Images shot with the vintage Minolta MC W.Rokkor-HG 35mm f2.8
For such a humongous city, Shanghai might not have as many temples as you’d expect.
The ones it does have are worth visiting though. And as both the largest and oldest Buddhist temple in Shanghai, Longhua temple should be on your list.
It’s not too far out of town, is cheap to get into, and if you take in the neighbouring park too, has enough opportunities for exploring to make a good day out. You can even get in some street photography like I did, and maybe produce a photo essay of your own with it.
There’s plenty to learn about Longhua temple before you go, though.
Perhaps the best place to start is with its origins.
History of Longhua temple, Shanghai
Longhua temple was first built in 242 AD, during China’s Three Kingdoms period.
Legend has it the local king – Sun Quan of the Kingdom of Wu, no less – got hold of some cremated remains of the Buddha and needed somewhere to put them.
His idea was to have thirteen pagodas built, and the one at Longhua, which is still perhaps the most iconic pagoda in Shanghai, was one of them.
The original temple was destroyed in subsequent wars but rebuilt in 977 AD, during China’s Song dynasty. Some say this was actually the first incarnation of Longhua temple, but who knows for sure.
What we do know is most of the current buildings date from the Qing dynasty, either in the 1800s or early 1900s, and restored in 1954, although they retain the Song-style architecture.
More on that Longhua pagoda
Although built to house the aforementioned cremated remains of Buddha, the Longhua temple pagoda is better known for its part in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun.
Based on the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name, both film and book tell of a young boy caught up in the Japanese occupation of the area during WWII.
Longhua pagoda is described by Ballard as being used by the Japanese as a flak tower, while in the Spielberg film a representation of it can often be seen outside the internment camp that the boy – played by a young Christian Bale – finds himself in.
The base and body of the real-life Longhua pagoda were built in 977 AD, with numerous renovations to the less sturdy wooden exterior happening after.
Topping 40 metres, it was once the tallest building in Shanghai. Today it’s probably one of the shortest.
You can’t climb up the pagoda, unlike this one in Wuxi, but with it technically being over a thousand years old, that’s fine by me.
Getting to and into Longhua temple
The easiest way to get to Longhua temple is to take metro line 11 or 12 and get off at the Longhua station. You’ll see the pagoda as soon as you emerge at street level.
On regular days, the temple’s opening hours are 0700 – 1630, with a ticket costing a very reasonable 10 RMB. There’s a vegetarian restaurant on-site too which means you won’t have to leave should you get hungry.
The temple has never been busy on the days I’ve visited, although there are times when this won’t be the case.
Longhua temple fair is held on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month, which coincides with the blossoming of the local peach trees.
And should you find yourself there at midnight on the 31st of December, you can enjoy the traditional new year’s bell striking ceremony.
Street photography at Longhua temple
A Shanghai temple might not be the obvious place for some street photography in the city but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible to do some.
In fact, certain aspects of the surroundings can help your work should you use them.
First is the uniformity of the colours.
Much of the temple is a mixture of orange, red, and brown. This means if you shoot a set of photographs, you’ll have a nice visual consistency running through them. If you want to learn more about using colour in your photography, I recommend checking out this eBook.
The second aspect that helps with your street photography at a temple like this is the activity happening in the wide courtyards, and people entering and exiting the halls.
I used these to add layers to my work and to create full compositions that took up the whole frame, corner to corner with no space left for the sky to fill.
My personal choice is to not make photographs inside a temple building and to leave people alone when they’re praying, but you could shoot either with no problem if you wanted.
Every shot here was taken with the vintage Minolta Rokkor 35mm f2.8 on a Sony mirrorless camera. I’m very impressed with the sharpness of the Rokkor, and the small Sony cameras are perfect for shooting your travel and street photography, be that with vintage lenses or not.
Your trip to Longhua temple, Shanghai
Although I haven’t (yet) visited them all, Longhua is currently my favourite Buddhist temple in Shanghai. I’ve been a few times and it’s never been too busy, which is a good and rare thing in China.
Despite being the oldest temple in Shanghai, Longhua does also have some more recent history attached to it.
A decade or so before the events depicted in the aforementioned Empire of the Sun, thousands of suspected communists were executed in the temple grounds by the Kuomintang.
The neighbouring park, known as the Longhua Martyr’s Cemetery, commemorates the victims. Full of statues, graves, and memorials, exploring it too means your trip to Longhua could be a near full-day affair.
It’s a day I think you’ll like.
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