The cluster of temples at the heart of this dusty, traffic-clogged town are picturesque reminders of China’s faded Buddhist past. On a recent day, dogs warmed themselves in the winter sun as a few toothless devotees bowed before smiling Buddhas. The only sounds were the occasional clanging of wind chimes and the splash of coins tossed into a mucky pond.
While soothing to some, the tranquility is galling to Guandu’s city fathers, who recently spent US$3 million to rebuild the four temples. They had become schools and warehouses during an earlier era, when the Communist Party sought to suppress nearly all religious activity, including that by Buddhists.
To sweeten the lure for free-spending tourists, they tore down the jumble of ancient homes that surrounded the 1,000-year-old temples and built rows of antique-looking shops that sell bootleg DVDs, sneakers and stuffed Santas.
Still no one came.
“The temples have been money losers,” grumbled Dou Weibao, the commissioner of ethnic and religious affairs in Guandu, which has long since been subsumed by the sprawl of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province.
Dou found a savior 2,000km away, in the Song Mountains of central China, where the warrior monks of Shaolin have long since mastered the art of monastery marketing. Since the early 1990s, the chief abbot, Shi Yongxin (釋永信), has turned Shaolin into a lucrative draw for kung fu aficionados and has transformed his lithe disciples into global emissaries for the temple’s crowd-pleasing mix of Zen Buddhism and fly-kick combat.
In November, the two parties struck a straightforward deal. In exchange for managing the Guandu temples for 30 years, the monks will keep all proceeds from the donation boxes and gift shops. In a news release announcing the arrangement, Shaolin said its primary goals were to carry out charitable activities, maintain the temples and “spread the faith.”
Dou, who described himself as an atheist, sees things somewhat differently. “We’re going to use their fame to attract more business,” he said on Wednesday as he and a batch of newly arrived monks exchanged pleasantries.
Guandu officials say they will get no money from the deal but they hope the Shaolin mystique will pull in the kind of crowds that have turned the monastery’s Henan province flagship into one of China’s most popular tourist destinations. Dou said the government would save the US$88,000 once spent on temple maintenance each year. They are also counting on the tax revenue from a vast new mall that is nearing completion next to the temple complex.
The management deal has provoked howls among some Chinese, with many critics decrying the commercialization wrought by Yongxin, who drives a Land Rover and has established Shaolin branches in Italy, Germany and Australia.
“Shaolin Chain Store,” read the headline of one recent posting written on Sina.com, a popular Web site. “There’s nothing wrong with chasing profits and fame, but they can’t use the name of Buddha.”
Such sentiments are hard to find in Guandu, where people seem to enjoy the sudden uptick in tourism. Last Wednesday, a squadron of incense vendors surged around visitors, and the Liu family noodle shop was doing a brisk business feeding the famished. “Before the monks came, the only people who came were old and they didn’t spend any money,” said Cao Jinbu, the shop’s owner.