Source: Sixth Tone (10/23/18)
Buddha-mania: Understanding China’s Buddha Building Boom
In the race to build the biggest Buddha, no one is a winner.
By Zhou Mingqi
Is there such a thing as too many Buddhas? China may be about to find out.
For the past few decades, the country has been in the midst of a Buddha-building craze. Just last year, for example, it was reported that a wealthy businessman had nearly completed “the world’s largest copper sitting Buddha” in a remote county in the northern province of Shanxi. The 22-story structure supposedly took 8 years to build and cost 380 million yuan ($57 million) — a relative pittance in the world of big Buddhas.
Travelers looking for the world’s largest Buddha statue, however, must make the trip to the neighboring province of Henan. Opened in 2008, the Spring Temple Buddha is located in Lushan County — one of the poorest counties in all of China, in which residents’ average annual discretionary income is just 12,800 yuan. In stark contrast to the poverty of the surrounding countryside, the Spring Temple Buddha, which took 11 years to complete, stands more than 208 meters tall, is plated with 108 kilograms of gold, and cost an eye-popping 1.2 billion yuan to build.
Every few years, there are reports in Chinese media of another mammoth statue being unveiled. Cloaked in shining golden robes, massive Buddhas have become a fixture of China’s tourism industry, adorning temples, mountaintops, and lakes — wherever builders can find a spot with favorable feng shui. This obsession with monumental statuary isn’t limited to giant Buddhas, either. In recent years, numerous legendary and historical figures have been immortalized in larger-than-life forms, including Guan Yu, Laozi, Confucius, Huang Di, Yan Di, and Mazu. One village even built a giant, gold-plated statue of Mao Zedong.
Those familiar with the Communist Party’s official stance on atheism may find it perplexing that local governments across China would approve the construction of enormous religious idols. Yet while these statues may be aimed at the country’s religious believers, their real purpose is far more worldly: making money.
Put simply: If an area without any notable natural scenery or historical landmarks wants to attract tourists, it needs a gimmick — and giant Buddhas fit the bill nicely. They are also well-suited to China’s entrance fee-centric tourism industry: By the time visitors are in the gate and realize that, actually, one giant statue of the Buddha is much like the next, park authorities have already made all the money they expect to make.
Buddhism in China has a long history, first arriving in the region during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 220). The ensuing millennia saw Buddhist statues, temples, and grottoes sprout up all over; and today, these heritage sites — including the 71-meter tall Leshan Giant Buddha, the Mogao Caves, and the Longmen Grottoes — are some of the country’s most well-known and popular tourism destinations. In an effort to compete with these sites, which have deep historical connections to the Buddhist tradition, officials and businessmen elsewhere have tried to one-up them with their own “world’s greatest” and “world’s largest” Buddha statues.