The Buddhist island of Putuo Shan (普陀山, pŭtuó shān) is undoubtedly one of the most charming places in eastern China. A combination of religious reverence and relative inaccessibility means that it has no honking cars or department stores, only endless vistas of blue sea, sandy beaches and lush green hills dotted with ancient monasteries. As such, it’s an ideal place to escape the noise, traffic and dirt of the big cities, but such appeal means that it’s far better to visit midweek if possible – Putuo Shan is just twelve square kilometres in area, and can get swamped with tourists on weekends. Indeed, the best times to come are April, May, September and October, when the weather is warm and the island not especially busy. Bring walking shoes, too; you’ll get much more out of the place if you walk between the attractions rather than taking the tour buses.
Over the years more than a hundred monasteries and shrines were built at Putuo Shan, with magnificent halls and gardens to match. At one time there were four thousand monks squeezed onto the island, and even as late as 1949 the Buddhist community numbered around two thousand. Indeed, until that date secular structures were not permitted on the island, and nobody lived here who was not a monk. Although there was a great deal of destruction on Putuo Shan during the Cultural Revolution, many treasures survived, some of which are in the Zhejiang Provincial Museum in Hangzhou. Restoration continues steadily, and the number of monks has grown from only 29 in the late 1960s to several hundred. Three principal monasteries survive – Puji, the oldest and most central; Fayu, on the southern slopes; and Huiji, at the summit.
The cult of Guanyin
The cult of Guanyin
Putuo Shan has been attracting Buddhist pilgrims from all over northeast Asia for at least a thousand years, and there are many tales accounting for the island’s status as the centre of the cult of Guanyin (观音; guānyīn), Goddess of Mercy. According to one, the goddess attained enlightenment here; another tells how a Japanese monk named Hui’e, travelling home with an image of the goddess, took shelter here from a storm and was so enchanted by the island’s beauty that he stayed, building a shrine on the spot. With the old beliefs on the rise again, many people come specifically to ask Guanyin for favours, often to do with producing children or grandchildren. The crowds of Chinese tourists carry identical yellow cotton bags which are stamped with symbols of the goddess at each temple, sometimes in exchange for donations.