The Famen Temple near Xian

The Famen Temple, or Famen Si, is one of the most revered Buddhist sites in China. Situated about 120 kilometres West of Xian, the temple has a very long history and is believed to have been founded in the 2nd century AD. It reached its peak of fame during the Tang dynasty (7th century AD), when it effectively became a Royal Temple, with the ruling Emperor visiting each year and bestowing gifts and treasures. This tradition ended when Buddhism fell out of favour for being a foreign religion and the Temple went into decline.

The Famen Temple near Xian

The Famen Temple near Xian

Today, the Famen Temple is marketed to tourists as a Tang dynasty site, though none of the current buildings are very old. The very beautiful pagoda is a modern reconstruction, copying the grey brick Ming dynasty original. This in turn had been built to replace a (wooden) Tang dynasty version. The Ming tower had finally collapsed in the 1930’s after many decades of neglect.

The Ming pagoda collapsed in the 1930's and was rebuilt in the 1980's

The Ming pagoda collapsed in the 1930’s and was rebuilt in the 1980’s

Even if the buildings are modern copies, they are well done and the small compound that is all that remains of the old temple has an authentic feel. There is a genuine Tang heart to the place, however, for in 1987 while preparing for the reconstruction, workmen discovered a hidden underground palace which had been lost for over 1,000 years. The underground chambers were filled with relics and royal treasures, including the temple’s great claim to fame, what is said to be a finger bone of Buddha himself. These underground treasure rooms, with many of their precious objects on view, are now open to visitors.

There is a Tang dynasty treasure-house beneath the pagoda

There is a Tang dynasty treasure-house beneath the pagoda

Overall, this is an interesting and pleasant place to visit. The biggest fault would be that it feels a little too well manicured and the landscaping is a bit like a municipal park, but at least it seeks to pay homage to past that gives it meaning.

The grounds look like the work of municipal gardners

The grounds look like the work of municipal gardeners

Tourism is big business in China now and the bulk of the overseas visitors come from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and other East Asian countries, which all have strong Buddhist traditions. While the Famen Temple was already a draw for these visitors, the Shaanxi Provincial Government wanted to create an even bigger attraction and began building a whole new shrine and visitor complex which was completed in 2009.

The new visitor complex is on a gargantuan scale

The new visitor complex is on a gargantuan scale

The new buildings are clearly intended to impart a feeling of awe, being built on a gigantic, dehumanizing scale. It takes some time to realise that the building complex at the entrance to the site does not serve any religious function but instead houses a supermarket, restaurants, rows of souvenir shops and a 200 room five-star hotel, all there to part the tourist from his money.

The entrance complex is dehumanizing in the best traditions of Stalinist architecture

The entrance complex is dehumanizing in the best traditions of Stalinist architecture

The awe-inducing scale continues inside the entrance with a 1200 metre avenue leading to the enormous new shrine in the distance.

Beyond the souvenir shops a straight avenue leads to the new shrine in the distance

Beyond the souvenir shops a straight avenue leads to the new shrine in the distance

The new shrine itself is 148 metres high and though it is an interesting piece of architecture it looks as if it belongs in a city, not out in the remote countryside.

The massive new shrine is interesting but out of place

The massive new shrine is interesting but looks out of place

The new temple complex is clearly intended to be grand yet ends up seeming merely grandiose. Rather than seeming impressive, the acres of gold paint only serve to give the air of pretence, making the experience seem more like a theme-park than a religious establishment. The theme-park feeling is then amplified by the rather humorous theme-park type trains used to transport visitors along the avenue (needed because the distances are so great.)

The biggest complaint about the new shrine is the way it now dominates and redefines the older temple. Though it is some distance away it is so big that it looms over the traditional pagoda as if the intent is to make it seem insignificant.

The huge new shrine is dominates its surroundings

The huge new shrine is dominates its surroundings

The Chinese people have a very mixed up relationship with their past.  On the one hand they are very proud that they are heirs to some four thousand years of culture and civilisation and on the other it is less than 50 years since they were heading out daily to smash up any vestige of the old culture. Most Chinese are still unable to face up to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution but a slightly schizophrenic attitude to the past is still with them today. Many Chinese get angry and upset about the destruction of the old Imperial Summer Palace by Western troops or about the looted Chinese treasures on display in London or Paris, yet they often seem insensitive to the damage done to parts of their cultural heritage found on their own doorstep. Damage does not have to be physical however and I cannot help wondering if the new complex at Famen Si will be regarded in the future as a new cultural treasure or as a form of cultural vandalism.

Wai-Yuk and Alex Kennedy
(All photographs by Alex Kennedy)

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