May 7, 2008

Zhouzhuang: Floating Temples and the Laughing Buddhas

The following day Kori and I made our way to Zhouzhuang, a river village about an hour away from Shanghai. We'd arranged to join a tour with our hostel, and it was nice to have transportation taken care of, but following around a tour guide who didn't speak English in a crowded area wasn't the most fun thing in the world. She showed us some interesting historical buildings, but we had far more fun (and saw cooler stuff) when we walked about on our own.

There was a French family there who didn't speak any Mandarin, and I was a bit glad that we weren't the only oblivious foreigners.

In the back of the village we found a rather impressive array of temples. They were built on the water and seemingly floating, connected by bridges and walkways. It was precisely the sort of thing that you'd put on a postcard advertising China. I was impressed.

Walking about, we unexpectedly happened upon a giant Buddha statue. My impulse was to call it a "Daibutsu," but that's a Japanese term. I sort of like devotional art, to tell the truth. I like finding the signifiers and repeated images that show up- the Amida Buddha (who's at Kamakura) usually has his hands folded a certain way when seated, for example. Sort of like how the Old Testament Joseph is usually depicted wearing his nattily colored coat. I like noticing that kind of stuff.

Anyhow, I got a huge kick out of the temples on the water. Later, our bus drove us to a park where there was both this creepy/cool side room with various statues of Taoist deities, and two larger temples that featured some extremely fat Buddha statues. The yellow paint was peeling, and the smoke of the candles added to the already dusty sunlight. In the leaves and the bright heat, it was quite serene.

I was sort of curious about this. Most Buddhas are portrayed as ethereal and skinny looking, but every so often you see one with a huge gut, man boobs, and in the midst of a belly laugh. He looks more likely to chomp down on buffalo wings and watch football than meditate. You'd think that Buddhism, being into the whole "self-denial" thing, would frown on the acquisition of man-boobs.

Anyway, I had no idea where the image came from until just now when I searched for "laughing Buddha" on Wikipedia and found this. I also wondered about the possible interactions between Taoism and Buddhism in China. The temples were really close to each other, so I wondered about crossover. People frequent both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples here in Japan, so I wonder about a sort of equivalent syncretism in China.

You may have noticed by now that I've developed an interest in Asian religion. It was sort of inevitable, really. I studied philosophy in college and am generally interested in belief systems, even those that I don't subscribe to. The sheer panoply of stuff that I've never heard of in Asia, the gods, holy figures, and other such phenomena that I don't know about is a veritable toy box. I have a whole new continent's worth of mythology and philosophy to find out about. Pretty sweet.

Anyway, here are some pictures of the village, surrounding town, and the temples on the water.

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