Jing’an Temple’s golden four-faced lion sits high atop its massive pillar, a marvelous sight amidst the clutter of modern high rises and billboards dominating Shanghai’s central Jing’an Temple (Jing’an Si) area. Beneath the pillar, one of the city’s most interesting—and busiest—Buddhist temples is being reconstructed in stages, without ever ceasing to serve the faithful who come to make offerings, pray, burn incense and otherwise seek spiritual respite from the bustling metropolis outside the temple walls.
Records show that the site of today’s Shingon Buddhist temple was first built upon in 1216 AD, during the Southern Song Dynasty, though a previous temple had existed nearby since 247 AD. The temple was badly damaged during the Taiping uprising in the mid-19th century, with only the Great Hall of the Buddha surviing. Three additional halls were completed by 1921, and, in 1999, large-scale renovations were initiated that continue to this day. The temple is home to several ancient artifacts of note, including the Shingon Altar a stele with inscribed by Song Dynasty Emperor Guangzong, as well as an enormous bell dating to 1340, the second year of the Ming Dynasty.
Part of the pleasure of visiting the temple today is seeing the ongoing construction taking place while worshipers and monks go about their business—it’s all somehow a perfect picture of contemporary China, with the traditional and thoroughly modern mixing it up as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a giant advertisement for designer jeans to loom over the courtyard of an ancient temple full of modern Chinese, some of them wearing those same designer jeans (or at least decent knockoffs) as they burn incense and genuflect to the sound of Shanghai traffic, chanting monks and chiming bells.
On lunar April 8th every year, a three-day temple fair takes place, featuring street food, music, dancing and acrobatics.