Tourists making a giant Chinese Buddhist icon the backdrop to 'look-at-me' moments upset Rod Pascoe.

It was the selfies that got to me. I was visiting a giant Buddha-like statue at Nanshan on Hainan Island in southern China, and I couldn't get over the contrast between the devout followers who prostrated themselves at the base of the 108m landmark and the young travellers for whom this was just another photo opportunity, a chance to be vain.

Have they no respect, I thought. They even leaned their bums against the statue as they held out their selfie sticks, while alongside them Buddhists - many of a similar age - kissed the feet of the icon, which is built on a man-made promontory jutting out into the sea at the base of Nanshan, the southernmost mountain in all of China and about an hour's drive from Sanya City.

I had earlier crossed a bridge by golf kart with other New Zealand journalists and parked close to where devotees were kneeling or burning joss sticks and tying red ribbons on to frames to press home their supplications for good health and prosperity.

We then joined a queue to get inside the pedestal on which the statue stands. Like all the Chinese also waiting, we were enjoined to be respectful - no hats, no sunglasses, no photography, no talking, and for some reason that wasn't obvious, no stepping on the hearth of the entry door.

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Moved by the serenity of the place, some members of the New Zealand group clasped their hands in prayer.

The spectacle inside was quite something: a huge golden statue surrounded by highly polished marble floors, and pillars holding up a domed ceiling with an illuminated painting of the Buddha. The air was filled with the recorded chants of monks.

Next we were crammed into a lift and taken up to near the top of the pedestal, then led through a series of corridors and rooms lined with panels displaying Buddhist scripture - the teachings of the Master - and out on to the walking deck, where the feet devotions take place. Worshippers repeatedly kissed and touched the icon, while walking around it three times.

Tourists leaning against the statue to take selfies didn't impress Rod Pascoe. Photo / Supplied
Tourists leaning against the statue to take selfies didn't impress Rod Pascoe. Photo / Supplied

This particular statue, blindingly white in the summer sun, was built over six years from 1999. My Chinese hosts explained that the person depicted isn't the actual founder of the Buddhist religion, the Nepalese-Indian prince Siddhartha Gautama, but someone else named Guan Yin, who followed his teachings. I have to admit that to my Western ears, it all sounded too complicated to understand who this female-looking person actually was.

The statue was in fact a trinity of depictions: three images of her, back-to-back, representing peace, benevolence and wisdom.

Nanshan is revered in Chinese Buddhism as the place from where, 12 centuries ago, a great teacher called Master Jian Zhen left to introduce Buddhism to Japan. The nearby peak is also famous throughout the land, and its name features in the traditional greeting to elderly Chinese on their birthdays, "I wish you long life, as long as the age of Mt Nanshan."

After we left the selfie takers to their disrespectful antics, we went back through more scripture-lined corridors, past stalls offering all sorts of trinkets and jewellery.

Devout Buddhists prostrated themselves at the base of the 108m landmark, but for young travellers, this was just another photo opportunity. Photo / Supplied
Devout Buddhists prostrated themselves at the base of the 108m landmark, but for young travellers, this was just another photo opportunity. Photo / Supplied

From the statue, we journeyed by golf kart to the nearby Nanshan Temple, opened in 1988 to commemorate 2000 years of Buddhism in China.

It's the largest Buddhist project approved by the central Government since the founding of the people's republic, and I pondered how Mao Zedong, the communist leader who famously told the Dalai Lama that "religion is poison", would react, were he alive today, to his successors giving such a development their imprimatur.

The temple's interior is dominated by three towering statues, representing the Buddha of the past, the Buddha of the present and the Buddha of the future. I was told the key to working out which is which is to see which of the first three fingers on the raised hand the thumb is touching.

Our last stop on our quick visit to the Nanshan cultural zone was to the Brahma Bell Garden, where 39 ancient bells from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) were hanging with three even larger bells, which represent peace, repaying kindness and praying for good wishes - fitting sentiments with which to take our leave and return to the hustle and bustle of everyday Chinese life.

CHECKLIST

Getting there:

Cathay Pacific

, in conjunction with sister airline Dragonair, flies from Auckland to Hakou and Sanya in Hainan.

Details: See ctstours.co.nz.

- nzherald.co.nz