Coffee doesn’t go with Buddhism in China
It all started with a misunderstanding of names. On the afternoon of Sep. 21, 星巴克江浙沪, the official Weibo account for Starbucks in Jiangsu province, Zhejiang province and Shanghai, announced that a “Lingyin Temple Starbucks” will be open on Sep 22 (the Weibo has been deleted). The post attracted hundreds of comments, most of which criticized Starbucks for destroying Chinese culture and blamed local authorizes for turning a Buddhist temple into a cash cow.
literally translated as Temple of the Soul’s Retreat, was build in 328 AD and has been a popular destination for pilgrims for thousands of years. There is no wonder why many citizens were angry after hearing the news that Starbucks, a popular culture icon of commercialism, is going to open a store in Lingyin Temple where people go for peaceful minds.
Not long after the post went viral, Lingyin Temple stood out to clear its name. A Temple spokesman clarified that the new Starbucks was not located inside the Temple – it’s actually more than 1 kilometer (nearly a mile) away and in a designated commercial area within the greater Lingyin Temple scenic area that’s not under the administration of the Temple.
It also turned out that Starbucks cannot use “Lingyin Temple” in its new location name. On Sep 23, Startbucks was reported to change the name into “Lingyin Scenic Area Starbucks.” The next day. 星巴克中国, the official Weibo account of Starbucks China, also issued a public announcement confirming that the new store was 20-minute walk away: “Over the past 13 years since Starbucks first entered China, we have always maintain great respects for the Chinese culture and historical heritages…We actively work to blend in local communities and to provide local customers with a place for social gathering.”
But the change of a few words in the name failed to change citizens’ reaction to the news. In Chinese, the character for mercy in “infinite mercy (大慈大悲)”, a popular prayer in Buddhism, has the same pronunciation as the character of cup in “a cup of coffee” (both are bei). Many citizens made jokes about a Buddhist Starbucks where customers would ask for “a mercy-full of coffee” or “a refill of mercy” and need to pay differently for “a small mercy,” “a medium mercy” or “a tall mercy.” Netizen Host华少 even asked: “Are they brewing incense ashes plus milk?”
This is not the first time when Starbucks was at the center of controversies due to its store locations. Several years ago, Starbucks was forced out of the Forbidden City after public outcries of it invading the Chinese culture. What’s more interesting in the current case, the commercial area within Linyin scenic area where the new Starbucks was located have been in business for more than 6 months and already opened stores like KFC, Zhiweiguan (a Hangzhou local restaurant chain) and a few supermarkets. Why did netizens only pick at Starbucks? Is it because Starbucks is an iconic Western brand? Is it because the coffee culture is still perceived as very alien? Is it because Starbucks has been expending in China like crazy? Is it because after 30 years of opening up, the Chinese people are still trying very hard to find a balance between Chinese-ness and the loss of it in the face of growing Westernization? It might be a combination of all.
This is also not the first time when citizens were angry at temples which seemed to have kneed down in front of commercialism. For example, Shaoli Temple, the birthplace of kung fu, has been under fire for many years for its IOP plans. Beneath these monetization moves are conflicts between temples who want to keep themselves relevant and in business, customers who want spiritual retreats and local governments who want a steady stream of revenue from temples as tourism destinations.