Friends of mine often look at me askance when I tell them that if I had to choose between Beijing and Shanghai as places to live, Beijing would win hands down for me every time. But Shanghai is so modern, they tell me; and when I answer that it’s the old historical areas of Beijing that attract me, they immediately rush to tell me that there are many historic areas in Shanghai too.
Well, that’s true, to a degree; but apart from the beautiful residential districts set up by the colonial powers in the 19th - 20th centuries, almost everyone will pretty soon trot out the area surrounding Yuyuan Garden and the City God Temple… as if that were any competition to what BJ has on offer.
Of course, it has to be said that as tourist sites in Shanghai go, the area known as Chenghuangmiao takes a lot of beating… just so long as you don’t mind being jostled shoulder to shoulder the entire time you are there.
The City God Temple (上海城隍庙) commemorates the elevation of Shanghai to municipal status and is the site of the veneration of three Chinese figures honoured as the city gods of the town.
Many walled cities in ancient China contained a temple dedicated to one or more immortals, who in essence were protectors of the city. This one started off as the Jinshan God Temple, dedicated to the spirit of Jinshan, or "Gold Mountain", an island off the coast of Shanghai; but it was converted into a City God Temple in 1403, during the Yongle era of the Ming dynasty.
So who were these three city gods (or Bodhisattvas, to give them their correct title)?
Well, originally the temple was built to honour the Western Han (202 BC- 9 AD) statesman Huo Guang, who was best known for his role in deposing one young emperor and replacing him with another. Qin Yubo also lived in Shanghai, working in public service in the late Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368). It is said that he constructed a palace that imitated the style of the emperor's throne room, which his mother desired to see. When the emperor learned about this, Qin Yubo transformed the palace into a temple to escape punishment. The third is Chen Huacheng, a Qing Dynasty general who was responsible for the defence of Shanghai during the First Opium War (1839 - 1842).
The name Chenghuang (城隍) comes from two words: cheng (城) meaning a city wall and huang (隍) which means a moat. Chenghuang was therefore believed to be able to provide sacred protection to a city's physical defences. Later the meaning became more generalised, and extended to the office of such a deity, rather than the presumed office-holder. In later times, it became the norm to appoint the spirit of the government official in charge of the city to a three year term as City God, upon his decease. Whether that said official then lost his immortality is not explained in the blurb, however.
According to chinatouronline.com, the area of the temple amounts to 1,000 square metres, and consists of six halls: Huoguang Hall, Jiazi Hall, Plutus Hall, Cihang Hall, City God Hall and Queen Hall.
Not so, according to travelchinaguide.com. The temple is 2,000 square metres and includes nine palaces - Huo Guang Palace, Sixty-year Cycle Palace, God of Fortune Palace, Cihang Palace, City God Palace, Empress Palace, Parents Palace, Guansheng Palace and Wenchang Palace.
No, no. According to chinatravel.com, the temple has an area of more than 10,000 square meters including two gardens: West Garden (Yuyuan Garden) and East Garden.
But chinahighlights.com beats the lot of them. The City God Temple has an area of over 1,000 square kilometres, it proclaims. (Maths, it would appear, was surely not a strong point of the web site’s editors!)
During the Cultural Revolution, the temple was closed down and the main hall was used as a jewellery shop. But in 1994, it was restored to its former use, with resident Taoist priests. A complete restoration took place in 2005-6; and in October 2006 it was re-consecrated.
The restoration work is superb, I have to admit. Particularly eye catching are the ceilings, and everyone finds their eyes drawn upward wherever they go…
Some of the stair wells, too, are beautifully carved and decorated…
Naturally with so much carved wood around, fire safety is taken very seriously here...
… and everywhere you go there is carved wood panelling that is most attractive.
There is also relief work applied to metal panels, too, which is just as awe inspiring.
But this being a temple, you are never more than a few paces away from somewhere to pray. Who all these deities are, I haven’t a clue. But it doesn’t detract from the overall appearance in any way.
Of course, not all the statues are of deities. Some are good old fashioned Taoist guards doing what Taoist guards do naturally… ie looking fierce!
And some of the lesser guards (janitors?) also look on in kind benevolence wherever you go.
Through the doors leading out into the real world, there are yet more paintings of the deities, just in case you hadn’t had a surfeit of them by now.
Certainly this is a most attractive temple, if you can stand the crowds all around you.
But you know something? I still prefer Beijing!
(It would be trite to say that to get there all you have to do is follow the crowds.) Take metro line 10 to Yuyuan Garden Station. Leave from exit 3 and walk south along South Henan Rd. for five minutes and then east along Middle Fangbang Rd. for another five minutes. As they say, you simply cannot miss it!