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The Hot Seat: Q & A

Chasing down
a Chinese temple

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September 3, 2004


The question was simple: 

"I was wondering if you have every seen or been to the Gwong How Temple in Canton, and If there is a Kuan Yin temple some where in the Canton area as well."

But the answer: well, see for yourself:

Well, Jim, you started me on a quest. You caught me at a time when "Fall madness" hasn't started (I'm a teacher), and you touched on an issue (below) that is important to me. So I spent much more time than I should have to run this down.

And the answers are inconclusive.

I had never heard of "Gwong How Temple in Canton," but that's not surprising., There are thousands of temples I haven't heard of.

But first, we have to answer the question, "Where is 'Canton'?" Just like Italians don't call their country "Italy" and the Japanese don't say "Japan," Canton is not a Chinese name. It was created by the Europeans who heard the name of the province (these days spelled Guangdong, but previously Kwangtung or Kuang-tung, among others) and transliterated it more-or-less phonetically. (Likewise, it was a shock to learn that Chinese speakers don't say "Hong Kong" or "Kowloon," either. These are basically derived from a British hearing of Chinese names.) This problem of (mis-)transliterating Chinese names will crop up again in a minute.

Complicating things are the differences in regional Chinese: Beijing-style "Mandarin" says something like Guangdong, but Southern "Cantonese" says it more like Kwangtung. The Japanese also get their licks in: one source mentions that "in Japanese the name of the province is pronounced kanton…This provides us with another clue about the history of this word."

Anyway, we're on solid ground now, right? "Canton" is "Guangdong."


"Canton" is also used to describe the capital city of Guangdong, which is properly Guangzhou (or Kuangchou, or Kwangchow, or…) Some people say "Canton City" to make the distinction, but not always.

Yet another candidate for "Canton": As there is something of a homogeneous culture throughout south-eastern China-beyond the borders of Guangdong itself-"Canton" is sometimes used to describe areas including modern Fujian among others. (Purists will complain: Fujian has a language Called Min; but one source says Cantonese is spoken in "the south-eastern part of Mainland China, Hong Kong, [and] Macao…"

So: knowing that the temple you are looking for is "in Canton" doesn't tell us much. But it's a start.

Now, I won't bore you with all the details, but I did a bunch of Googling, and found this:

  • The phrase "Gwong How Temple in Canton" shows up repeatedly-amidst almost identical wording-in articles on the "history" of something called "Pak Mei Kung Fu." (I suspect this is where you found it.)

  • Using "Pak Mei" and an alternate spelling for Gwong (the "Guang" from Guangdong) I found a reference to "Guang Hua Mountain" as a home of martial arts. This led me to believe that "Gwong How" was a corruption of "Guang Hua."

  • I found a famous Guang Hua Temple, but it is in Beijing-far from "Canton."

  • Finally, in a truly bizarre letter, I found the name of a "Guang Hua Temple, Putian, Fujian." I suspect this may be the place in question.

In this truly bizarre letter posted a couple of dozen times on Usenet and other forums, the writer is complaining of "malicious monks" with ulterior motives, and appends a long list of temples with which those monks are associated. Without any other knowledge, sheer logic would point up some problems with this theory: the writer mentions several temples that are part of the Fo Guang Shan order (with which I was once associated), but omits many others. Wouldn't they all be malicious monks? No mention, by the way, of malicious nuns--and nuns outnumber monks about 4-to-1 in Fo Guang Shan temples.

So here it is: we have a name of a temple in a city that could be considered part of Canton-and there the trail turns cold.

Now, here's the "issue" you touched on that I mentioned at the start of the letter:

I can find no comprehensive directory of Chinese temples on the internet in English. If I could read Chinese, there'd be no problem. But beyond the "lists" available through tourist websites, there's almost nothing. I may have to find a way to get some translations done!

Now, as to your second question:

There are tons of "Kuan Yin temples" in southern China. Google it, and use variations of spelling on "Kuan": Guan, Kwan, Kwon, etc., as well as variant spellings for Guangdong and Guangzhou. You should also be aware that virtually every Buddhist temple and most Taoist/folk temples have at least a statue of Kuan yin, if not an entire hall dedicated to her. Even many shops and homes have small shrines to her--I have one in my living room! Perhaps the best-known statue of Kuan Yin in "Canton" is at Foshan (a city whose name means "Buddha Mountain"): it's the monumental tourist trap called the Kuan Yin Culture Garden. See it here


Postscript: I wrote a letter to one of my professors (now the university president) at Hsi Lai University, asking him:

Is there a listing of "Temples in China" in English?  I have searched the  internet in vain.  People sometimes ask me if there is a such-and-such  temple near so-and-so city; while there are extensive websites in Chinese,  there's almost nothing in English beyond tourist propaganda.  If there's nothing on-line, can you point me to something off-line?  I'll be  hitting Hong Kong's Central Library next week.


And got this reply:

There is no good list of temples/monasteries in English. I am working on a Luce Foundation grant to create a digital atlas of Buddhist place names in China and Tibet.  When we finish it in a few years it will meet your needs...and you want it "yesterday." Sorry to report this....

And that's pretty close to definitive.


An update: 

September 10, 2004


First, regarding last week's search for "Gwong How Temple," Jim had some more information:

Wow! Well, thank you for all your information, it was very helpful, and I very much appreciate your time and effort.   Also, I believe that the Kwang, Guang or Kwong How temple is also called  the Guangxiao si (temple) of Guangdong Province (Canton), and is referred to as  "The Bright Filial Piety Temple." Do you think this is the same place?

Again, thanks for all your time on this matter. 

Yours, Jim

Hmmm...seems I'm more defective than detective.  Here's my reply:

Hi, Jim. It's entirely possible that you're right. I did some checking on pages that show Cantonese equivalents for "Mandarin" (Putonghua) words. "Xiao" can sometimes be "hau," but not for this character. Again, given the amorphous nature of language that is being passed between two extremely distinct dialects and then conveyed into the mind of an "Englishman," almost anything can happen!

Guangxiaosi is quite well known, although I haven't been there yet (but it's on the list!) You can find a lot of links by running "Guangxiao Temple" in Google.

Until we have more information, I'm voting on this temple, rather than my previous suggestion, as being your "Gwong How temple."

I then told him about the posting here, in hopes that someone will help us!

For those keeping score: Questioners 1, The Temple Guy 0.


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