Whenever I find the opportunity, I bomb around Shanghai on my scooter, trying to get a better lay of the land. It is cathartic for me and I love it. Each time I’m out, I go a little farther than the previous trip, learning more and more about this amazing city I now call home. And on each of these trips I almost always see something that I find absolutely stunning, or which causes me to say to myself, “shit, you’re never going to see that in Detroit.” (I vowed not to swear in this blog because my kids may read it, but I gotta be me….). In the two months or so that we’ve been here, I have covered a tiny fraction of this sprawling city, and recently I came across something I would put in the stunning category.
I had just come out of the migrant village south of Jinqiao, near where we live. I was riding down a beat-up road in the middle of a huge, overgrown chunk of land that just a few years ago was a village itself (more on the migrant village in a future post). It had been torn down by the Shanghai government to make way for a future Western-style development, something which has happened often in the last several years as this city continues to grow. The area I was riding in was probably a couple of square miles in size and full of overgrown brush, broken cement walls that were once part of the village, and piles of rubble that were once houses and businesses. The terrain was very inhospitable and I only saw a few people here and there, picking through the brush and the trash.
In the distance, I saw a structure that I thought might be a Pagoda, or at least what I thought one would look like. As I got closer, I could see intricate designs on the sides of the building and ornate towers on the roof. There were carvings of flying dragon and other surreal looking beasts on top of the towers. It was an odd and beautiful site rising up in the middle of all this abandonment.
The building, it turns out, is a Taoist place of worship called the Shezhuang temple. The sign on its side, in English and Mandarin, said it was built at the end of the Ming Dynasty (late 17th century) in honor of a man named JinSan. He was the official of the Granary for the area and one year, during a severe drought that was causing massive starvation throughout the land, he was ordered to send all the grain from the area to the Imperial Granary. As he was transporting the grain in boats on the river, the local peasants gathered on the shore to watch him, and the grain, sail by. Seeing their suffering, JinSan stopped the boats and distributed the grain to the starving people, making him a local hero. The penalty for such an action was death, but before the Imperial Court could conduct an inquiry into the missing grain, he committed suicide to keep others who helped him from being implicated. The locals built the Shezhuang temple to honor JinSan’s compassion and bravery.
When I went inside the temple, I was immediately transported to another place and time. I was floored at how beautiful and peaceful it was, though somewhat freaked out by all the stuffed replicas of the local people’s gods and ancestors. There were three old women in the three-story building and they were lighting candles. From the moment I walked into the building, I felt like I was experiencing ancient China. I was able to learn from one of the women who spoke passable English that they feared the authorities would one day soon tear down the temple, like the rest of the village. They were there to help with the upkeep in an effort to keep that from happening.
With a sense of urgency, I knew I had to show this place to my kids. We returned to the temple the next morning on the scooter, with Karen on bike. Like me, they were blown away at how beautiful the structure was, with ornate carvings of dragons and animals, and life-like mannequins of important deities. When we got inside, there was a Taoist ceremony underway with priest-like folks in brightly colored robes chanting and moving around a table full of food, which was clearly an offering. There were a few worshipers praying just off to the side and others playing music on wooden horns and loud drums. The smell of incense was everywhere.
Seeing the ceremony was awe-inspiring, mystical, and one of the coolest things I’ve seen in China so far. There were smoking ashes in large carts in the courtyard and candles burning throughout the temple. Fire clearly plays a large role in Taoist ceremonies. There were glass display cases all over the temple filled with the waxed figure-like statues and in front of most of the cases were fully prepared meals. Near the tables with food were large, padded stools where people could kneel and pray.
We tried to be as unobtrusive and respectful as possible. Cassidy and I were all over the place taking pictures and we ended up on the third floor where, in one of the towers, we came upon a giant bell and suspended wood log used to ring it. I played with the idea of ringing it, but figured I would not only get in trouble with the worshippers below, but also with that freaky looking little guy I’d seen earlier. We left the temple knowing that we had seen something magical and unique to China.
A couple of days ago, I took a friend who has been in Shanghai for almost three years to see the temple. Like me and my family, he was stunned at the beauty and serenity of the temple. As we got back into his car, he asked me to take him to see the migrant village. As I gave directions, his driver turned around in his seat, pointed to me, and in broken English said to my friend: “What, is this guy a Chinese from Shanghai, he knows these places?”
And that’s the point of this post. Though I was terrified to move to China, I’m having the time of my life. My wife thinks it’s because I’m a professional tourist, but I believe it’s my innate desire to discover the next new thing, and share it with others. As a trailing spouse, I knew that in China I would have two choices: Lay low and try to keep myself occupied while waiting for it to end, or really throw myself into discovering everything I can about this new city we live in. So far it’s the latter. And it’s been good for me and my family as we discover places like the Shezhuang temple. I’m committed to discovering these treasures and to immersing our family in all that is Shanghai. So far, so good.