Temple tourism has already become one of this year’s hottest must-dos among China’s Gen Z urbanites. And never underestimate the role social media plays in shaping consumer behavior. According to recent marketing reports from wildly popular Chinese lifestyle slash e-commerce platform 小红书 ( xiǎohóngshū| Little Red Book in Chinese), the platform has seen a recent surge in posts associated with these “sacred escapes,” one of this year’s emerging Chinese travel trends.
The temple tourism trend focuses on visits to sacred mountains and temples, allowing tourists to immerse themselves in Buddhist culture. One example is Mount Emei in southwest China’s Sichuan Province, one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in all of Buddhism; other popular destinations include Mount Wutai in Shanxi Province, Mount Putuo in Zhejiang Province and Mount Jiuhua in Anhui Province. Aka the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China. These sacred spaces provide a serene atmosphere for learning more about Buddhism while simultaneously enjoying the breathtaking natural beauty, according to the Chinese Tourist Agency website.
The trend also encourages a different kind of Chinese traveler–more observant and reserved, yet eager to explore their cultural roots.
Temple tourism-related hashtags have recently exploded on social media platforms, with travel to Buddhist temples becoming just as popular as traditional seaside getaways or theme park visits. And according to data from Ctrip, China’s largest online travel agency, since February this year, Gen Zs account for nearly 50% of people booking tickets for temple scenic spots. They are fast becoming the main force reigniting temple incense.
For example, #寺庙旅游 (sìmiào lǚyóu| temple tours) on Little Red Book had 530k notes as of June 10; #寺庙旅游社会热点 （sìmiào lǚyóu shèhuì rèdiǎn| literally “temple tourism is a social hot spot”) is another trending tag. But the question beckons… WHY are temples suddenly so trendy?
Evolution, Not Involution
The main reason behind these ancient Buddhist institutions becoming hot to trot is that many young urbanites want an escape from the non-stop torrents of daily life that can suck people in and not let them come up for air. The current flow and speed of China’s social environment has placed huge pressures on young shoulders, from professional to financial ones. Before switching to action and seeking sacred refuge, here are four prime examples of how Chinese youth have put their frustrations into words (or rather, “slogans”) over the past two point something years:
- The term 内卷 (nèijuǎn| literally “involution“) first entered the popular lexicon in late 2020, referring specifically to the rat race in its many forms. ” “Involution” suggests a process that ensnares its participants within what the anthropologist Xiang Biao in late 2020 described to online magazine Sixth Tone as an “endless cycle of self-flagellation“;
- In late 2021, an almost spiritual movement called 躺平 (tǎngpíng| lying flat) signified a rejection of the ultra-competitiveness of today’s Chinese society in return for a “low-desire” and slower life;
- In 2022, then, the 摆烂 (bǎi làn| let it rot) slogan–similar to quiet quitting in the West–was all about just giving up on trying to get anywhere. Frustrated by the mounting uncertainties and lack of economic opportunities, Chinese Gen Zs resorted to this new buzzword to capture their attitude toward life. On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-esque platform, related posts have generated hundreds of millions of reads and discussions since March that year. Netizens also created different variations of the “let it rot” attitude. “Properties in Shanghai too expensive? Fine, I’ll just rent all my life; I can’t afford it anyway on my monthly salary,” one such disgruntled post read;
- The phrase 去成都 (qù chéngdū| going to Chengdu) became popular among young adults in early 2023 as a shorthand for opting out of the highly competitive work and living environments in China’s eastern cities.
But with temple tourism now seemingly quenching the thirst for peace and serenity, it appears the country’s Gen Zs have evolved and are now choosing to put words into action and are actively finding new–or rather, ancient–coping mechanisms.
A Spiritual Hunger
With the country’s rapid social and economic development, young urbanites are increasingly pursuing “low desires,” resulting in a proclivity for anything and everything Buddhist. It appears this culture has become their salvation.
The Buddhist tourist context of separation from daily life, the landscape values of the locations, the temple atmosphere, the sharing of experiences with like-minded individuals, all contribute to the sense of personal wellness that visitors obtain, according to Science Direct.
But there are also those travelers who choose to stay at these temples a bit longer in search of Nirvana. Within China, and more globally, Zen Meditation has gained recognition as a tourism product in recent years, thereby adding to the range of tourism experiences that promise spiritual, psychological and potential health benefits. According to statistics cited on the Buddhism Channel of the China’s tech titan Tencent, over 100 Chinese temples have been hosting themed meditation camps since 2014. Tourists come to the temples, eating, working, meditating and living with the monks during the period of these meditation camps, hoping to find solutions to personal problems, to simply add to their experiences of life, or alternatively to escape daily pressures.
It’s all about “spiritual internal consumption,” words that first rose to prominence on Chinese social platforms last year. “In contemporary society, people gradually lose their original selves, leading to ‘mental internal friction’. In order not to let this internal friction fester, many young urbanites now opt for temple tourism, with temples being destinations our country’s seniors once upon a time loved to go to,” one netizen wrote in a comment below a video illustrating a temple traveler’s experiences on Douyin, China’s TikTok, on June 9.
May all beings have happy minds.
FEATURED IMAGE: Screenshot from Little Red Book taken by the author
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