Buddha-mania: Understanding China’s Buddha Building Boom
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.
Wang Zuo’an, director of China’s National Religious Affairs Administration, admits that some Buddha builders are perhaps placing an undue emphasis on size. He describes their mindset as: “If someone else has the largest standing Buddha, then I’ll build the largest sitting Buddha. And if someone has already built the largest sitting Buddha, then I’ll build the largest reclining Buddha.”
The craze has its roots in the 1990s, in the success of some of the earliest monumental Buddha statues. In 1997, local officials in the eastern city of Wuxi unveiled the Lingshan Buddha. Standing 88 meters tall, it was then the world’s tallest Buddha statue — a title that was then still a novelty. It inaugurated a building frenzy.
Perhaps sensing what was coming, in 1994 Zhao Puchu — the then president of the Buddhist Association of China — tried to head matters off by noting that the still-under-construction Lingshan Buddha gave China one giant Buddha for each cardinal direction: north, south, east, west, and center. “That's enough,” Zhao declared. “From now on, there is no need to build any more outdoor Buddha statues.”
Alas, his words fell on deaf ears. As did similar words from the State Council — China’s Cabinet — which that same year felt compelled to issue a “Notice to Stop the Overbuilding of Outdoor Buddha Statues.” The National Religious Affairs Administration and other departments also joined in, and have since spent the past few decades repeatedly stressing that regional Party and government leaders should not be supporting or involved in the building of unapproved temples or outdoor Buddha statues for any reason. Work has nonetheless continued around the country, and given that each statue takes years to build — and none of them are designed to be inconspicuous — it seems some local officials remain willing to look the other way.
Yet the copycats all utterly fail to understand what made Lingshan so successful in the first place. Sure, it had a big Buddha, but those in charge also realized that the country’s increasingly discerning tourists cared about more than just size. In the years since the Lingshan Buddha was built, the park in which it resides has been expanded to include the Brahma Palace — a Buddhist art museum featuring the work of craftsmen from around the country that won the 2009 Luban Prize for architecture and engineering — and Nianhua Bay, a popular Buddhist-themed imitation ancient village that draws on elements of Tang Dynasty design and combines them with local styles.
This additional work paid off, and now Lingshan draws more than 4 million tourists a year. It has also held the 2015 World Buddhist Forum. But imagine if local officials had been content with the Buddha statue alone. Would it still be such a draw, even after larger Buddha statues were built elsewhere? The success of the Lingshan Buddha has much to do with its location in the economically prosperous Yangtze River Delta and park officials’ willingness to try new ideas, not just its size. Meanwhile, Lushan has been home to the tallest Buddha statue in the world for a decade now, but many of the county’s residents remain mired in poverty.
Statues aren’t the only example of copycats running amok. Over the past few decades, more than 220 so-called imitation ancient towns have been built throughout China — most of them completely indistinguishable from one another.
Beyond the immediate practical concerns, however, I also personally find it unfortunate that the country’s religious traditions are being converted into crass cash cows. China may have adopted a market economy, but if we allow religion and spirituality to be exploited for profit, it is only a matter of time before they are corrupted.
As someone who has devoted their life to the study of tourism, I can say with certainty that not every tourist destination has to be the biggest, the best, or the most expensive to be competitive and enjoyable. And whether you look at it from an economic, cultural, or religious perspective, the continued obsession with large statues makes little sense. Instead of copying what others have already done, tourism officials should work to develop attractions unique enough, creative enough, and culturally rich enough to stand on their own.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Visitors look out at the world’s tallest Buddha statue from atop a viewing platform in Lushan County, Henan province, Aug. 26, 2017. Niu Yuan/IC)