'Monkey King' actor fights to save temple

Critics fear the bones of monk Xuanzang said to be at Xingjiao complex are imperilled anew by modern flesh-eating demons

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 April, 2013, 2:15am

Mainland television actor Zhang Jinlai said he was speaking in his capacity as a performer when he appealed to state religious authorities to step in and block the destruction of the famed Xingjiao Temple in Shaanxi province.

But Zhang's opinion on the matter carries extra weight because many will forever associate him with the legendary Monkey King, whom he played in the classic television drama Journey to the West a quarter-century ago.

The actor, who's better known by his stage name Liu Xiao Ling Tong, posted a criticism on Sina Weibo on Wednesday that was reposted more than 180,000 times and helped bring national attention to the issue.

"I sincerely hope State Administration for Religious Affairs and other authorities can come out to mediate the demolition," Zhang said.

The criticism resonated in part because a pagoda at the Xingjiao Temple, in Xian's Changan district, is said to hold the bones of Xuanzang, the real-life Tang dynasty (618-907) monk who, legend has it, was accompanied by the powerful Monkey King on his journey to India.

For some, Zhang's re-emergence underscored the public's growing frustration over the destruction of historic buildings and other heritage sites as local governments collude with developers and transform the landscape in pursuit of profits.

The Southern Metropolis Daily reported that six of the temple's nine pagodas, as well as some outlying dormitories and canteens, would be razed. They would be replaced with a "multifunction facility for shoppers and worshippers".

Incredibly, the government argues that the demolition would actually help its bid to get Unesco World Heritage status for the portion of the Silk Road that runs past the temple.

Officials note that many of the buildings marked for demolition have little historical significance. The plan would preserve three pagodas deemed to have the most value, including the one said to hold the relics of Xuanzang, who is also known as Tang Seng.

A master monk living at the Xingjiao Temple, Kuanshu, argued in an interview with China.com.cn on Friday that although some of the buildings were not of historical significance, they were necessary to keep the temple viable as an active worship site.

The monks were told that the demolition would be completed by the end of next month. The temple has asked the local religious affairs office to withdraw it from the heritage application.

"Xingjiao Temple is first a site for religious activities and then a heritage site under protection," Kuanshu said. "If we monks are forced out along with basic facilities such as canteens, the temple is nothing but pieces of architecture."

The Beijing Times questioned whether the temple would continue to have any heritage value if monks were forced out.

"Their activities are an integral part of the temple culture in the same way the pagodas are," it added.

The Guangzhou Daily said on Friday: "In the eyes of planners and developers, the place that is home to Monk Tang's bones is a piece of flesh to be made use of. And anything else is a waste."

The stories hold that Xuanzang was stalked by demons because they believed a piece of his flesh could provide them with immortality and other powers.

In a satirical letter addressing Xuanzang, the Shenzhen-based Daily Sunshine newspaper said the drafters of the demolition plan were even worse than the demons because they wanted Xuanzang's bones, as well.

But the paper told the master monk that he should not be surprised by the planners' actions. China, it said, was no longer a country for courtesy and decency, but a place infamous for contaminated medicine, poison milk and "gutter" cooking oil.