The Hindu Temple That Sits Quietly in Southern China

The temple recalls an interconnected, cosmopolitan past that challenges our beliefs today.

Kaiyuan Temple
Kaiyuan Temple

Huizhong Wu


March 18, 2019

Kaiyuan Temple is the main tourist attraction in Quanzhou, a city of over seven million in China’s southern Fujian province. The seventh-century Buddhist temple is opulent, with wooden walls painted a deep burgundy red. Cobalt blue and green dragons perch on wing-tipped roofs, and grey granite columns ring the temple’s perimeter. But beyond its facade, Kaiyuan houses something a bit more mysterious: the back two pillars feature images of Shiva, Vishnu, and other Hindu gods.

Though details are lost, the pillars and associated ruins tell of a connection between India and China beyond the spread of Buddhism. Explorer Marco Polo once described Quanzhou as “one of the two greatest havens in the world for commerce.” The city is now under consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage site and is touted as part of a 21st century Maritime Silk Road. Yet, Quanzhou’s Hindu past remains murky.

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