On Naiveté

When I first came to China I was very naive. I was hoping to experience the Orient–something that was foreign, enlightening, and would take my senses on a blissful journey.

What I experienced was foreign and enlightening; foreign in the sense that nothing was cogitable, enlightening in the sense that my eyes were opened to reality and not fantasy–there was simply no blissful journey. China, or at least what I have seen, is not what people or China makes it out to be. It is a grim place filled with industry, pollution, environmental degradation, and superficiality. To say my time here was a dharmic struggle is to undercut what I’ve experienced, especially while living in Shanghai. There are beautiful parts of China–or so I’ve heard from my colleagues whose hometowns are scattered across the 22 provinces (such as Fujian, Shaanxi, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Hebei, Shandong, Guangdong, Hunan, Henan, Chongqing, and Yunnan)–but I have yet to experience them. My colleagues tell me I haven’t experienced the real China, that there is still an untouched, unblemished, and true China that exists beyond the borders of the east coast mega-cities and provinces. However, my colleagues now tell me that they too are beginning to see the encroaching pollution, industry, and rapid urbanization of their hometowns, as well as the loss of tradition in the face of modernization.

One of my first pictures in Shanghai, 2012.

Regardless of what I’ve been told by my colleagues, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and my eye was always looking upward, beyond, at the horizon, or in the distance. I wanted to see the mountains, the temples, and the grandiose landscapes of China that have been painted onto my mind since I was boy.

Part of my interest in leaving behind the Occident was my interest in exploring the mysticism that seemed to pervade Asia. This mysticism entranced me and I fell victim to it. I wanted something that was opposite of American culture so I went to the opposite side of the world and was confronted by a paradox. A culture at once that was opposite and similar. While the state and one-party system was driven by a communist ideology that has outlived its progenitor, hyper-capitalism has permeated society, religion, and the dreams of China’s children. Sun Yat-sen’s nationalist rebellion in the early years overthrew the imperialism that dominated China for approximately three-thousand years. Mao’s domination of Chiang Kai-shek in the 1940s and early 1950s brought about communism. Both were aggressive attempts at reforming and uniting the “Middle Kingdom.” Where they failed, the passivity of capitalism and modern industry have won. Where is the culture? Where is the Orient?

I was befuddled. Everything was a façade–if it could be exploited to make money, such as an ethnic tradition, belief, historical event, archaeological site, animal, or location from antiquity, it was garbed, trestled, festooned, and garnished in all its splendor and glory for money and domestic/international tourism.

I’m not against making money, tourism (definitely against specific forms of it though), or fighting the obsolescence of a culture or tradition. If it wasn’t for tourism, it would be a lot harder to preserve cultural sites or traditions. However, the rise of the Dragon, industrialism, demand from the Occident for inexpensive goods, and the pursuit of money are the reasons for the disappearance of the aforementioned, so how do we keep cultures preserved without exploiting them?

In lieu of the façade, I wanted the genuine China, the genuine Orient, the genuine culture I had expected.

The first week I was in Shanghai I made a pilgrimage to the Jade Buddha Temple. I hiked the five kilometers (I really didn’t know how to use a subway yet so I didn’t trust myself) to the temple on a somewhat rainy and overcast day. Upon arriving, I actually tried to enter through the exit gate at the back of the complex, but with enough gesturing and shouting, the security guard directed me toward the entrance around the corner of the block. Once I stepped around the corner, I saw all the merchants hawking their tourist wares and the lăowài buses that lined the street.

‘Ahh, this must be the entrance…,’ I thought-out-loud.

I bought my ticket, got in line behind all the other tourists, and proceeded inside. It was my first time being in a Buddhist temple–chills rippled across my body and I got goosebumps. At first, I was unsure of what to do while I stood in the middle of the courtyard surrounded by people who were praying and burning incense. It wafted into my eyes and burned, the smell and smoke clogging my nose. I was entranced, but at the same time reverent and wholly unsure about whether or not I was disrespecting anyone or doing the right thing.

Incense burning in the courtyard of the Jade Buddha Temple, 2012.

‘Should I take my shoes off?’

I look around at everyone’s feet.

‘No, okay, everyone is wearing their shoes.’

‘Should I be standing here in the middle of the courtyard? Have I trespassed over someone’s unmarked tomb? Oh no, here comes a monk to shoo me away.’

I shift nervously and look around. No one is standing near me and all the lăowài are on the outer edges of the courtyard. ‘I’ve done it now…’

The monk walks right by me without a word or glance.

I’m afraid to take pictures. I’m afraid to walk on sacred ground. I’m afraid to speak. I’m afraid to look in the wrong direction.

After thirty minutes of agonizing anxiety, my mind begins to fall into its observational and people-watching mode. Domestic tourists and lăowài alike are snapping pictures, talking freely, and trodding wherever they want, even when the signs indicate to not go beyond a certain point in Chinese or badly-translated English. No one is showing respect…no one is hesitant: “Here, let me snap a picture of the monk silently meditating in the corner.”

To the right of the courtyard is a multi-storied souvenir shop where you can buy marble or wood statues for 500,000 RMB (~$80,500) of Buddha and his alternate personages who are supposed to bring you more money in the future. A businessman was considering buying one as I was walked around the shop. I was led by a tour guide who explained the purpose for each statue or painting. I would nod my head and keep walking on not wanting to be rude to the guide. The most genuine (and coolest) thing I saw in the shop was an artist who painted landscape photos with her pinkey fingernail and pen-ink. I watched her for a while and she seemed content, smiling at me every time I made a face when she would swish-and-swoosh her hand across the photo paper. I was blown away but couldn’t afford any of the pieces she was making.

Eventually, I made my way to the jade statues of Buddha: the first was a sitting Buddha, one of the biggest in China; and the second was the reclining Buddha which represents the moment before his death. In the room of the Sitting Buddha, no one is allowed to take pictures or speak and it was a solemn place. I stood there for about twenty minutes, staring at the statue and thinking about its history: the trip from Myanmar during the 19th century, as well as its survival during the overthrow of the Qing dynasty by Sun Yat-sen (the temple was destroyed in the revolution) and the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong.

A couple of months later I headed to Longhua Buddhist Temple for the first day of the Chinese New Year. Longhua is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Shanghai (the site dating back to the first century) and has a long history of restoration, the current design being based on architecture from the 11th century. In modern history, the location was used for the execution of communists by the Kuomintang (China’s nationalist party) in the 1930s and is commemorated by Longhua Martyr’s Cemetery. During the Japanese occupation of Shanghai before America entered WWII, the Japanese operated an internment camp at Longhua where foreign nationals were held. J.G. Ballard spent time at the camp as a boy and fictionalized his experiences in the novel, The Empire of the Sun (there is also a movie adaptation of the same name).

A statue at Longhua Martyr’s Cemetery, 2013.

After briefly getting lost in the cemetery, I found the huge crowd of people who were streaming into the Longhua temple complex, bought my ticket, and entered. The scene in front of the gate was comparable to the parade grounds at the Texas State Fair. People were grilling food, balloons were floating in the air, families herded their children around, and everyone was selling trinkets. I admit that it was nice to feel at home in such a foreign place.

Longhua pagoda at the entrance to Longhua Buddhist Temple, 2013.

I was hoping for the best when I visited Longhua–it was ancient, carried a lot of history and tradition, and I was visiting on a day that was of great importance to Chinese culture. People thronged the complex and as you entered each temple, you had to move with the waves of people who entered and exited the small enclosures. Everyone prayed and burned incense. Most people were reverent. Old ladies smiled, kids threw coins in the bell towers, and old men sat around pots drinking tea. I was happy, except for the trash that covered the ground and was heaped in the back corners of the temple. Plastic wrapping floated on the currents, slapped you in the face, and wrapped around your legs. Your feet never touched the ground, only crunching on the pieces of plastic which littered the ground. Once again, disappointment.

Main courtyard of Longhua Buddhist Temple, 2013.
You can see the trash being collected in small piles around the main incense pit.
Origami-folded lotus flowers, 2013.

People were unwrapping origami-folded lotus flowers and discarding the plastic wrapping onto the temple grounds. Apparently, people wrote their wishes on pieces of paper (I have forgotten the Chinese name for them), enfolded them in the lotus flower, and then burned them in the fire in the hopes that their dreams would be blessed. Grounds keepers with huge brooms, like the baleen plates of the blue whale, pushed the trash around the complex hoping to stem the tide against a never ending onslaught of people and trash.

Three of the sweepers taking a break and relaxing, 2013.

My last excursion was to the most famous and well-known Buddhist temple in Shanghai, Jing’an Temple. It is situated on one of the main thoroughfares through Shanghai, West Nanjing Road. At the core of the western city-center of Shanghai, it offers quite a spectacle as one emerges from its underground metro station or travels down the three-lane avenue. It is impressive in every sense: it boasts a gold-plated pagoda built in 2010, has marble railing on the balconies, is kept immaculately clean, and claims a whole quarter of the block. An exorbitant amount of money was spent on its most recent renovation–even the wood on the doors, eaves, and roofs is polished and stained. During the 13th century, the temple was relocated to its current site although it too was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. It was re-built in the 1980s.

Jing’an Temple as seen from the cross-streets of West Nanjing Road and Huashan Road, 2012.

My trip to Jing’an temple occurred nearly a year ago right before Keti was leaving Shanghai to head back to Tbilisi. She had never been, I had never been, and I was always looking for someplace that I could take Danielle. This time my expectations weren’t high. Jing’an was a popular tourist spot and I have always shunned anything the “masses” flock toward. Moreover, I had already accepted the fate of the Orient, especially in China. I would go, mark the site off my list, and complete my three-Buddhist-temple-pilgrimage of Shanghai that I had planned on completing. As I said, I was recalcitrant, but what-the-hell!

Keti and Danielle at Jing’an Temple, 2013.

I walked Danielle and Keti through Jing’an Temple, explaining some of its history and giving a brief background of Buddhist philosophy and theosophy. As I have said earlier, it was a truly aesthetically pleasing place. During our time there, I even got a glimpse of a Buddhist prayer ceremony to another one of the jade statues of Buddha that reside in Shanghai (it is the biggest in the country). We walked around, snapped some pictures, checked out the bell from the Ming Dynasty, and left the temple. I have to say that I wasn’t as disappointed on this excursion in comparison to my last two experiences, but there were still some disconcerting aspects about the temple. On the outside, the entire complex houses high-end shopping boutiques that are built into the outer walls of the temple.

A little girl watches as a Buddhist prayer ceremony is completed under the gaze of the jade Buddha, 2013.
David Beckham, a popular celebrity in Shanghai.
In this advertisement, he towers over the eaves at Jing’an Temple, 2013.

I chose these three experiences not because I was looking for some spiritual awakening which was disappointed or because I wanted to be a Buddhist (although many of the tenets have become principles or values I follow). I chose them because they best represented my idea of cultural naiveté: expectations of a culture that are thoroughly denied at the precise moment that they should be fulfilled.

This isn’t to say that all of my experiences in Shanghai, China, or Asia have not been genuine or superficial, even at the “touristy” spots. My time spent staring at the Jade Buddha and contemplating its journey through history always reminds me that beliefs and ideas represent more than our lives–and lets not forget about the artist; my accidental discovery of the statue in Longhua Martyr’s Cemetery (after getting lost in an underground labyrinth which I later realized was a crypt dedicated to people who had been executed at Longhua) has shown me one of the most symbolic, gripping, and memorial pieces of artwork in my life; seeing the mass transit of souls as people exited and entered the gate at Longhua showed me the power of tradition; and my time spent sharing my interest in Buddhist temples with Keti and Danielle has simply proffered a fond memory of a Georgian friend and a newly budding relationship that has grown into something more beautiful than I could have imagined.

I’ve learned two major lessons about naiveté: first, disregard any notions or expectations you have that are based on your perceptions of a culture or country. When traveling abroad, you are naive. You are blinded by the expectations that media has perpetuated whether it be books, movies, news, or other people’s travel experiences (see paradox and contradiction); second, genuine culture and experiences are built and preserved through the everyday actions, beliefs, and habits of people as they interact with one another. As time pushes forward, we extract these ideas into simplified abstractions that we call history, ethnicity, or culture. These abstractions don’t support the complexity of life as much as we would like to preserve them, just in the same way that pictures, film, or words only grasp at the wisps and ephemeral nature of our experiences.

For more information about the Jade Buddha Temple, Longhua Temple, or Jing’an Temple, their history, how to get there, or what to do when you get there, drop your inquiry into the comments section below or contact me.


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