A tai chi master leads a dawn class at the retreat

The bamboo clock struck at 4:53am, and if anyone managed to sleep through that, there was half an hour of sonorous gong-banging to follow. The first step to enlightenment, it seemed, was coping with awakening of the more literal kind.

Having checked off the clichés of Chinese tourism long ago – from the landmarks of communist triumphalism in Beijing to the capitalist exuberances of Shanghai – I had come looking for the country’s spiritual side at the Perfect Enlightenment temple near Jiashan, an hour’s drive from Shanghai.

Of course, there is no shortage of temples on most Chinese tours – and where they don’t exist, local governments are building them. For religious (or even pseudo-religious) tourism is becoming big business in a country where Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism are growing and even becoming fashionable among the young.

Daoism’s famous mountain, Wudangshan, saw a 20 per cent year-on-year rise in visitors in the first quarter of this year, while nearly 40 per cent more visitors travelled to Buddhism’s Jiuhuashan this lunar new year holiday than the last. The Buddhist island of Putuoshan in the East China Sea has seen such an explosion of tourism that in 2012 it announced plans for an IPO (though public outcry later forced the local government to clarify that religious sites would not be included).

And when I visited the sacred Daoist site at Mt Gezao recently, I was met by a monk with an MBA in Daoist temple management, toting a prospectus for a Rmb700m project to build a brand new temple.

The Perfect Enlightenment Temple near Jiashan

Temple tourism ranges from mass-market package tours to more informal “Buddhist wives” clubs that hire a minibus so they can pray at several local temples in the space of a single day. My tour wasn’t of the drive-by variety, though. It was a 48-hour silent retreat – complete with meat-free diet and dawn wake-up calls – dedicated to the ancient spiritual practices of tai chi, qigong and meditation. After it, I can confidently assert that, though forms of exercise originating in the east, tai chi and qigong can also calm the mind of a westerner (though I can’t quite tell the difference between them yet).

The tour operator, Yejo Circle, plans all its trips around the principles of escaping from the city, communing with nature and exploring one’s inner self. As an ageing hippie, that’s right up my street; but lucky for Yejo, this kind of short escape from urban life is also increasingly popular with middle-class Chinese. They have fuelled a whole new industry of “back to the countryside” tourism, based on staying in simple villages, eating simple food and leaving behind the stress of big city life and all that neon. State media reported that visitors to “nongjiale” or farmhouse tourism sites over the Qingming Festival break in April were up 12 per cent year on year.

But this was more than just a rural getaway – it was hard work. Our small group of western and Chinese visitors ranged from twenty- to sixtysomethings and stayed in twin rooms, where we slept on wooden pallets covered by thin quilts. At 5am we began with 90 minutes of Daoist qigong (think martial art, but thankfully not the kind where practitioners split planks with their crania). The scenery helped: the temple buildings, some 800 years old, were worthy of a film set. And because it was a silent retreat, I could spend more time drinking in the harmonious architecture and less time feeling I had to chat to my roommate. Indeed, I never even found out what country she was from.

We rewarded ourselves after the dawn workout with a bowl of rice gruel with vegetable garnish. After a few more hours of meditating (while sitting, standing and walking), practising tai chi (a form of moving meditation) and reading fairly incomprehensible chapters from Lao Tzu’s Dao De Jing (the most sacred text of Chinese Daoism), we broke for an 11am lunch and a nap. And then we did the same thing all over again.

I spent my free time reading The Tao of Pooh, the 1980s bestseller by Benjamin Hoff that tries to use the Pooh stories to penetrate the secrets of Daosim. I made more progress with that than with the famously impenetrable Dao De Jing.

Back in the city after the weekend, my iPhone wakes me instead of a bamboo clock. But lucky for those of us bitten by the Chinese spiritualism bug, tai chi and qigong aren’t only practised during silent temple retreats: every public park in Shanghai has groups practising at dawn and dusk – so many, in fact, that it’s sometimes hard to find a spot. In the modern world, “awakening” comes in all shapes and sizes: qigong in a crowded park surrounded by skyscrapers? Well, we all have to start somewhere.

Patti Waldmeir is the FT’s Shanghai correspondent. Additional reporting by Zhang Yan

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article