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May 23, 2011

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Philosophy and culture collide

CHECKING out the back alleys and lesser-known sites in Shanghai can be a lot of fun. The Wenmiao area is no exception as it features a Confucius temple, souvenirs and tasty snacks. Chen Ye explores.

With Xintiandi and Tianzifang now mainstream tourist attractions in Shanghai, those looking for something more cool and less well-known can check out the Wenmiao area in Huangpu District.

It's a fun place to purchase antiques, there are plenty of yummy Shanghai-style snacks and the area draws a lot of comic and animation fans with a variety of related products. And for those looking for something more highbrow, look no further than the Shanghai Confucius Temple in the Old City.

The temple was originally built after the establishment of Shanghai County in 1292 during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and is one of the city's oldest buildings. Yuyuan Garden was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

For hundreds of years the temple provided a place to study Confucianism and according to its archives, 278 people from here successfully completed the highest imperial examinations and became officials for Shanghai County. It was the only place to study Confucianism in the city and in ancient China it could be, academically speaking, compared to either the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge in Britain.

The design, layout and structure of the temple is very traditional, as one might expect.

Inside the Great Hall (Dacheng Hall) there is a 1.7-meter bronze statue of Confucius, which was set up in 1987 to celebrate the 2,540th anniversary of the philosopher's birth.

In the middle of the Great Hall, there is a statue of a sitting Confucius. It's made of camphor wood and includes gold carvings. Standing on either side of Confucius are statues of his two favorite students, Yan Hui and Zeng Shen.

Three plaques hang high in the Great Hall; they were presented by three different emperors to commemorate the great influence of Confucius. The walls in the Great Hall feature "The Analects," a philosophy or moral code written by Confucius that is over 16,400 words long.

Every lunar New Year's Eve, people can ring the temple's bell to make a wish for the new year. During the Spring Festival, parents often bring their children to stand in front of the bronze statue of Confucius to pray for good marks. People also enjoy the "free a captive animal" event during the Spring Festival. Just buy a turtle and set it free to make a wish for the new year.

The temple also hosts a second-hand book fair every Sunday. It features old and new books - in Chinese and English - and some are either rare or limited editions.

On weekends and holidays, many folk shows are presented in the middle of Wenmiao plaza.

Nearby, Laodaoqian Street, Menghua Street and Xuegong Street offer many antiques stores, shops selling cartoon products and snack shops.

One antique store is worth special mention. On Laodaoqian Street, it's only a 2-minute walk from the temple and looks like a recycling station as plastic bottles, old newspapers and cracked furniture are scattered about.

But don't let its appearance deceive you. It's one of the city's most famous antique stores known by both locals and foreigners. It sells old watches, clocks, tea cups, furniture and other items. While the store is rather small, it is definitely worth a visit.

Meanwhile, comic and animation fans will definitely like the area as many small stores sell a variety of cartoon products from "One Piece" to "Doraemon." Most comic and animation characters can be found at low prices.

T-shirts featuring these characters are also available and they are popular among students. Some shops even make customized T-shirts using your own photograph.

Another reason the temple area is very famous is because of the delicious and cheap snacks that can be found practically everywhere. Baked chicken wings, chocolate milkshakes, octopus balls, vegetables, meat skewers and more are all available at lower prices than downtown. But these snacks pack as much flavor as more expensive versions in downtown areas.

Wenmiao area provides a glimpse into what life was once like throughout Shanghai and makes for a nice contrast from all the glitzy skyscrapers now dominating the city's downtown core.


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