Many countries around the world can boast about having a healthy mix of cultures, religions and races. But, once you’ve gone and travelled to Quanzhou city in the Fujian province of China, you might find that you’ll easily change your mind.
If you’re familiar with your world history, Quanzhou once served as the terminus and hotspot for the Silk Road, an important sea trade route that connected China with the Middle East and Europe. It helped shape so much of maritime history that Marco Polo even described it as ‘the largest port in the world’.
Word is, the government has even applied to obtain UNESCO World Heritage status in 2018, under ‘Zayton’, a name which the city was formerly known as.
While we’re crossing our fingers and hoping that they do make it onto the list the next round, let’s look at some of the important sites around Quanzhou that truly make them the epitome of cultural and religious tolerance.
“The ancient Silk Roads were never only Chinese.”Emmanuel Macron, during his visit to Quanzhou in 2018
Note that these are only a handful of locals that can only begin to scratch the surface of the city’s beliefs of openness, so perhaps this may inspire you to begin your own adventure in Quanzhou to explore more of them.
1. Cao’an Temple
Manichaeism arrived in China in 694 or earlier during the Tang dynasty (618-907), and this temple is said to have been built during the reign of Emperor Gaozong of Song in the mid-12th century. Although Manichaeism in China became extinct during the Ming dynasty, modern experts have called this temple the only extant Manichean temple in China, and the only Manichean building which has stayed intact until today. The statue of Manichaeism’s founder Mani (also known as the Buddha of Light among those who practised), is the most remarkable relic in the temple.
To the unknowing eye, the statue may look like any other Buddha, but those who pay attention will notice that Mani is depicted with straight hair draped over his shoulders and sports a beard, as well as arched eyebrows and fleshy jowls (whereas the typical portrayal of Buddha is curly-haired and clean-shaven). Mani also looks straight at worshippers, instead of looking down like Buddha statues, and keeps his hands on his belly, palms facing upwards while Buddha statues hold them in a Buddhist mudra gesture.
On top of that, instead of a Nianfo phrase that is seen in Buddhist temples, this Manichean temple stresses on the pantheons of ‘Purity, Light, Power, and Wisdom’.
2. Southern Shaolin Monastery
Martial arts fans would be excited to know that this exact spot is believed, by tradition, to be the source of all southern Chinese martial arts. While the story is based on legend or folklore with little evidence to support this claim, it is said that warrior-monks from Henan Shaolin were sent by the Shaolin temple to fight piracy and eventually built the Southern Shaolin Monastery, or Nan-Shaolin.
Another popular claim is that since its founding in 495 AD, every single emperor in the Chinese dynasty has consecrated Shaolin Temple as his Imperial Temple, as this is where emperors prayed on behalf of the people. The Shaolin Temple is also the birthplace of Zen Buddhism.
3. Guandi Temple
At this temple dedicated to Guan Yu, a Three Kingdoms general deified as The Taoist God of War, you’ll find many statues of the deity throughout the entire temple, which is located right next to a busy road smack in the middle of Quanzhou city. If you’re well-versed in the Chinese language and love your history, you’ll also get the chance to read the wall panels inside the temple, which detail the god’s life.
Throughout the years and through many generations of storytelling, especially that of the 14th-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Guan Yu became known for his morals, deeds and one of the most popular and important paradigms of loyalty and righteousness, especially in East Asia. Fun fact: his hometown Yuncheng has also named its airport after him.
4. Qingjing Mosque
This comes next on the list for a particularly simple reason: it’s located right next to Quanzhou’s Guandi Temple. So, when you’re in the area, be sure to check both while you’re at it. Modelled after Damascus’ Islamic Chapel in Syria, ‘Qingjing’ is named ‘Saint Friends’ Temple’, to commemorate the close relationship between the two religions when the Silk Road was at its peak. It is also the oldest existing Islamic Temple founded by Arab Muslims in China.
Again, if you’re fluent in Chinese reading, you will come across a stone carving on the wall, wherein the reigning emperor of Dazhong Xiangfu in the Northern Song Dynasty decreed that the Muslim Chinese shall be free to practise their own religion, and will be under the protection of the people too.
Beautiful mix of Chinese and Middle Eastern architecture aside, its history is a fascinating one so if you’re visiting, make sure you read excerpts of the history in the mosque’s exhibition hall, where they tell the story of how the olden Chinese community supported the establishment of this building to accommodate their Muslim friends.
5. Fu Wen Temple
Built in memory of Confucious, the greatest ideologist and founder of Confucianism, this temple is the biggest complex of its kind in the south Yangtze River, so you can imagine how grand the scale of architecture is.
The Dacheng Hall is used to worship Confucius, and its architectural structure is unique in all of Quanzhou, as it is supported by 48 white stone pillars and houses a picture of Confucious in the middle. If you raise your head, a horizontal inscribed board written by Emperor Kangxi (the fourth emperor of Qing Dynasty) can be seen hanging from the beam. To the east and west corners, there are ritual vessels and musical instruments which are used during the worshipping ceremonies. In order to better protect the site, the Quanzhou government built Fuwen Square in front of the temple in 2000.
6. Thean Hou Temple
The sea goddess Mazu was revered as a tutelary deity of seafarers, sailors and fishermen. Thought to roam the seas, protecting her believers through miracles and interventions, she is now generally believed to be a powerful and benevolent Queen of Heaven. It was said that over a thousand years ago, a girl called Lin Mu was born and she had the ability to forecast the weather and help fishermen in distress at sea. Unfortunately, she died at the age of 28.
Legends, however, state that she ascended to the heavens and people worshipped her and referred to her with many titles including fairy, the daughter of dragon, goddess, the mother or Mazu (a title of respect for older women). Rulers of past dynasties upheld her and granted her the titles of ‘Lady’, ‘Heavenly Queen’ and ‘Holy Mother’; the times have bestowed her a series of lovable and respected names such as ‘Goddess of the Sea’, ‘Goodness of the Straits’ and ‘Goddess of Peace of the Straits’. Now, Mazuism is considered popular in both Fujian and Taiwan, and especially for the latter as most Taiwanese are of Fujianese descent.
Fun fact: Malaysia has another Thean Hou Temple, a six-tiered building in Kuala Lumpur and is considered one of the most beautiful and grandest temples in the city.
7. Kaiyuan Temple
What are the chances of China having Hindu influences? In Quanzhou, it’s pretty high! Although it is a Buddhist establishment, it is also known as a ‘Hindu-Buddhist’ temple because of the added Tamil-Hindu influences (which can be seen on carvings on the pillars, statues, decorations and such). There are columns in the Mahavira Hall, which have fragments from a Shiva temple, as well as South Indian style carvings that are similar to 13th century temples in Chola Nadu
It was originally built in 685 to 686 during the Tang dynasty (618-907). It was said that the temple, which is situated in the Mulberry garden of a landlord called Huang Shougong, came to be after the landlord dreamt of a monk begging for land to build a temple. Following that, he donated his garden and built a temple with the name ‘Lotus Temple’ (which was then renamed to ‘Kaiyuan Temple’. In 1983, the Kaiyuan Temple was designated as a national temple.
8. Quannan Church
Christianity was introduced to China in the ninth year of Zhenguan, and then to Quanzhou after. This particular church, Quannan or Chunnan, was founded in 1863 after a British Presbyterian missionary, known as Dugard, was sent to Quanzhou from Xiamen.
The shape of Quannan New Hall is based on the architectural style of European churches and develops in the extension with the ancient architectural style of southern Fujian, a beautiful sight to behold in Quanzhou architecture.
Fun fact about Quanzhou: The Zayton cross, which was commonly used on the tombstones of Christians in Quanzhou, incorporates elements from different cultures, including angels and lotuses.
Quanzhou: A True Melting Pot Of Cultures & Religions
Many different religious institutions have stood side by side here in Quanzhou for many, many years. Followers of Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and other religions practise their faiths freely while respecting others, a practice that is still withheld today, and continues to inspire others.
Due to the role Quanzhou played in the time of the ancient Maritime Silk Road, Quanzhou has always been a hub of cultural diversity, and continues to play this part even now. This blend of religions and ethnicities not only allows people from all walks of life to feel welcome but opens doors to history and adventure lovers who wish to explore the colourful city. So, the next time you’re thinking of taking a trip to China, consider Quanzhou as your best option to tick off the list first!
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