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The now-defunct Starbucks in the Forbidden City
The now-defunct Starbucks in the Forbidden City
Han Yuting

-Opinion-

A few weeks ago, the world’s biggest coffee chain, Starbucks, opened a new shop in the commercial district near Lingyin Temple. This temple, whose name means the Temple of the Soul’s Retreat, is in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. Founded in the 4th century, it houses one of China’s most famous monasteries for Chan Buddhism (known as Zen in Japan), and is a place for meditation and reflection.

The news immediately provoked a wave of overwhelming criticism and sarcasm from the public. Five years ago, public outcry had forced the chain to close the coffee shop it had just opened in the middle of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

The Hangzhou tourism administration responded to the storm of protest by saying that the coffee shop was outside the monastery, in the tourist services area, which is more than a mile away from the temple: there is already a KFC, shops and hotel nearby. Starbucks China also tried to minimize the controversy by clarifying that “our store is on a corner, not on the main tourist road to the temple.”

It is a clarification that seems to be very weak indeed.

These seemingly arbitrary criticisms are actually worthy of the attention of policymakers and administrators of relevant governmental departments. They are symptomatic of the spiritual and cultural anxiety and unease of the Chinese public.

Every culture is different. Chinese culture is about traditional architecture, painting, literature and music, but also poetry, ethereal temples in mountain valleys, and the brush-strokes of calligraphy.

Yet commercial developments around China’s Buddhist monasteries have transformed them from cultural assets into business venues. While the public originally went to these temples for physical and spiritual tranquility, they are no longer able to escape the mortal, commercial world.

Everything is economic

Whether it’s the Lingyin Temple, the Shaolin Temple famous for its Kung Fu monks, Mount Putuo, one of four sacred mountains in Chinese Buddhism, the Great White Pagoda, or the Little Potala, these historical temples have all been commercialized by local governments.

Since the economic reform and the opening up of China, the country has undertaken a series of commercial transformations. In developing the tourism industry, local governments have turned almost all places of worship, former residences of celebrities, and famous monasteries or mountains into economic resources.

Driven by the appeal of tourism revenue and the concept of profitability, local governments and monasteries are forging business alliances.

Master Puzhen, the Chinese Buddhist Association’s spokesman, said recently, “The trend of incorporating commercial operations into historical Chinese monasteries is a hijacking of Buddhist values. But since it’s been a reality for a while now, why keep pretending otherwise?”

Chinese historical monuments have been so excessively commercialized that our religion and culture have been damaged, and in the long term, this will be also be harmful for the tourism industry itself.

Though we advocate a more tolerant attitude towards commercial activities with today’s economic globalization, it raises a question worthy of consideration by our decision-makers. Where is the boundary between business and culture?

Foreign experiences are worth learning from. Take for instance our neighbors Japan and South Korea. The Korean government does not allow any restaurant or cafe to operate within the 14th-century Gyeongbokgung, the royal palace in northern Seoul. They believe it would destroy the traditional cultural atmosphere. All that is allowed are some vending machines at the gate. Japan is even more conservative in its efforts to protect historical heritage. Any historical site that introduces unauthorized modern equipment or business risks the loss of its cultural heritage status.

What happened with Starbucks at Lingyin should be a warning to businesses. In proximity to culture and religion, one must be restrained and respectful. The resulting outcry has damaged the company and shown our people that barging recklessly into China's religious landscape is harmful.

We should respect our traditional culture and history, and businesses should leave a little room for meditation and reflection.

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