When entering Chi Lin nunnery via the stairs from a large courtyard filled with lotus ponds, one is immediately greeted by chanting, a recording of monks singing the “Namah Amitabha”. Their voices linger in the small rectangular square surrounded by the Buddhist prayer halls.
After its establishment in 1934, Chi Lin nunnery was rebuilt in the style of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) in the late 1980s, as stated on the nunnery’s official website. Part of the complex is the nunnery, containing the prayer halls and the nuns’ living quarters. While visitors are free to walk in the courtyard, the housing area is restricted to the public.
In January 2013, Chi Lin made headlines in the local English-language newspaper The South China Morning Post, when it was added to the list of nominees for UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Foreign media, such as CNN, soon joined in the chorus of voices questioning the eligibility of the Buddhist temple complex as a potential heritage site.
The Antiquities Advisory Board of Hong Kong, responsible for advising the Antiquities Authority on anything related to antiquities and monuments, declined to comment on the matter for this article.
However, in the minutes from a meeting in December 2012, some members of the board expressed their views on the nomination.
Tim Ko Tim-keung said that he was shocked. He was supported by two other members, Tracey Lu and Joseph Ting, in saying that the nunnery and the adjacent Nan Lian Garden did not have any association with the historical development of Hong Kong.
Apart from the fact that the building, in its current state, has only existed for about 14 years, it was also criticized that people had not been asked about their opinion before the nunnery’s application.
To be registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site, a building or place has to meet at least one out of 10 selection criteria. These include requirements such as being “an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological” or being “associated with events or living traditions, with ideas”, beliefs or other things.
If a site makes the list, it means that the UNESCO considers it worth preserving. In the past, monuments such as the Giza Pyramids in Egypt and the archeological site of Delphi in Greece were saved from being damaged by construction work.
An editorial in The South China Morning Post shortly after the site’s shortlisting read, “We risk becoming an international laughing stock if a 14-year-old, inauthentic tourist attraction in Diamond Hill is all that we can offer for the world to preserve for future generations.”
By now, things seem to have quieted down, and in the latest revision on January 29, 2013, the nunnery has still not been added to China’s tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage sites on the official website.
The nuns in Chi Lin have also heard about the nomination. And they’ve heard about the criticism.
In the beginning, Jian Jue remembers thinking that Chi Lin fulfilled four out of eight criteria, which should be enough.
“There are other sites that only fulfill two or three,” she says.
Later, the nuns decided that the nomination wasn’t that important.
“It’s just a beginning,” says Jian Jue. “UNESCO didn’t give us any pride, but showed us that more responsibility is needed to preserve Buddhism.”