A monk turned web celebrity? Ancient religion collides with modern cyber space in China
Published: Oct 19, 2021 12:23 AM
Photo: Screenshot of Shi Huihai's Douyin account

Photo: Screenshot of Shi Huihai's Douyin account

In traditional views, Buddhism, with its pursuit of a quiet inner illumination, has no business with today's noisy digital world. But recently, a group of Buddhist monks in China have proactively embraced modern cyberspace and even turned into trendsetters on Chinese short video platforms by gaining more followers than many vloggers.

Shi Huihai, Abbot of Puzhao Temple in East China's Zhejiang Province, has gained more than 7 million followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok since he uploaded his first video clip in March 2020.

The monk has uploaded over 300 videos about temple life, classic Buddhist works and music on the platform. All these videos have received more than 110 million likes in total.

Shi became one of the hottest Buddhist web celebrities on Douyin within just a year and a half. There are roughly 20 similar Buddhist web celebrities on the platform with more than 500,000 fans.

The monk's online popularity has had an impact on real life, online news outlet reported. Shi said that tourists would seldom visit his temple before he created the short video account but now people arrive in great numbers attracted by his fame.

Many who are dealing with confusion in their lives have sought out Shi for answers. According to tradition, it is custom to prepare some gifts, such as boxes of tea or money, to donate to the temple when visiting a master.

Shi admitted that the money has helped benefit the temple.

The Shaolin Temple, one of the most famous cultural icons among the many Buddhism organizations, has also capitalized on the popularity of short videos. Dozens of monks at the temple have even formed a "boy band" of warrior monks, which now has millions of followers on short video platforms.

San Bao, aged 4, has become one of the stars at the Shaolin Temple with 2.3 million followers on Douyin thanks to his short videos about his daily routine practicing martial arts. The little boy has even crossed over from short video platforms to the entertainment industry, appearing at the premiere of the Chinese movie My Country, My Parents.

His teacher, Shi Yandian, has even more followers than the young star. In order to better present kung fu, Shi learned how to edit videos and has shared his experience with other monks who have also begun editing their own videos. 

The popularity of these Buddhist web celebrities mainly comes from the support of Chinese Buddhists and people dealing with difficult times in their lives and who hope to find the answers they seek through religion.

A 54-year-old Douyin user and Buddhist told the Global Times on Monday that she subscribed to some of these monks to learn "authentic" Buddhist texts and understand the truth of the world.

"Their videos about the scenic views at the temple and the Buddhist music helps me calm down and forget the annoying things in my daily life," she said.

Another user, 26, who is not a Buddhist, said she prefers the video content produced by the Shaolin Temple monks since she feels the videos can charge her up when she is feeling tired, noting that "seeing warrior monks leap onto roofs is also very entertaining." 

However, there has been some controversy about monks, originally a symbol of spiritual peace and freedom from vulgar reality, descending into the material world in pursuit of profit online.

In the face of these questions, Shi Yangao, also a monk at the Shaolin Temple, replied saying: "I can hold onto myself even if the outside world is noisy. The reason why I appear on Douyin is that kung fu needs to be spread, culture needs faith and only then can a nation have hope."