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A Refuge From China's Rat Race: The Young People Flocking To Buddhist Monasteries

Unemployment, stress in the workplace, economic difficulties: more and more young Chinese graduates are flocking to monasteries to find "another school of life."

Photograph of a girl praying at a temple during Chinese Lunar New Year. She is burning incense.

Feb 20, 2015 - Huaibei, China - Chinese worshippers pray at a temple during the Lunar New Yeat

Frédéric Schaeffer

JIAXING — It's already dawn at Xianghai Temple when Lin, 26, goes to the Hall of 10,000 Buddhas for the 5:30 a.m. prayer.

Still half-asleep, the young woman joins the monks in chanting mantras and reciting sacred texts for an hour. Kneeling, she bows three times to Vairocana, also known as the Great Sun Buddha, who dominates the 42-meter-high hall representing the cosmos.

Before grabbing a vegetarian breakfast in the adjacent refectory, monks and devotees chant around the hall to the sound of drums and gongs.

"I resigned last October from the e-commerce company where I had been working for the past two years in Nanjing, and joined the temple in January, where I am now a volunteer in residence," explains the young woman, soberly dressed in black pants and a cream linen jacket.

Located in the city of Jiaxing, over a hundred kilometers from Shanghai, in eastern China, the Xianghai temple is home to some 20 permanent volunteers.

Unlike Lin, most of them only stay for a couple days or a few weeks. But for Lin, who spends most of her free time studying Buddhist texts in the temple library, the change in her life has been radical. "I used to do the same job every day, sometimes until very late at night, writing all kinds of reports for my boss. I was exhausted physically and mentally. I felt my life had no meaning," she says.

Rising rapidly in the hierarchy, Lin's workload grew steadily as the company struggled to cope with the zero-COVID restrictions that were crippling China's economy.

Promised a brilliant career, she eventually resigned and began traveling the country. "But this didn't fulfil my quest for meaning. I ended up seeing this temple was looking for volunteers for the Chinese New Year on the internet," explains the former executive.

No more jobs 

While economic uncertainty has prompted many young Chinese to head for stable positions in the civil service and state-owned companies, Lin is one of a growing number of young graduates who, disillusioned or exhausted, have temporarily withdrawn from the job market to reflect on their future.

The economy has begun to show signs of recovery in recent months, following the end of a harsh "zero-COVID" policy. But the recovery remains sluggish, and young people face extraordinary difficulties to find work.

More than one in five young Chinese workers is unemployed, compared to fewer than 10% of Americans and 15% of young Europeans. The urban unemployment rate for 16-24 year-olds reached a new record high in June (21.3%) — so much so that the Chinese authorities decided to stop publishing it.

"For me, the monastery is another school of life."

"Although the Chinese economy is still growing, the recovery of the private economy, which contributes over 80% of urban employment and over 90% of new jobs, is still below expectations, resulting in a reduced capacity to absorb young people new to the job market," explains Zhang Qidi, researcher at the Central University of Finance and Economics in Beijing.

Universities are producing more and more graduates every year, but job offers are currently falling short of demand, or are not in line with the studies these young people have undertaken and the financial investment their families have made. The arrival of 11.6 million graduates on the job market this summer has done nothing to ease the situation. And now, internet giants, once major providers of jobs, are laying off staff and putting the brakes on new hires.

Photograph of a Chinese man sitting in a meditative prayer position at the West Wind Temple of Anhui Sheng, China.

A Chinese man sits cross-legged in the West Wind Temple of Anhui Sheng, China.

Chan Kevin/Unsplash

School of life 

Disillusioned by these economic difficulties, young people are flocking to Buddhist and Taoist temples. "The number of bookings for temple visits has been rising since the beginning of the year," says Trip.com. "Bookings in May (days off around Labor Day on May 1) have risen up 98% compared to February."

More than half of all visitors are between the ages of 20 and 40, according to Trip.com's data. The number of visitors aged 20 to 30 has increased almost sixfold compared to 2019, before COVID.

At Jiaxing, Lin attends meditation, calligraphy or Buddhist scripture reading sessions; she takes photos to post on the monastery's WeChat account, cleans the temples, tends to the vegetable garden and helps peel vegetables; on some days, she helps elderly illiterate visitors write blessing messages. "Most people have the impression that temples are just tourist sites or historical monuments. Today, my vision is different: it's human, warm and modern. For me, the monastery is another school of life."

While some, like Lin, immerse themselves in this life for months on end, most come for a weekend to pray and burn incense sticks in the hope of getting into a good school, getting a job or becoming rich.

"No school, no hard work, only incense" has become a popular hashtag on Chinese social media in recent months. "Youth burn incense" was the top trend in China's tourism industry during May vacations, according to a survey conducted jointly in April by Qunar.com, a travel site, and Xiaohongshu ("Little Red Book"), an Instagram-like app popular amongst young people in China.

"In the past, I'd only pass by temples when out with friends, and only enter them episodically. But on May 1, I came to Lingyin Temple for the first time to pray seriously," says 23-year-old Xiaoyan, who lives in Hangzhou.

After graduating in the summer of 2022, the young woman has had a hard time getting job interviews. "I had worked so hard during my studies; I was feeling very frustrated and wanted to find psychological comfort," she continues. The quest for a stable, well-paid, skilled job has become so difficult in China that access to higher education no longer necessarily rhymes with professional success.

Temples on the rise on social media

Not all temples attract the same types of visitors. In Beijing, the Lamas Temple, dedicated to Tibetan Buddhism, is popular with those seeking a career or financial success. As one of the most visited temples in China, it recorded the biggest increase in visitor numbers of any temple in the country in March and early April, up 530% on the same period last year, according to Qunar.

Visits often include a stop in the stores: some offer their own brand of coffee, sell bubble tea and all types of small souvenirs. Mobile applications now even make it possible to burn incense sticks virtually.

Social media has also fueled the boom in temple visits, as young people like to share their experiences and post photos on Wechat, Weibo (China's Twitter), Douyin (China's Tik Tok) or Xiaohongshu. Some 7,500 subscribers follow Lin's daily activities as well as her writings on Buddhism, which she posts on her Xiaohongshu account.

A simple placebo effect to ward off economic uncertainty?

Her account of the past few months has garnered over 120,000 views. Famous bloggers have also shared their temple experiences, creating a snowball effect. On the Xiaohongshu app alone, nearly a million messages have already been posted on the subject.

As well as praying to deities, young Chinese place their hopes in the lottery. The Chinese Communist Party bans gambling, but organizes two types of lottery to raise funds for sporting events and social projects.

Ticket sales jumped 62% in April, reaching their highest level in 10 years, driven by young people eager to try their luck against a backdrop of heightened economic uncertainty in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Many young graduates in disarray are also turning to social media to compare themselves to Kong Yiji, a literary character from a short story by Lu Xun, the founder of modern Chinese literature, published in 1919. Kong Yiji is a scholar who fails to find work commensurate with his knowledge, and becomes an alcoholic beggar. A century later, the character has gone viral on social networks.

Photograph taken at dusk of the Fuzi (Confucius) Temple in Nanjing with several tourists taking otitis on their cellphones,

Nanjing, Aug. 22, 2023: Tourists take pictures at the Fuzi (Confucius) Temple scenic area in Nanjing.


Good youth

Unsurprisingly, this influx of young Chinese — most of whom have an atheist, Marxist upbringing — ended up attracting the attention of the state media. "Some young people have taken a wrong path to handle the pressure," wrote the Beijing News, owned by the Chinese Communist Party, in March.

The paper urged them to work hard, rather than pin their hopes on incense sticks. This comment immediately triggered indignant reactions on the internet, making it one of the most popular topics on Weibo. That same evening, a Beijing Daily editorialist published a more sympathetic viewpoint, urging people to understand the pressure facing young people rather than worry about them burning incense.

Addressing young people on May 4, President Xi Jinping called on them to go work in the countryside and be confronted "with hardship," as he himself had done in 1969, when educated young people were driven to the countryside during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.

"I hope that students will have high aspirations and their feet on the ground, that they will combine classroom learning with rural practice," Xi Jinping says in a front-page article in the People's Daily, setting out his ideas on the qualities of "good youth."

"Some young people think that going to the temple as a volunteer is something cool and a once-in-a-lifetime thing to do. Maybe they're not really interested in temples or really religious beliefs, but they want to experience a new way of life and follow the trend," admits Lin. "Before COVID, most volunteers were over 30 or 40. Now, the majority are in their twenties," says Xing, 28, who left a media job in Beijing to join the Xianghai temple. So, a simple placebo effect to ward off economic uncertainty?

"As the economy recovers and the youth employment rate rises, more and more young people will display a more positive spirit and become a pioneering force in the great renewal of the Chinese people," says researcher Zhang Qidi.

Not entirely: this phenomenon is just one of many manifestations of a Chinese youth disillusioned by harsh working conditions and an extremely competitive job market.

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Photo of a hand holding a phone displaying an Union Pay logo, with a Mastercard VISA logo in the background of the photo.

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