Chengdu's Religious Heritage

Mornings in Chengdu. Steam rises from small towers of bamboo racks filled with buns and barrels of creamy, yellow soy milk; old men with bags for produce hop over puddles from last night’s drizzle. The first bicycle chimes, followed by dozens of others, and then the first car horn blares.

Before all of this, before even the rhythmic swish of the pre-dawn street sweepers, Chengdu’s many religions come to life. Across the city, from the Huangcheng Mosque beneath Mao’s outstretched arm to the mossy tops of Qingcheng Mountain, priests and abbots, monks and imams start the day with prayers and ceremony.

The Muslims file in before dawn for the first prayer as the muezzin croons softly through speakers attached to a cell phone, while the Taoists of Qingcheng light incense and pad softly across the courtyards to the ringing of a thousand tiny bells. To the north, monks have already been chanting for an hour within the halls of Wenshu Monastery. They will continue to recite mantras until the sun rises. They retreat as the sun floods the bamboo lines lanes that fill up with tourists and devotees soon after breakfast.

Meanwhile, priests of Enguang Christian Church prepare the first mass and the old folks shamble in quietly as the Ping’An Bridge Catholic Church begins to hum and drone.

Like most Chinese cities, Chengdu is tolerant of all of the major religions and their places of worship. Although religion has taken a backseat to materialism in the past few decades, the monasteries, temples and churches - several of them centuries old - still carry on with the ancient rites of their order. And they are rewarded, from time to time, with the devotion of the believer.

Buddhism and Taoism once vied for control over the Land of Abundance, with the Taoists entrenched atop Qingcheng Mountain outside of Dujiangyan and the Buddhists atop their own citadel, Emei, one of China’s four great Buddhist Mountains. The two powerful, beautiful religions contributed immensely to civilizing the region. Temples dot the city and environs and each year new acolytes enter the ranks, despite the march of progress away from the quiet, meditative philosophies that are the core of both religions.

The Buddhist Zhaojue and Daci temples are abuzz with quiet activity as monks move through their daily routines and locals arrive to sip tea and read the newspaper. These small temples, as well as the Baoguang and Wenshu monasteries, are open to the public and are as entrancing to tourists and one-time visitors as they are to regulars and the monks that live there.

Qingyang Temple, the major Taoist temple aside from the temples atop Qingcheng, is also a pilgrimage spot for people seeking solace from the fast-paced city Chengdu is slowly becoming. Taoists in topknots and blue robes arrive here from around the region to test study the teachings of the great sage Laozi and, even though many visitors may not be familiar with the Tao de Jing, the spirit of that tome of wisdom infuses the grounds even today. It is one of the best places in Chengdu to relax and reflect.

The monotheistic faiths - Islam, Catholicism and Christianity - are all well represented in the city. The mosque was built in the early 1600s right beside the Imperial Palace (Huangcheng means Imperial Palace), a place of honor it held until the palace was torn down in the 1950s and 60s and replaced with Tianfu Square. Now the mosque is one of the busiest in southwest China (there is another, smaller mosque in Dujiangyan by the South Bridge that is also very active) and a nearby Xinjiang-style restaurant serves mutton and bread, Muslim style. The churches were first built toward the end of the 19th century, when missionaries came down the Yangtze River to Chongqing and spread out across Sichuan. There are several amazing churches in the region, including one just south of Chengdu in the tiny town of Baima that now serves as a backdrop for wedding photos.

The three major churches in the city - Enguang, Shangxiang and Ping’An Bridge - have regular mass and serve a mixture of old folk who converted long ago and young people looking toward Christianity and Catholicism for spiritual guidance. Many Western expats also attend church mass. 

The city is very hands-off when it comes to religion and most of the faithful can practice in peace. Chengdunese are also respectful of religious people and there seems to be a recent upsurge in young people heading to the mosques, temples and churches searching for a buoy in the wild seas of New China. Below is a map of the major religious centers in Chengdu, take the time out to visit these sites and learn about the city’s religious heritage.

Sascha Matuszak is a Chengdu-based columnist with more than 10 years of experience living and traveling around China. He spends most of his time in Chengdu, but can also be found researching and writing about various other topics, including Kung Fu, Tibet, The Grand Canal and tea.
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