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Updated: April 12, 2013 08:41 IST

Outrage in China over move to demolish temple linked to Xuan Zang

Ananth Krishnan
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A depiction of the Chinese monk Xuan Zang on his journey to India.
Wikimedia A depiction of the Chinese monk Xuan Zang on his journey to India.

A move to demolish parts of a temple in China that holds the remains of the famed monk Xuan Zang, who travelled to India in the 7th century, has triggered outrage.

Authorities have said they will partially demolish the 1,300-year-old Xingjiao Temple in Xian, in Shaanxi province, an ancient capital city (then known as Chang’an) and thriving centre of Buddhist learning.

The monk Xuan Zang (often spelt as Hsuan Tsang in India, using the older romanisation system) returned to Chang’an following his trip to India to bring back Buddhist scriptures.

His remains are believed to be kept in the Xingjiao temple, which is at the centre of Xian’s plans to become a world heritage site.

After the Southern Metropolis Daily, a Guangzhou-based newspaper, reported this week that part of the project involves demolishing and renovating parts of the temple, many Chinese scholars, bloggers and media outlets expressed outrage.

“In China, the title [of world heritage site] usually means much higher ticket prices and more tourism tax income for local government,” wrote the Shanghai Daily.

‘Room for greenery’

The newspaper said temple authorities were “trapped in a dilemma” after including the temple in their application as they were told as much as two-thirds of the building — including 80 rooms, from monk’s dormitories to dining halls — had to be demolished “to make room for greenery”.

After concerns over the project, the temple authorities issued a statement, saying they “support the application, but we hope not to change the original layout as far as possible”.

Local officials have rejected their concerns. “Dismantling part of the temple is to make for a better environment. It only affects monks’ lives temporarily, not severely,” Zhang Ning, head of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau, told the Southern Metropolis Daily.

Whether or not the outrage will prompt a rethink in the plans remains unclear.

While China lost a significant number of heritage sites and cultural relics during the decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when Mao Zedong launched a war against the “four olds” — habits, ideas, customs and culture — the years following the “reform and opening up” of the late 1970s has seen a resurgence in heritage preservation initiatives. A new problem facing Chinese heritage conservation, however, is the excessive commercialisation of sites, as local authorities look to attract investment and drive up tourism revenues through often expensive renovation projects.

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