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Monk Su and the temple of birth
By Huang Zhiling and He Ping (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-05-14 08:14

SHIFANG, Sichuan: When her baby daughter Xiao Zhengyang picked up a pencil and a collection of poems at a birthday ceremony Wednesday, Wang Shan was thrilled.

Monk Su and the temple of birth
Monk Su Quan feeds a baby with a piece of birthday cake at a school in Shifang city, southwest China's Sichuan Province, May 13, 2009. [Xinhua] Monk Su and the temple of birth
"I hope my daughter studies hard and makes it, and not lead a poor life like me," the 23-year-old farmer in Shifang, Sichuan province, told China Daily.

It is a time-honored Chinese tradition that a plate with a book, a pencil, a comb and rouge are shown to a child during the first birthday to find out his or her future vocational inclination.

If the child picks up a comb or rouge, it is believed he or she will not be diligent as a grown-up. If the child takes a book or a pencil, however, he or she is expected to be studious and aim high.

Zhengyang was one of 108 babies born after the May 12 quake last year in Arhat Temple, first built in 709 AD; and a ceremony was held Wednesday to mark their collective birthday.

Buddhist temples are not normally associated with obstetrics.

But medics and nurses escorted three new mothers and more than 40 pregnant women out of the Shifang maternal and child-care center as soon as the first tremors were felt at 2:48 pm on May 12 last year.

As hospital buildings began to collapse, Su Quan, a monk in charge of the temple's daily operations, urged everyone from the hospital to take refuge there.

"May 12 happened to be the Buddhist festival celebrating the birth of Sakyamuni, when the emphasis is on helping the needy," Su said.

The temple kitchen, where monks installed two beds and two tables, served as a temporary delivery room. The risk of a collapse during aftershocks, however, prompted Su and fellow monks to erect six tents for childbirth - often in driving rain - in the courtyard.

As the electricity had been cut off and there was no trolley to hold the transfusion bottle, medics worked by flashlight and suspended intravenous medication from a mop while performing Caesarean sections.

Many parents of infants born in the temple named them Zhensheng, meaning "born in the quake," as a tribute to the kindness and devotion of both monks and medics.

Wednesday, young mother Wang was doubly happy because her daughter had found a guardian - Mark Beckman, a 50-year-old Australian technician working in Mongre Motorworks, a company which makes sports cars in Deyang, a city which has Shifang under its administration.

It is an ancient custom in some parts of Sichuan for parents to look for strangers to be guardians for their children below 10. The guardians visit their adopted children at irregular intervals and help them in times of need.

"I have three daughters in Australia and my fourth daughter in China," said a smiling Beckman whose eldest daughter is 25 and has a child.

Beckman, who has worked in Deyang for three years, served as a volunteer carrying the wounded to the city's No 2 people's hospital after the quake.

He pledges to do as much as possible to help his new "daughter", who was born on June 8 last year.

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