Praying in Chinese

Within earshot of the Yuyuan Gardens thronging with loud tourists, there is a quieter and more serene area that houses the unassuming entrance to the City God Temple. Like much in contemporary China, the temple has blurred the line between tradition and modernity. Although the City God temple is ostensibly rooted in ancient rituals, the current commercialization shows the tension between modern development and traditional beliefs in Chinese culture.

The City God Temple is officially a Daoist space dedicated to the worship of the Tudi Gong, or City God. The temple is more linked to popular or folk religion than Daoism, but the government does not allow popular religion spaces. With the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, China officially became an atheist state in conjunction with the Marxist concept of rejecting religion. Despite the CCP’s campaign for secular faith, many religions and philosophies, including Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, continue to flourish in China. Popular religion worship continues too, but it is rarely identified publicly as such.

Traditional belief dictates that the City God is like a spiritual governor that watches over the area and its people. There are other minor gods throughout the temple as well. In Chinese popular religion, there is a hierarchy of bureaucratic gods that protect and regulate their constituents. Each human bureaucrat has a counterpart office in the spiritual world. There are bureaucratic gods at each level with progressively increased power all the way up to the Jade Emperor.

Outside the temple, there is an open area for making incense offerings. For 5 or 10yuan, a worshipper can buy incense and then perform the appropriate ritual. With the guidance of a peer, I gave an incense offering. First, I let my incense burn in a pit (without lighting it). Once my incense has charred, I bowed three times to each cardinal direction. While bowing, I thought about my prayer or wish. Afterwards, I put my incense in a large cart with the rest of the smoldering incense. I noticed that the physical act of offering incense made my ritual feel more significant. More than simply thinking my wish, acting out the ritual helped me connect to the practice.

At this spiritual space, the tension between modern development and traditional faith is clear. The temple is under construction to maintain its traditional appearance, but it is still well within sight of urban development. Even at the temple, a visitor is never far from a Western franchise or a skyscraper. While there are clearly sincere worshippers at the temple, there is also a souvenir shop. Tourists taking pictures stand alongside worshippers offering gifts in ritual. Worshippers must buy a ticket to enter the temple, and purchasing offerings is another cost. Like at this temple, it seems that the commercialization of traditional Chinese culture is widespread in Shanghai.

Modern China has felt this tension between the past and present throughout the country. Although China is often presented as one continuous and uniform civilization, public opinions on the past and the country’s traditions often change. For example, Chairman Mao decried the Forbidden City as opulent and decadent. Now, however, the government embraces the Forbidden City as a symbol of the past’s glory and grandeur. Likewise, the Cultural Revolution infamously called for the new, young, and modern. Older ideas were passionately persecuted. Now, the Cultural Revolution is considered a mistake. In a similar cycle, Confucianism went out of fashion during the Communist push for egalitarianism, but the government supports Confucianism again because of its connection to tradition and continuity.

China now has a combination of modernity and tradition, but the balance still seems uneasy. In particular, Shanghai seems like a glittering Western city, but people actually denounce it for that exact reason. Tourists expect a traditional Chinese experience, even as the business world encourages China to modernize and commercialize.

Visiting the City God temple was a really memorable day because I could see how traditional beliefs flow and intermingle with modern urban development. Personally, I really like that ambiguity about China. Almost simultaneously, the country seems to push rapid development while also fighting to hold on to its traditional Eastern qualities. The contradictions are ubiquitous and unforgettable. The tension between the old and the new is what makes Shanghai so interesting and irresistible. 

Chaotic Order: A City of Dog Eat, Mao World

It’s a “dog eat, dog world” out here.

Cars, buses, scooters, motorized bikes, taxis, bicyclists, and pedestrians all fill the city streets with an upbeat rhythm of daily activities. Meanwhile, as the natives continue on their paths, not even blinking an eye to the (seemingly) chaotic multidirectional-flow of traffic, a flustered visitor ducks and dodges what can only be described as a merciless game of Frogger.

Everyone is on the move. The rule of the jungle applies here: everybody for themselves . To successfully live in an urban sprawl you must take care of your own or fall victim to the mighty metropolis. Simple, right?

Well this complex Middle Kingdom spares no pity. Who knew the urban likes of Shanghai could so easily and ruthlessly rattle a proud city girl of Chicago? (The “Utopian Bubble” of Davidson has to have made me soft.) Even so, our arrival immediately filled my heart with a reminiscent joy of home as I gazed at the soothing site of lit skylines and high-rises. It became clear to me that there is something fundamentally distinctive and yet so familiar about Shanghai.

The calm high I had reached from our late-night arrival quickly burst the following morning.  At five thirty I woke up to the roars of blasting horns, screeching tires, and shuffling street walkers.  I was definitely not at Davidson…but may be my very distant Asian home?

Whatever the case, the city qualities that was so inherent to me (that had been apparently washed away by a few years of down-south livin’), had been forcibly fed back to me via Shanghai’s excessive urban qualities. (Re) learning how to maneuver through traffic, crowded streets, using public transportation, and even to shop was a must; all of which require a certain etiquette, conduct, and finesse, specific not only to the global city goers, but most importantly to a Chinese way of (urban-modern) life. All of which was a bit hard to swallow.

While undoubtedly, Shanghai is an iconoclastic space, unique from  the rest of China, this metropolis embodies the complex construction of Chinese cities. Clearly Shanghai is a manifestation of global economic influence, yet, the underlying culture remains true to Mao Zedong’s (and other national leader’s) desire to maintain order.

With the current status of cosmopolitan cities like Shanghai, it is not hard to imagine Mao rolling over in his grave. With his modified-Marxist, militant, egalitarian style seemingly out of practice, it is ironic that some ideas remain saliently translated in the everyday lives of Shanghaies. His determination to demonstrate that China could excel or “even become equal to or surpass the strongest countries of the West”  (Wasserstrom 56) is definitely visible today. Sure, this is not what Mao had imagined (at all), but at the micro level Chinese cities like Shanghai have maintained a system of order. While it may not be visible to my untrained, Western eye quite yet, Shanghai is definitely a mosaic of traditional and modern qualities of life. So the next time I am pushed from check out as to allow the next customer to process their transaction, it might be more appropriate to say, “it’s a dog eat, mao world out here” instead.

Rules that aren’t Rules

Scholars and media pundits alike are quick to point out that Confucianism is enjoying a new resurgence of official veneration in China. This resurgence has many reasons: it fits the Chinese Community Party’s (CCP) message of a continuous, five thousand year old China and it’s a basis for promoting China to the Western world that the West is already familiar with (or thinks it is familiar with). Most importantly, however, the views of Confucius blend well with primary concern of the current CCP leadership: maintaining social harmony (Wasserstrom 2010 China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know).

While the policies of earlier post-Mao political leaders emphasized economic development and redefined who the CCP stood for (Deng Xiaoping Theory and Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents), Hu Jintao’s focus on developing a harmonious society (和谐社会 hexie shehui) demonstrates just how important the maintenance of social order is to Beijing (and, by extension, to local leaders).

The signs of this emphasis on social order can be seen everywhere in Shanghai. Public security officers are ubiquitous, public signs ask citizens to “be cultured,” and at the entrance to every subway station is a metal detector through which passengers are directed to pass their bags for inspection. Rules and the enforcement of rules seem to be of central importance to the leaders of Shanghai.

“No Loitering”

Some of these rules aren’t really rules, however; or rather, they’re rules, but no one cares enough to enforce them. As has been pointed out before on this blog (see here and here), traffic in the city seems chaotic to a Western visitor, despite the presence of traffic lights that count down the last few seconds the light will be green, traffic cops, and public security officers everywhere. On the subway, it’s common to see people hopping turnstiles. If you’re carrying a bag when you enter, a subway official points towards the metal detector, but does absolutely nothing if you walk by without stopping. As people rush on and off buses, it’s common to see individuals dodging paying the fare, and the bus drivers don’t even blink.

Perhaps these “rules that aren’t rules” are really not that strange. As the state has realized that micromanaging every aspect of life in China is not an easy task, it has pulled back in some areas of management while re-entrenching its control more firmly in others. Yes, harmonious society is important, but who really poses a threat to the CCP’s hold on power: citizens in Shanghai who skip already lax security checks, or Uighur activists in Xinjiang who feel mistreated at the hands of the Han majority and the Communist Party?

Conversing with a Cabbie

Yesterday was my first time experiencing taking a taxi in Shanghai. As a form of transportation, taxis in China seem remarkably inexpensive from an American perspective. It’s a mere 14RMB (a little over 2USD) for the first two kilometers; a trip from Yangpu District, where Fudan University is located, down into the city proper costs about 50RMB. If you have two or three people going along with you, that can be a very affordable way of getting around.

This is assuming, of course, that you’re willing to brave a ride on Shanghai’s streets. For an American, Shanghai drivers (and, from what I hear, drivers in China in general) seem to have little regard for anything apart from getting to their destination as quickly as possible. Stoplights are guidelines; yellow solid lines are suggestions; pedestrians have de jure right of way, but drivers will just swerve around you rather than stop. Driving – or riding a taxi – in Shanghai is not for the faint of heart.

My roommate, a Chinese American from California, and I boarded at taxi from the 大众 Dazhong (The Masses or The People) taxi fleet and told the driver our destination: the Shanghai South Bund Fabric Market (上海南外滩轻纺面料市场 Shanghai Nan Waitan Qingfang Mianliao Shichang).

A few minutes after departing, our cabbie struck up a conversation, asking where we were from. He’d assumed that my roommate was Korean, and when I assured him we were both American (which prompted, in broken English, “Oh, America!”), he asked if he was a Korean American. I asked if he’d ever been to the states, to which he responded that he hadn’t: “My car couldn’t make it there!” (没有… 我的车子开不到阿 meiyou… wo de chezi kai budao a)He wanted to know where in the states we were from, and upon hearing that my roommate was from California, he asked how to say California in English. For reasons unknown, the pronunciation of the word was incredibly amusing to him, and he quickly started asking for other English proper nouns:

Cabbie: How do you say Oubama?

Me: Obama

Cabbie, laughing: Obama… What aboutXilali?

Me: Hillary [Hillary Clinton is often referred to by her first name alone in Chinese, I assume to differentiate her from her husband]

Cabbie, laughing more: Hillary… Hillary… Clinton?

Me: Clinton

Cabbie: Clinton. What about Buxi?

Me: Bush

Cabbie: Bush. Bush. Say it again?

Me: Bush

Cabbie: Bush. That one’s translated pretty well. [slight pause] I think Bush is strange: his dad was president, and then he gets to be president too? His dad isn’t even dead yet! [Laughs]

Looking back, it’s interesting that this driver, who had never been to America and couldn’t speak English (or even write it – later, when he had trouble pronouncing another word in English that he had asked about, I asked if he could spell English, to which he replied that he couldn’t) and whose radio was set, not on a news station, but on a station called “Love Radio” that alternated between popular Chinese and American ballads, was curious about the names of leading American politicians rather than leaders of pop culture.

The conversation turned as I asked if he could speak Shanghainese and explained that I was interested in learning some. He shared the phrases for “waiting for a red light” and “hit [someone] in the face” because he thought they were particularly funny, as the Shanghainese for these phrases sounds like “eat a red light” and “eat [someone’s] face” in Mandarin, respectively. I then discovered that the phrase “I don’t understand” is the same in Shanghainese as it is in Mandarin:

Me: How do you say ting budong?

Cabbie: Ting budong

Me, more slowly, afraid I mispronounced something: How do you say ting budong in Shanghainese?

Cabbie: Ting budong

Me, being hopelessly dull at this point: How do you say the phrase ting budong in Shanghainese?

Cabbie: It’s ting budong! I’m Shanghainese, aren’t I?

I shouldn’t misconstrue all Shanghai cabbies to be particularly loquacious; a taxi I rode in later the same day had a driver who was quiet to the point of being taciturn, saying only “Where do you want to go?” and “Here you are.” However, my first taxi ride in Shanghai was an interesting and educational experience, and I look forward to more conversations like the one outlined here.

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