There is a real mixture of the ancient and modern on show at the Yonghe Gong temple. The buildings provide the ancient, their contemporary visitors the modern. You see the same thing in the great cathedrals of Europe, but this is slightly different. In Europe people are there to take photos, at the Yonghe Gong people were their to perform devotions and rituals – and take photos, obviously. Besides, most European historical sites tend towards caution when it comes to visitors wandering around with inflammable materials.
There is a lot of action swirling around the temple as people go from building to building, burning incense and praying, chatting and snapping photos of each other and bits of architecture. You can spot rare moments of contemplation amidst the hubbub, moments full of meaning and, to the casual observer, otherworldly. One thing is certain, people bring an informality and joy to their observances, unceremoniously performing ceremonies that have been passed from generation to generation for well over a thousand years.
This juxtaposition between the old and new could not be better illustrated than by the woman I saw lighting her incense sticks while wearing a jacket with the words, “I don’t give a fuck” sewn on the back. Appropriate for a pub on the Liverpool docks maybe, but a Buddhist temple? Then again, modern clothing generally looks out of place in historic settings. Something summed up perfectly when an elegant young woman strode past me wearing bright pink Doctor Martin boots. Welcome to the modern China.