The sight of the Buddhist Longhua Temple (Lónghúa Sì, 龙华寺) pagoda rising into the sky against the backdrop of Shanghai’s 21st century high-rise skyline can be both jarring and sublime. As the city’s largest remaining pagoda, the 40 m (130 ft) tower stands as a monument to China’s traditional culture, which so often seems lost in the thicket of Shanghai’s metastasizing glass-and-steel high-rise developments and freeway flyovers. At the same time, the pagoda and the busy temple grounds surrounding it illustrate a deep and vibrant continuity between China’s past and present.
The location is reputed to have been a temple site since 242 AD; Longhua Temple itself goes back to 977 AD and the Song Dynasty. Many of the complex’s buildings are more recent still, dating from the rule of Qing Dynasty Emperor Guangxu (1871-1908), and the entire site was renovated in 1954. In addition to the pagoda, the 20,000 sq m (5 acre) area contains five main halls, a bell tower and a drum tower. The grounds bustle with monks and the faithful as well as throngs of tourists, though the seven-tiered pagoda, dating from 249 AD, is generally closed to the public because of its age and fragility.
Longhua Temple is dedicated to the Maitreya Buddha and contains two significant statues. In the Hall of Heavenly Kings stands a statue of Maitreya Buddha’s Bodhisattva form, while in the Maitreya Hall is a figure of Maitreya Buddha’s incarnation as budai, or the “cloth bag monk.” The other halls include beautiful statues and carvings of a host of other figures important to the Chan (Zen) Buddhist sect from the Tang, Ming and Qing Dynasties. One unique aspect of Longhua Temple is that, unlike most temples, in which the traditional 18 arhats (monks) and 20 heavenly “guardians of Buddhist Law” stand opposite one another, in Longhua’s halls the arhats and guardians stand together.