Shanghai is home to around 26 million inhabitants. It’s the tenth wealthiest city in the world – with a futuristic skyline and an economy that’s tantamount to money and consumerism. Yet what’s surprising is that, despite its dystopian take on modern living, the city is currently undergoing one of the greatest religious revivals.
Drawn towards this renaissance of religion is Liz Hingley, a British photographer and anthropologist. In her new series and book, titled Sacred Shanghai, she turns her lens towards the spiritual fabric found in one of the largest cosmopolitan cities in the globe. Liz graduated with a BA in Photography from University of Brighton and also received an MSc in Social Anthropology from University College London (UCL) – an education that broadened her creative output and enabled her to take a critically observant viewpoint as seen through this project. “Discovering Anthropology suddenly gave validity and understanding to my way of working and telling stories in terms of immersing myself in subjects over long periods of time” Liz tells It’s Nice That. “Viewing and writing through the anthropological lens enriches and extends my thinking around different subjects in my work, drawing out subtler connections and narratives in the photographs I make.”
Having first moved to China to work on two publications between 2013-2016 (titled Shanghai: End of Lines and Shanghai Sacred), she became completely enamoured with Shanghai as a place of investigation and documentation – although this wasn’t always her first intention. “Living in China was certainly not on my radar,” she says, until she was invited by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and Fudan University to map the spiritual landscape of the city. “Although a ridiculously challenging concept, I was fascinated to explore how people were finding meaning and identity in one of the concrete mega cities that now dominates Chinese life.” Pushing all preconceptions aside, she was soon to discover that the “pace, passionate energy and creativity” of Shanghai was something of an allure – “the city appeared like a stage to me,” she says, “and I feel privileged to have experienced such intimate and extraordinary encounters within the performance.”
Throughout Sacred Shanghai, you’re reminded of a world that’s filled with technology and futuristic ideals, but also of one that’s on the searching for a deeper meaning. This metropolis is a place of various religions, including Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Baha’ism, Hinduism and Daoism, and also “many other alternative faiths” that Liz identified to be constantly evolving and growing. To capture this landscape, Liz would invite a student or colleague to join herself and her camera, before navigating through the different communities, movements and individuals that thought to be “feeding the spiritual life of the city”.
Most interesting was her discovery of public areas with sacred pop-up spaces. An example of this is the traditional East Asian Buddhist practice of ‘Fang Sheng’ – the “freeing of captive animals to accrue good karma”, and a practice that has flourished in recent years due to the influx of online money donations made through social media. “One of my pictures shows hundred of inhabitants gathering to liberate $3,000-worth of fish bought from the market that morning,” says Liz. “Monks or devout laypeople organise weekly devotional gatherings, performing the ritual through the public space and thus creating a new economy for fishermen and a sense of belonging in an ever-changing urban environment.”
The search of identity and community is the crux of this project. “Freed from being defined by where they were born, China’s urbanites are creating new identities, discovering for themselves what they truly believe with the aid of new technologies, social media and a convergence of faiths and cultures,” explains Liz. “Some of this religious life takes place in skyscrapers and apartment blocks, but also in the pockets of the past that still dot Shanghai – such as a traditional New Year’s dinner, the persistence of burning paper houses, cars and money for the dead, or a rambunctious music group announcing a wedding, birth or funeral.” Perhaps as the world becomings increasingly homogenised due to globalisation, technology growth and consumeristic traits, it seems that these pockets of spiritual resurgence can be viewed as its antidote.
Sacred Shanghai is published by Gost Books.