Sea God Altar Project Description

The Architectural Design of the Sea God Altar in Daishan, China (2017)

 

Project Description

This project is the oldest and largest “sea god altar” in China. It is a ceremonial site where fisherfolk on China’s coastal regions have historically worshipped the sea gods and dragon kings of the seas, praying for a good harvest and asking the gods to protect the natural marine resources.

During an era in which marine ecology has suffered significant damage, and the fishing industry has faced a steady decline of resources, we have promoted the spirit of national culture, respected folk religion and customs. We have established a place to celebrate the “Fishing Festival” after the fishing season ends. This grand ceremony gives thanks to the sea for its bounty, expressing gratitude to the dragon kings of the four seas. At the same time, the use of this folk culture has helped develop the local economy and tourism industry, and also established a culturally and spiritually representative large-scale public events venue. 

Drawing on his knowledge of maritime culture and employing traditional folk elements, Zhu Renmin used his rich imagination and minimal funds to design and restore the largest “sea god altar” in China. This project was completed in 2017.

 

Client Requests

The clients wish to make use of the run-down and outdated buildings, renovating the architecture of the original space and elevating its cultural aspects.  It is essential that this design qualifies this architectural structure for status as a local cultural landmark, and that it becomes China’s current foremost “sacred altar.” This structure combines religion, folkways, commerce and art into one. Using historical folk elements as well as modern methods of construction, we have built a classically coherent and architecturally precise work. At the same time, using the least amount of capital possible, we created the most ideal result in terms of both architectural and commercial impact. 

 

Design Challenges

Because of the time-sensitive nature of the festival, the site's functionality must be adaptable and resilient in the face of change. The site accommodates large-scale religious activities several times a year, and also offers a variety of daily activities such as tourism, leisure, tea-drinking, and so forth. This helps stimulate the development of the region’s tourism economy. 

“Sea worship” is an important folk custom in China’s coastal areas.  However, after all, China’s national history lacks a completely intact expression of this ritual's stylistic elements. Historical representations of marine culture are limited. The designer must recover such historical elements of coastal design while also responding to present-day aesthetic and commercial demands.

 

Design Strategy and Implementation

We renovated and restored the original, derelict buildings, minimizing large-scale changes as much as possible. We strived to achieve optimal quality, both visually and functionally, while also keeping in mind practical budgetary considerations. As often as possible, we utilized local materials such as black brick, blue tiles, and stones, consistently implementing them in artistic ways, restoring the original splendor to this beautiful and sacred space.

The design of the sea altar requires taking into account local customs and functionality. The design of the structure’s façade emphasizes local marine culture and artistic elements, along with a unique sense of awe and majesty.  We have recovered, emphasized, and enlarged the most frequent and abundant elements of the oceans: masts, sails, the open sea, the sun, and fish, endowing them with decorative patterns that have made this site popular among local people.

Sea worship exhibits distinct elements of folk religion: the veneration of nature, awe, the supplication of one's own fate, and hopes for a safe and happy life. Using the most simple, honest words and actions, devotees trust in the highest powers of the sea gods. And yet, this clearly differs from both pure religion and superstition. Therefore, the project’s design both distinguishes and unifies the two, making these aspects complementary and enhancing the harmony between them.  As a result, within tourism culture, it has become an outstanding work, one that is both unique and popular. 

 

Cost

More than seven million RMB.

 

Background Material:

Introduction to Sea Worship

“Sea worship” is one way that fisherfolk in Daishan, Zhejiang Province and other parts of China’s coastal regions venerate the dragon kings of the seas and other sea gods. Broad swaths of people participate in this activity. Its influence is great and it has a long, continuous history, and not only in the Zhoushan archipelago, where Daishan is located. Many fisher families practice these unique customs. They are among the most characteristic and popular folk customs of historical marine fishing culture in the East China Sea. 

Daishan County is one of 12 island counties in the entire country. Located in the middle of Zhoushan fishing grounds, the largest fishing grounds in China, it has become a key site of worship for the east coast. For many generations, fishing has been Daishan’s primary industry.

Historically there have been two major forms of sea worship in Daishan: official ceremonies and folk rituals.  In the old days, due to the primitive nature of production tools and the threats to the personal safety of fishermen at sea, where storms might erupt at any time, fisherfolk worshipped the legendary sea gods as the gods of life and fortune. Therefore, whenever the fishing season began, the fisherfolk held a ceremonial ritual for the sea. They called it “thanking the sea dragons with this humble liquor” or “publishing official documents.” They paid particular attention to ritual decorum and to the completion of specific procedures. These customs have been handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. Today, some remote fishing villages in Daishan still follow this traditional folk custom. They have maintained the pristine and simple nature of its original cultural and ecological features, revealing the distinctive traditional culture and deep-seated folkways of the fisherfolks’ faith in the dragon gods of the sea.

In recent years, the Daishan County government, together with relevant departments, established the County Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Leading Group and Sea Altar Working Group in order to preserve and pass on the customs of sea worship. They have invested more than 23 million RMB in the construction of China’s first large-scale sea altar on the site of an ancient altar. In addition, every year, in the East China Sea region, they host a grand ceremony to mark the end of the fishing season. The sea altar ritual actively promotes interest in the sea, calling on all human beings to protect and care for it, and to express gratitude towards it.

Geographical Location and Environment 

Daishan is located in the middle of the Zhoushan Islands, the largest archipelago in the country.  404 islands are spread throughout the territory. The maritime space totals 4916 square kilometers, and the land area totals 326.5 square kilometers. Daishan Island is the second largest island in the archipelago. Located on the southern margin of the northern subtropical zone, its environment is classified as a monsoon oceanic climate.  Daishan sits at the southern tip of the Yangtze River estuary, in the middle of the Zhoushan Islands on the outer rim of Hangzhou Bay. It is near major cities such as Shanghai, to its north, as well as Hangzhou and Ningbo, and it is adjacent to the Yangshan Deepwater Port of the Shanghai International Shipping Center.

Daishan Island is the site of one of the earliest cultural birthplaces in the Zhoushan Islands. Zhoushan Fishery is one of the four largest fisheries in the world and the largest in China. Located in the center of the Zhoushan Fishery, Daishan is one of the country’s 12 key island counties.

History

The ancestors of the island practiced sea worship as far back as prehistoric times. This practice emerged from the primitive notion that all living things have a god, so naturally the ancestors believed that the sea had its own god, too. Therefore they entrusted their  fate to the dragon gods of the sea, worshipping the dragon gods in multiple ways: making offerings to the dragon gods before setting out to sea; thanking them for a good harvest; and praying to them to send rain. This consequently created a rich atmosphere full of belief in and worship of dragon gods. Feudal rulers of various dynasties, for diverse needs and purposes, also performed numerous grand ceremonies.

According to the Republic of China’s statistics, in the year 1917, there were 12,600 fishing boats and 82,700 fishermen in Daishan, forming the base of the traditional fishing communities on the Dai and Qu islands.  Daishan’s long history of fisheries facilitated its history of sea worship. According to Zheng Yewan, an 80-year-old former fisherman in Gaoting Village, as a child he saw adults worship the dragon gods, both on the seashore and on boats. This custom continued up until the eve of Liberation in 1949.  After the founding of the People's Republic of China, the fishing area underwent the brutal trials of "fishing reform" (similar to "land reform") and the Cultural Revolution. Sea worship was regarded as a feudal superstition and banned. However, after the economic reforms and opening up of the late 1970s, it emerged that the vast majority of fishermen had still secretly practiced it.  Today, the remote fishing villages of Gaoting, Daidong, Longtou, Qushan, Shulang, Dongsha, and Xisha, among others, still retain the ancient customs of sea worship. In 2005 and 2006, the China Ocean News, Zhejiang Ocean University, and other departments successively held two sessions of the China Marine Culture Festival in Daishan. More than 2,000 local Daishan fisherfolk learned the traditional ways of worshipping the sea, and held a large-scale ceremony at the altar of the sea. This festival aims to help the sea recuperate, express gratitude to the sea, appeal to all of humanity to protect the marine environment and its resources, and promote the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature. The relevant departments of Daishan also invested 23 million RMB in 2006, and built China’s first large-scale ceremonial sea altar at the site of the ancient one. Covering an area of 45,000 square meters, it is the only dedicated space for sea worship in the country.