Local officials on the mainland are drawing inspiration from Buddha, but perhaps not in a way he might have intended.
Tourism bureaus and developers are racing to build ever-higher statues of Buddha, in an attempt to copy the success of the Lingshan Grand Buddha in Wuxi, Jiangsu province.
The 88-metre-high attraction drew about 3.8 million visitors last year, generating more than 1.2 billion yuan (HK$1.5 billion). Not a bad return on 725 tonnes of bronze sheet.
Hong Kong’s Tian Tan Buddha, at a modest 34 metres, would barely rise to the knees of the current behemoths such as the 208-metre-high Spring Temple Buddha in Lushan county in Henan province.
At least five others taller than Tian Tan are spread across the mainland and the list is set to grow, including a planned 88-metre-high statue of the bodhisattva Guanyin in Suzhou , Jiangsu province, a 99-metre depiction of the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha in Anhui province, and a 48-metre statue of Amitabha Buddha at Lu Mountain in Jiangxi province.
According to the New Weekly, the Aerosun Corporation, which built the Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau, is developing more than 10 such projects across the country this year.
China has a long history of Buddhist art and sculpture, with the Sui dynasty (589-617) and Tang dynasty (618-907) considered peak eras. But many of the best examples were destroyed along with much of the nation’s other religious heritage in the years that followed the establishment of the People’s Republic. “There were more than 1,000 temples in Beijing before 1949,” Xue said. “But now only 20 to 30 remain.”
In the eyes of some tourists, Buddha-themed parks can become too grandiose. The Lingshan park charges 210 yuan (HK$267) per ticket and gets very crowded at holiday times.
“The park is full of tourists with cameras and is definitely not a good place for religious practice,” said Kent Cai, a visitor from Ningbo in Jiangsu.
“I felt dazed when I saw so many incense packages on sale – 50 yuan to pray for health, 128 yuan to pray for a child, 398 yuan to pray for vast happiness and 598 yuan for huge fortune.”
Sometimes Buddha attraction developers must contend with monks and residents who differ over ownership of a site.
In impoverished Lushan county, the developer spent 1.2 billion yuan on building the Spring Temple Buddha in 2008.
Monks have tried to take charge of the attraction and admit people free of charge.
In Leshan , Sichuan province, local residents have said a theme park with replicas of more than 3,000 Buddha statues, including world-famous ones in India, Thailand and Myanmar, badly damaged the 71-metre Giant Buddha, the world’s tallest stone Buddha statue, built 1,200 years ago.
“As a Buddhist, I would like to see more Buddha statues. They help show the public the teachings and practice of becoming a Buddha,” said Huiyao, a nun at a temple in Yangzhou in Jiangsu. “But I don’t think they all need to be more dozens of metres high or break the world record.”
Xue Yu, of the department of cultural and religious studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said local governments would view giant Buddhas as an ambitious way to boost tourism.
“The projects use the popularity of Buddhism and are a politically safe way to help build social harmony,” he said.