How to Move a 99-Year-Old Temple in 7 Days
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2017-09-04 14:23:53

SHANGHAI — The scene unfolding at the Jade Buddha Temple was almost like any other Saturday morning: monks in saffron robes lined the Great Hall, reciting sutras, as the abbot sprinkled visitors with blessings and holy water. Yet today was different from any day in the temple’s 99-year history. The thousands of visitors were gathered not to meditate or socialize, but to see the temple move.

Citing fire hazards, the abbots three years ago announced an ambitious project to protect the aging, wooden buildings: A structure relocation that would move the Great Hall 30 meters north.

“The courtyard of the Great Hall, where people burn incense, becomes so crowded during festivals that the fire risk is quite high,” Master Mingzhao of the temple’s preservation management office told Sixth Tone. Daily visitors during Spring Festival, for example, can exceed 100,000. After getting an appraisal from a structure relocation company, the temple decided on a distance of 30 meters, to triple the size of the courtyard.

Monks in saffron robes line up outside the Grand Hall at the Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai, Sept. 2, 2017. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

Monks in saffron robes line up outside the Grand Hall at the Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai, Sept. 2, 2017. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

Famous for its two jade Buddha statues made in 1882 in what was then Burma, the temple was built in the northeastern part of Shanghai in 1900. After it was destroyed by warring warlords in 1917, construction at a new location in the city center began the following year and lasted until 1924.

The saffron-painted Great Hall has been closed since May. “Moving an entire wooden building, along with the Buddha statues inside it, is unprecedented,” Fei Kangyi, an engineer at China Shipbuilding NDRI Engineering Co. Ltd., told Sixth Tone. A consultant for the temple project, Fei said the threat of offsetting the integrity of the structure, as well as protecting the three large clay Buddha sculptures inside, posed the greatest challenges to the team of workers.

As Chen Yunfeng, a project manager at Shanghai-based Evolution Shift, the company behind the structure relocation, explained to Sixth Tone: “It’s like moving a table with lots of valuable stuff on it.”

To expand a too-small courtyard and reduce the risk of fire from burning incense, the Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai has decided to move its Grand Hall — completely intact — a distance of 30 meters. By Wu Huiyuan and Liu Jingwen/Sixth Tone

Using radar technology, Chen and his team discovered that the hall’s foundation was not cement or steel, but rocks glued together using a mixture of lime and glutinous rice — meaning it would be far too fragile to move. So before lifting the hall from its foundation, the team pumped cement underneath the structure to create a new, more solid foundation.

As for the three Buddha sculptures, the team set up a scaffold around each, filling the gaps with cushioning material. “We put motion sensors around the sculpture, as well as in the small cracks in the walls,” Chen added.

Once the “packaging” of the hall and its Buddha statues was complete, the building was ready to be lifted off the ground using hydraulic jacks and rolled to its new site on a set of special rails.

According to Chen, structure relocation has become increasingly popular in China since the period of rapid urbanization in the 1990s, in part because it preserves intact structures with great historical or cultural significance. Previously, buildings had to be completely dismantled, moved, and put back together elsewhere.

Visitors stand facing the Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai, Sept. 2, 2017. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

Visitors stand facing the Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai, Sept. 2, 2017. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

In Shanghai alone, more than 10 old buildings have been moved short distances in this way, including the Gutzlaff Signal Tower in 1993 and the Shanghai Concert Hall in 2003, with the latter relocation costing around 12 million yuan (then nearly $2 million). Though the cost of the Jade Buddha Temple project has not been disclosed, an electronic sign in the Great Hall showed that individual donations for the move ranged from 10,000 to 1 million yuan ($1,500 to $150,000).

With three strikes of the temple bell, the relocation begins: The 2,000-ton Great Hall creeps forward, almost without a sound. In the next week, the hall will imperceptibly inch toward its new location at a speed of 3 centimeters per minute.

Worshipers have come to witness and celebrate the engineering feat in their own ways. One woman stands watching respectfully, clutching a bouquet of pink lilies; others, meanwhile, add to the mounting piles of coins thrown among the rails, wishing the Great Hall good fortune on its journey.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Monks in saffron robes recite sutras outside the Grand Hall at the Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai, Sept. 2, 2017. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)