Xilin Temple, an idyllic ancient structure in modern surroundings

Tan Weiyun
Xilin Temple sits amidst bustling streets and shopping malls in Shanghai's suburban Songjiang District, a Buddhist shrine with a history dating back more than 700 years.
Tan Weiyun

Xilin Temple, a Buddhist shrine with a history dating back more than 700 years, sits amidst bustling streets and shopping malls in Songjiang District.

Four stone lions guard a stately front door of brick, stone and wood. Near the door is a central square paved with cobblestones and decorated with neatly trimmed pine bonsai. Doves stroll casually around, fed by pious Buddhist followers passing by.

No one speaks. Everything is quiet, as monks and visitors enjoy the precious peace and tranquility of the temple. Only sunrise bells and sunset drums break the silence.

In the center of the square is a bronze lamp carved with Buddhist scriptures on its eight facades.

On the east and west sides are the bronze bell, weighing about 2 tons, and the drum, which is 2 meters in diameter. Its creation was financed by donations from more than 100 Buddhists.

The temple reached its heydays in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when more than 600 monks stayed and studied there, but it went downhill in the civil wars.

In 1992, the temple went through a major facelift, sponsored by the Songjiang Museum. When the workers removed the ornament at the top of the pagoda, called Yuanying Tower, a large number of old treasures were found, including ancient coins, golden Buddha statues and gold, silver and jade relics bearing the carved history of the temple's major events.

Xilin Temple, an idyllic ancient structure in modern surroundings
Ti Gong

Xilin Temple

The tower, 46.5 meters tall, is regarded as the highest ancient pagoda in Shanghai. It was built to remember monk Yuanying in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). The tower's commemorative plaque was a wooden engraving in the handwriting of the master monk Hongyi (or Li Shutong his secular name, 1880-1942).

The seven-floor octagonal tower is a traditional brick-and-wood structure, which shrinks up level by level. From the pagoda's foundation, experts dug out more statues, jade rings, ink slabs and bowls, scriptures and accessories made of amber, agate, crystal, jade and red coral dating back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

The biggest discovery was Master Yuanying's sarira, known as "human pearls" – crystalline traces that remain after a respected Buddhist's corpse is burnt.

A crystal rabbit, excavated from the foundation in 1994, featured big round eyes and vivid whiskers. It was carved to lie on its stomach, as if it was foraging quietly in the grass.

The crystal artifact now is housed at the Shanghai Museum, and was a real focus in the museum's latest exhibition during the recent Spring Festival to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit.

Yuanying Tower's first floor has been a showroom for some of the discoveries such as Buddhist beads, old paintings and statues. Up along the stone stairs to the second floor, visitors will be welcomed by a lotus-shaped door.

On the walls from the second to the top floor, there is a niche of brick-laid Buddha sculptures in the four directions. Each niche is made of three Buddha statues, with the biggest one in the middle. They were engraved and fired in the Ming Dynasty, and have been kept almost intact until now.

Today, the temple is a holy place for devout followers, a tourist attraction for visitors and a venue for Shanghai locals to pray for a happy life.

For Spring Festival, going to the temple to burn joss sticks is a traditional activity after the family feast on the eve of the Lunar New Year.

From midnight to dawn, Xilin Temple is always crowded with devotees and roads are often clogged so much that the police are dispatched to keep order.

Address: 666 Zhongshan Rd M.

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