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Shanghai is More Than Money: These Nine Temples Prove It

A dose of religion in a city of flashy living.
2020-10-26 15:00:00
Photos: SmSh Photographers

Shanghai is a religious city. It might not seem that way, amidst the endless Gucci stores and shiny shopping temples, but there are more than 250 places of worship in our city. Ninety percent of them are Buddhist temples, and many of them are centers for monks, serious followers and laymen.

China's indigenous belief, Taoism, still has an active presence, as do worship for Confucius, whose philosophical teachings are deeply engrained in Chinese culture.

So we visited nine temples in Shanghai where, faithful or not, you can find a small measure of quiet time for contemplation, sightseeing or just daydreaming. If the city has become boring and familiar, the temple spaces can serve as an antidote and a reminder of a deeper connection between the city and its residents.

Hours are fickle. Try to visit in the mornings, when most of the temples are open, and bring a passport or Chinese ID card and a green health code for entry.

Bai Yun Temple

239 Dajing Lu, near Qinglian Jie View Listing Taxi Printout
Bai Yun Temple

Bai Yun is a Taoist temple, a minority in Buddhist Shanghai. Compared to the nearby City God Temple, Bai Yun Temple is less touristy.

Throughout history, Taoism in China has mixed and mingled with Buddhism from India, and many traditions and rituals are now similar. So unless you read the signs, Bai Yun Temple looks just like another Buddhist temple.

Its main shrine hall honors the Supreme Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝) and the top ministers of the Heavenly Golden Imperial Palace (昊天金阙弥罗宫), believed to be capable of stopping disasters and bringing luck. There are four other Taoist Gods honored in smaller rooms on the second floor of the main building, where there is also an iron bell you can ring once for good luck for 10rmb.

Right next to the temple are relics of the old Shanghai city wall, first built in 1553 as a defensive military fortress.

Entrance: 5rmb.

Cixiu Nunnery

15 Zhenling Jie, near Fangbang Zhong Lu View Listing Taxi Printout
Cixiu Nunnery

Cixiu Nunnery, built in 1870, was once a private monastery belonging to a Shanghainese family, surnamed Huang. In 1917, a fire destroyed it and the Huang family relied on donations from Buddhists living in the area to repair it; they then opened it to the public. Unfortunately, much of the nunnery has been torn down by now to make way for new construction, but it’s still a well-known destination for scripture studies and prayer offerings among nuns, Nowadays, these studies are usually held at the nearby Chen Xiang Ge, a bigger, newer nunnery near the City God Temple.

Cixiu Nunnery isn’t typically Buddhist. Its courtyard is beautiful but humble. The Mahavira Hall (大雄宝殿) is located inside a two-story, Jiangnan-style wooden building, tightly squeezed together with the nuns’ living space and a vegetarian canteen (closed due to COVID). There’s also a French-style villa painted white and tiled, connecting the main entrance to the Main Shrine Hall. The villa was once the location for the Liyuan Society (梨园公所), a charity founded in 1905 that helped traditional Liyuan opera singers. The nunnery and the Liyuan opera may also have a deeper connection than geography — there are two existing Shanghai Liyuan operas that are set in nunneries (the 庵堂相会and the 庵堂探母).


Xiahai Temple

73 Kunming Lu, near Haimen Lu View Listing Taxi Printout
Xiahai Temple

Built during the late Qing Dynasty, Xiahai Temple originally honored the sea goddess Mazu (妈祖). It was once a small temple constructed on the docks where boats could enter the Huangpu River and then go out to the open sea, hence the name xia hai (下海) — “going out to sea”. 

Like most Chinese seaside dwellers, the fishermen living by the dock believed that Mazu would protect sailors when they were out on the water. The tradition was so entrenched that the name of the neighborhood, still used today, is ti lan qiao (提篮桥), which means “basket carrying bridge”, and is associated with temple rituals — specifically people carrying baskets of incense and candles down the street to offer prayers for the sailors and their boats.

Xiahai was turned into a Buddhist temple in late Qing Dynasty, and expanded into a big monastery with more than 30 individual rooms. War and the domestic politics of the 1960s destroyed much of the original structures. Reopened to the public in 2012, Xiahai Temple is a quiet corner just behind the sleek skyscrapers near the North Bund. One caveat: the temple doesn’t allow foreign visitors at the moment (COVID).

Entrance: 5rmb.

Jing'an Temple

1686 Nanjing Xi Lu, near Huashan Lu View Listing Taxi Printout
 Jing'an Temple

Unmissable. This temple supposedly goes back to 1247, when it was moved to its current location after already existing for 1,000 years. Supposedly. There are a lot of myths surrounding Jing’an Temple, including a tale that when the city built Metro Line 2 underneath the temple, they found flowing streams of water underground (the 沸泉), which would align neatly with the street’s former name: Bubbling Well Road.

Before 1949, this was Shanghai's richest Buddhist temple. It was overseen by Khi Vehdu, sometimes called Abbot of the Bubbling Well. There were juicy tales about him as well: a two-meter tall man known for a promiscuous, wealthy life (seven mistresses) and a White Russian bodyguard.

In the 1960s, Jing’an Temple was turned into a plastics factory before being burned to the ground in 1972. It re-opened in 1984 after reconstruction.

The major antiquities include a 3.5-ton copper bell dating back to Ming Dynasty, Buddha statues from between 420 to 589, and a Guanyin statue carved from a 1,000-year-old camphor tree. In the last decade, the temple has made some major renovations, adding 17,000 square meters of floor space and replacing the 46 pillars of the Mahavira Hall (大雄宝殿) with Burmese teak wood, though the most controversial was the gilded pagoda added in 2019. Serious place of worship or flashy materialism? Doesn’t seem to have deterred the hordes of visitors who come to burn incense and flick coins into the huge copper burner in the courtyard, despite the steep entry price.

Also worth noting: the temple’s four-story vegetarian canteen, Jendow, which we’ve written about before.


Jade Buddha Temple

170 Anyuan Lu, near Jiangning Lu View Listing Taxi Printout
 Jade Buddha Temple

The Jade Buddha Temple is Shanghai’s most touristy temple but there are lots of ways for residents to enjoy it as well. There’s a new teahouse inside the temple opened in 2019 named Zhiyue Chancha. Guests can copy manuscripts at its long desk or casually enjoy tea brewed on a traditional “wet table”. The temple used to run short one- or two-day meditation retreats, where you live like a monk, immersing yourself in silence and contemplation.

Despite the tourist influx (in regular times), Jade Buddha Temple is an active, working Buddhist monastery. Quite a few monks live here, practicing Zen Buddhism; the Shanghai Buddhist Academy is housed here. They also practice regular Buddhist rituals, which are open to the public.

The temple gets its name from two white jade Buddhas, carved from a single slab of Burmese jade. One is a sitting Buddha that weighs more than 200kg. The other is a 1m-long recumbent Buddha. In 2017, a tremendous relocation project lifted the Grand Shrine a meter off the ground and then moved it 31 meters north to make room for new construction.

Despite its popularity and a good amount of foot traffic, the ambience of the temple is still peaceful and soothing. It was recently renovated and now has 20 structures in a large compound, offering the public many ways to get a taste of Zen Buddhism.

Entrance: 20rmb. 

Jiading Confucius Temple

183 Jiading Nan Dajie, near Tacheng Lu View Listing Taxi Printout
Jiading Confucius Temple

Yea, this one is in Jiading but it’s worth making a half-day trip for. For more than 800 years, this temple has been known as the site to pay respects to famous Chinese philosopher, Confucius. In 1249, a pond and three memorial gates were added; they are still there today. Three stone bridges run above the pond and lead to the temple. In the old times, you were only allowed on the central bridge if you were taking the Imperial Examination for the zhuang yuan (状元) level.

In front of the main gate which opens towards the Da Cheng Hall (大成殿) stands a 688-year-old juniper tree. It was believed that there were once 60 juniper trees planted in 1332, but only this one has survived. The courtyard looks almost minimal, compared to the other temples on this list, but its simplicity is the attraction. Numerous 700-year-old stone tablets stand against the wall, marking historical events. The rooms surrounding the courtyard are now a proper museum for the Imperial Examination, started 1,300 years ago and abolished only in the 1900s.

The temple itself is worth your time, but the area nearby has many destinations to check out for a half-day trip. There’s a lovely park outside the temple, and Qiu Xia Garden (秋霞圃), a Jiangnan-style landscaped garden from 500 years ago, is a 10-minute walk away. Across from the garden, Zhou Qiao Old Street (州桥老街) has a classic water town vibe.

Entrance: Free.

Fa Zang Jiang Temple

271 Ji'an Lu, near Fuxing Zhong Lu View Listing Taxi Printout
Fa Zang Jiang Temple

Fa Zang Jiang Temple is the only Buddhist monastery in Shanghai to practice Tendai Hokke (天台法华宗), a Zen style that was founded in China and has been practiced in Japan for more than 1,000 years. The temple, which was built in 1929, is crammed together on a block of old lane houses near Laoximen.

The things to see here are the Main Shrine Hall (大雄宝殿) and the 600-person lecture hall. Or they were — the lecture hall is currently closed (COVID). Most of the structures, including two small and elegant pavilions, are elevated above the ground on a platform, connected with white jade stairs. The halls are packed together  with the monks’ dormitories, a unique scene reflecting its downtown city location, where every inch of space is at a premium.

Entrance:5rmb, cash only, no change available.

Zhen Ru Temple

399 Lanxi Lu, near Tongchuan Lu View Listing Taxi Printout

“Zhenru” (真如) is the Chinese translation of a philosophical Buddhist term, “tathata”, or “suchness”.  The temple was finished in 1320, making it one of only three buildings from the Yuan dynasty in the Jiangnan region.

History gives Zhenru Temple a unique sense of tranquility. The beautifully aged rooms and halls are solemn and exquisite. Main features include the Grand Shrine Hall (大雄宝殿) and its 16 wooden pillars, the Hall of Universal Understanding (圆通殿) with a 5.2-meter, four-sided stone statue of Guanyin Bodhisattva (观音菩萨), an 800-year-old gingko tree, and the Zhenru Pagoda, which has an underground palace honoring the relics of the Buddha.

Outside of the Pagoda, there are 108 prayer wheels, which you turn with your right hand as you walk clockwise around the tower — a common ritual practiced by Buddhists. Bells on the corners of the pagoda ring in the wind.

Then there’s the Liu He Yuan (六合园), a long wooden corridor lined with 20 iron bells from the Ming and Qing dynasties, set along a breezy creek. Calligraphy and Chinese paintings from past temple monks hang from the roof.

Entrance: Free

Longhua Temple

2853 Longhua Lu, near Longhua Park View Listing Taxi Printout
Longhua Temple

Longhua Temple, which appeared in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, dates back to the Song Dynasty. Big, beautiful camphor trees grow in its large courtyard, making it a great place to lounge on a quiet afternoon.

Though ancient, Longhua Temple is one of the liveliest, with an active Sangha group, and rituals hosted regularly at The Grand Buddha’s Hall (大雄宝殿). There’s the Library of Infinity (无限图书馆), where all visitors can read books of Buddhist teachings. For non-followers, the temple is a place for celebratory gatherings, too.

Every Mid-Autumn Festival, people line up at the temple’s vegetarian canteen for its vegan mooncakes. The grandest celebration is on New Year’s Eve, with the ancient bell rung 108 times to wish for good fortune and the harmony of mankind — the only time when the iron bell is allowed to be used. To strike the bell once (that’s after the 108 times — the honorary ritual is only opened to important socio-political figures), you need to pay up to 2,000rmb. This tradition was suspended in 2020 (COVID) and it’s unclear when it will resume.

If you’d like a bit of political history, there’s also the Longhua Martyrs Memorial next to the temple’s main entrance.

Entrance: 10rmb.