will have a much bigger impact than you've imagined," the Relics Bureau official warned the nun.

In the early 1600s, Beijing was home to about 430 temples. Today, the one on Full Blossom Lane is among about three dozen left from that era.

The temple was built with public donations in the first half of the 1600s, during the reign of Zhu Youjian, the last emperor of the Ming dynasty. Kneeling beneath clouds of fragrant incense smoke, the faithful prayed and made offerings of food and drink to the Buddha, hoping for the birth of a boy or peace in a fractious family.

In the late 1930s, when the temple was running short of funds, the resident monk leased space inside to an incense shop for storage. An 18-foot-high bronze statue of the Buddha and 30 clay statues were left undisturbed.

In the 1950s, soldiers used the temple as a barracks. Later, officials from Inner Mongolia and their families used it as a hostel during junkets to the capital.

In 1959, government workers arrived with sledge hammers, smashed the clay statues and hacked at the bronze Buddha without success. They tore down the temple's front gate, and 10 men dragged the Buddha into the alley with ropes.

One resident, who was then 9 years old, recalled that the Buddha was so big, children had played cards on its belly as workers prepared to melt it with a bonfire. Softened by flames, the statue cracked into pieces. The hunks of bronze were still so large that they hung over the side of the truck that carted them away.

The destruction of the Buddha coincided with Mao's Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), a national scavenger hunt for metal in a failed attempt to industrialize the country.

For the past several months, the Relics Bureau has posted guards inside the temple to keep out looters. Municipal officials are meeting to decide the temple's fate, but refuse to talk about it.

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