The Chunyang guan 純陽觀 and the multivocality of a religious space
Location: This year I spent 2 weeks in Chengdu 成都 and Xinjin 新津 as part of my fieldwork on Sichuan religious diversity. My research focus was the Chunyang guan 純陽觀, located in Xinjin, 38 km south West of Chengdu, on the banks of a large river. A temple devoted to the Daoist divinity Lü Dongbin, it houses halls to divinities from all three religions, Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism and inscriptions throughout the temple explicitly discuss the unity of the three religions.
The temple is a great example of religious diversity, starting as a series of altars to local divinities in the 1880s, then changing into a temple dedicated to the Daoist god Lü Dongbin in the 1890s, and then, between 1909 and 1937, enlarging and morphing into a Republican era showpiece for Confucian virtues.
The large comnpond also includes a large hall to the Buddhist deity Guanyin. During the war of resistance against the Japanese, it became an orphanage, and later it was used as a school. Possibly because of this hybrid nature, in the 1980s, when many temples that had found alternative uses were returned to their religious communities and restored, this temple was not returned to a religious order, Daoist or Buddhist, but instead it became a museum devoted to the war efforts.
Thus, it went through a different trajectory from other temples, and in fact became a secular space, where non-religious, cultural activities are now performed. The temple has a large and very active tea-house, while the religious statues do not attract much attention or devotion.
I aim to write a religious biography of this temple, from its inception in the late Qing to now, detailing its transformations that traverse topical years between the end of the Qing dynasty, the anti-superstition campaigns, the destruction of the Cultural Revolution, and the restoration during the reform and opening period.
It is possible to read this history inscribed in the walls of this very sleepy, hybrid temple and understand how its nature was transformed and influenced by the historical events around it.
The past is inscribed in this temple in different layers of steles, inscriptions inserted in the walls, carved in beams, poems, and remnants of past events, religious, lay, official and unofficial.
These inscriptions date continuously from the late Qing till today, rewriting history on the body of the temple. The stele inscriptions had never been transcribed and are quickly fading, thus this is a historical but also archeological work.
At the same time, my research has taken me to local archives in Chengdu and Xinjin, which house official and unofficial documents about the construction and financing of this temple. Finally, I have conducted interviews of local scholars in order to complement the archival and on -site research. The research for this project has concluded and I am in the midst of writing an article on the history of the Chunyang guan.
Guildhalls as socio-religious spaces
Guildhalls (huiguan會館) are socio-religious spaces that developed in China as gathering places for communities of migrant merchants from a common geographic location. Guildhalls have been investigated as places of economic exchange and as mainly as locations for migrants from the same native place to congregate or places for examination candidates to resideduring the examination period, especially those in Beijing, but they have not been investigated as religious spaces.
It is important for this project on the diversity of the religious landscape of Sichuan to take into account guildhalls and migrant population beliefs, and how they interacted with local pre-existent beliefs.
These religious spaces show a very different kind of network, one not tied by a specific religious tradition (Daoist, Buddhist) but to a specific divinity connected to a group of migrants.
Thus, the huiguan network form a transversal, invisible layer that has been forgotten in the religious landscape of Sichuan. They are, however important, because they witness migrant group native place religious traditions’ and how these religious beliefs merged with local beliefs and practices.
Also, guildhalls are a specific manifestation with a specific time boundary, that begins with the Ming-Qing transition, reaches its height in the mid Qing, and dissipates with the end of the dynasty. As the world around them changed, place of origin communities were less needed, travel by train did not follow the same routes that the migrant followed in earlier times, trade was conducted in different ways, and, lacking a cohesive community behind them, they went into decline.
Nowadays, because they are not clearly deemed religious spaces belonging to any tradition, their function is unclear. After the 1980s liberalization of religion, religious organizations regrouped, received donations from believers to reconstruct their temples, negotiated with the city and the state the return of religious grounds to them, reignited religious festivals and activities, and attracted followers, lay and monastic.
On the other hand, migrant communities have completely integrated into the Sichuanese social fabric and do not have a strong separate identity in Sichuan any longer, so there is no strong constituency to lay claim on the guildhalls and to revive their original role and function, and to rebuild them. Most of the guildhalls I visited in Sichuan belong to the Wenwuju 文物局 and are now museums, exhibition spaces, tourist places, orcommercial teahouses. Some of them have been given over to different religious organizations, becoming Buddhist or Daoist temples, the original gods flanked by new ones.
During my fieldwork in May 2019, I visited several guildhalls in different parts of Sichuan, North, East and South of the province, both in large cities and small hamlets, in order to capture different features in terms of size, style, and migrant’s area of origin.
The main architecture and structural feature of huiguan is the presence of a theater stage at the entrance of the temple, and, on the opposite side of the courtyard, the presence of a hall to worship the divinity. Depending on the size, there are also spaces for business meetings and for socialization like teahouses.
My first visit was to the Luodai 洛帶 hamlet, 30 miles West of Chengdu. This was an ancient river town, and the majority of the inhabitants are Hakka people.
It houses 4 guildhalls:
- Huguang huiguan 湖廣會館, or Yuwang gong 禹王宮, built in 1743, covering an area of 2480 square meters.
- Jiangxi huiguan 江西會館, or Wanshou gong 萬壽宮, built in 1753 and covering an area of 2200 square meters.
- Guangdong huiguan 廣東會館, or Nanhua gong 南華宮, devoted to the Buddhist patriarch Huineng 慧能, built in 1746 and covering an area of 3250 square meters.
- The Beichuan huiguan 北川會館, which was originally built in the Tongzhi period (1862-1875), and located in Chengdu, but was recently relocated to Luodai due to construction work in Chengdu. It represents the business interests of three towns in Sichuan (Nanchong 南充, Xichong 西充and Yanting 鹽亭).
All of the above guildhalls have now been re-purposed as government exhibition halls.
My second trip was to Chongqing. Chongqing was famous for housing guildhalls from 8 different provinces (Fujian, Jiangxi, Shaanxi 陝西, Guangdong, Huguang – Hubei and Hunan, Jiangnan, Zhejiang, Shanxi 山西). Nowadays only 3 remain, adjacent to each other, but they are extremely large and ornate:
- Huguang huiguan 湖廣會館, or Yuwang gong 禹王宮, first built in 1759 and expanded in 1846.
- Guangdong huiguan 廣東會館, or Nanhua gong 南華宮, first built in 1712, later rebuilt in 1818.
- Qi’an 齊安公所 gongsuo- also called Huangzhou huiguan 黃州會館 because it was built by people from Huangzhou in Hunan. These guildhalls are also called Dizhu gong 帝主宮, because migrants from Huangzhou worshipped Dizhu, also called Fuzhu 福主. It was originally built in 1817, then expanded in 1889
These three guildhalls are adjacent to each other and, altogether, occupy 3500 square meters. The early Republican perod saw a decline of the power and influence of these guildhalls. The Sino-Japanese war destroyed many of them, and more damage was inflicted during the Cultural Revolution. The remaining three guildhalls were completely restored in 2004.
During this trip in the area of Chongqing, I also visited the following guildhalls in adjacent areas:
Jiangxi huiguan 江西會館, or Wanshou gong 萬壽宮 in Langzhong 閬中, an important political and trading center. Not much remains of this temple, except several steles. It now belongs to a private firm.
Huguang huiguan 湖廣會館 or Yuwang gong in Longxing 龍興. Built in 1759 and occupying 3000 square meters, it was converted to a Buddhist temple (the Longxing si 龍興寺) in the 1980s.
Finally I went south to Zigong 自貢, Yibin 宜賓 and Lizhuang 李莊.
Zigong was a very important center for salt mining. Salt traders became very wealthy and built large and impressive guildhalls.
- Xiqin huiguan 西秦會館 was built by migrants from Shaanxi 陕西 during the Qianlong years. The temple is also called Guandi miao 關帝廟, as the migrants from Shaanxi worshipped Guandi 關帝. Migrants from Shaanxi were heavily involved in the salt trade, and Zigong was one of the major salt producers in all of China. The Xiqin huiguan has now been converted into the Salt mine museum.
- Wangye miao 王爺廟. This guildhall belonged to the association of boatmen (船工行業) and is located at the confluence of two rivers in the Ziliujing 自流井 district of Chongqing. This location was very important for both boatmen and for salt merchants who sent salt around the country through river networks. Nowadays, only the theater stage remains, and the rest of the space is occupied by a private teahouse.
- Huanhou gong 桓侯宮, the butchers’ guildhall (屠宰行業會館). This is a large structure, which unfortunately was closed for renovation but seemingly abandoned.
Photos of Zigong
- The Yunnan guildhall 雲南會館, also called Diannan huiguan 滇南會館. This guildhall is used partly as a teahouse and partly as a location for vendors of antiques. Still remaining is the theater stage and the courtyard. Unfortunately, the main hall of worship has been torn down in the renovation of the adjacent neighborhood.
- Chuanzhu miao 川主廟
Photos of Yibin
Lizhuang is a beautiful city on the Yangze river, which houses several guildhalls, temples and large homes of wealthy merchants. The three extant guildhalls are the following:
- Huguang huiguan 湖廣會館, or Yuwang gong 禹王宮. It was built in 1831, and it is large 2200 square meters. In 1992, it was given over to become a Buddhist temple , the Huiguang si 惠光寺.
- Fujian huiguan 福建會館, or Tianshang gong 天上宮, built in 1845, dedicated to the goddess Mazu, dear to the Fujianese. It was also converted into a Buddhist temple, the Yufo si玉佛寺, in the early 1990s.
- Guangdong huiguan 廣東會館, or Nanhua gong 南華宮. This temple is basically destroyed. Very little remains of it.
This fieldwork only begins to uncover the network of guildhalls scattered all around Sichuan. I plan to make further visits to other areas where guildhalls still remain.
However, there are several challenges to this research: because of the temple destruction of the first part of the twentieth century, and because no local religious community was closely tied to these temples, local steles and written information have mostly been destroyed. Historical gazetteers are an important source of information, though.
As a result of this fieldwork, I am planning to write a long article introducing the question of guildhalls in the religious landscape of Sichuan, specifically addressing the migrant communities and their transmission of the worship of their own divinities.
I will also further investigate the religious history of more specific areas: so far areas of with clusters of guildhalls are Luodai, Chongqing, and Lizhuang.