Academics

Both the Beijing Dong Yue temple and the Hong Kong Wong Tai Sin temple illustrate the crucial fluidity of religious temples, which cannot be considered as fixed objects, but consistently adapt to the contemporary social lives of people. In other words, both temples demonstrate the continuity as well as a discontinuity in terms of people’s connections to the physical sites and deities worshiped.

The Beijing Dong Yue temple was originally founded in the Yuan dynasty, and it has experienced multiple expansions and reconstructions by the imperial families in both the Ming and the Qing dynasties. Prior to its closure in the early twentieth century, the imperial court and local people in Beijing conducted temple festival on the birthday of Dong Yue the Great. During the temple festival, apart from folk customs like lion dances or puppet shows, the imperial family and local people conducted sacrificial offerings to Dong Yue the Great to receive prosperity and longevity in return. However, after the Dong Yue temple reopened in 1999, it gradually shifted away from the worship of Dong Yue the Great. Instead, it turned its focus on folk customs under the People’s Republic of China’s establishment of the Beijing Folk Custom Museum in the same site as the Dong Yue temple. Thus, the temple has moved its date of the temple festival from the birthday of Dong Yue the Great to the Spring Festival, and it has emphasized more on the existing folk customs while also stopping sacrifices to Dong Yue the Great.

What one can observe in the case of the Beijing Dong Yue temple is the opposite of what Kristofer Schipper has suggested in his article. Schipper captures the dynamics between the orthodox religions and vernacular practices that existed at the local level.[1] He further argues that the vernacular practices not only adapted themselves to the orthodox rites but also influenced the classical rituals.[2] However, the PRC has integrated folk customs accepted and practiced by the masses into practices in the temple festivals while stopping previously existed religious practices like the sacrificial offerings to Dong Yue the Great. The temple festival’s focus shifts to acquiring fortune and luck (福 Fu) by generating what Adam Chau argues as “the social heat or the red-hot sociality (红火 Honghuo).”[3]

As for the Hong Kong Wong Tai Sin temple, it did not experience the chaotic situation in wars nor the systematic destruction of religions during the Cultural Revolution, and thus, its practices posses greater continuity from the past. Compared to the Beijing Dong Yue temple, which cuts off people’s connections to Dong Yue the Great and shifts toward the collective gatherings that generate the social heat, the Wong Tai Sin temple remains focused on worshipers’ connections with the major deity,  Wong Tai Sin. On various occasions, such as the Spring Festival, people offer burning incenses to Wong Tai Sin, and in return, they receive blessings.

While focusing on the connection with the Wong Tai Sin, the temple has expanded people’s use of the temple with the help of the internet. Instead of going to the temple and offering incense themselves, worshipers can register on the official website and ask for a Taoist priest to complete the offerings for them. Similarly, people can ask for divinations and explanations online so that they do not need to be physically present on the site.

Concluding Section

Both the Beijing Dong Yue temple and the Hong Kong Wong Tai Sin temple illustrate the fact that temples are indeed part of the social life and they gradually evolve to adapt to social changes. In the case of Dong Yue temple, it shifts its focus from the state’s and people’s worship towards Dong Yue the Great for the prosperity and longevity to folk customs that primarily aim to generate the social heat. Although the Wong Tai Sin temple did not experience the level of suppression that the Dong Yue temple did during the Second World War and the Cultural Revolution, it also deviates from the conventional usages of temples and expands people’s access to religious practices through its use of technology.

One way to approach these two temples’ adaptation to the modern world comes with Der-Ruey Yang’s analysis of the changing styles of Daoist transmission in Shanghai. Yang captures “a sense of crisis”[4] felt by Daoist clergy in the increasingly secularized world. The word secularization here does not refer to an arbitrary dichotomy between modernity and religion, or non-religious and religious, but it refers to the process in which people living in a modern time gradually face more options and different innovations.

Similar to the Daoists in Yang’s ethnography, Daoists in both the Beijing Dong Yue temple and the Hong Kong Wong Tai Sin temple are also experiencing, to some extent, a sense of crisis. Although they do not need to prove their legitimacy to the secularized discourse, they fall into the constant need to call the public’s attention and appreciation. Thus, both temples have effectively adapted to the innovative technology of the internet and set up different ways to encourage visitors to engage with religious affairs while not being physically present at the temple.


[1] Kristofer Schipper, “Vernacular and Classical Ritual in Taoism,” The Journal of Asian Studies 45, no. 1. (1985): 21-57.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Adam Yuet Chau, “The Sensorial Production of the Social,” Ethnos 74, no. 4. (2008): 485-504.

[4] Der-Ruey Yang, “From Ritual Skills to Discursive Knowledge: Changing Styles of Daoist Transmission in Shanghai,” in Religion in Contemporary China: Revitalization and Innovation, ed. Adam Chau (Abingdon: Routledge), 81-107.