Has the North Peak been lost?

No wonder Taoists have a reputation for being slippery. I argued to myself that I was being unfair. Then I got a grip; no, I wasn’t being unfair, and I started to walk ahead quickly. I needed to find some real Taoists and ditch this guy. But he followed me, talking incessantly as I tried to block out his voice. “It’s the twenty-first century. It’s the century of Zhuangzi. Last century was Laozi’s century but this is Zhuangzi’s.” Shut up, shut up, I countered in a loud internal voice. Where can I find a real Taoist?

In the new book Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (which looks excellent, from all reviews), Ian Johnson details his quest to seek out Taoism at Mount Heng, one of the religion’s holiest sites. He was driven by a question that is being asked throughout China, by natives and foreigners alike – why does everything in this country feel so crass and commercialized?

It could certainly be argued that commercialism is a byproduct of modernity, or perhaps of the capitalist system that typifies modernity for the vast majority of the world’s citizens. If this is the case, it would make sense for commercialism to be rampant in China, which has hurtled at breakneck pace from socialism to capitalism in the thirty years since reform and opening began. Nevertheless, even to an outsider who grew up in the capitalist west, surrounded by aggressive commercialization of every aspect of life, the level to which capitalism is taken in China can seem extreme. I almost felt affronted when I learned that visiting City God Temple (城隍庙), the primary temple in Shanghai, required one to purchase an entrance ticket. Is nothing sacred?

City God Temple, taken by Cory Doctorow: http://www.flickr.com/photos/37996580417@N01/1349429615

City God Temple, Shanghai

For myself, paying to enter a temple was particularly jarring when compared to my experiences in Taiwan, where worshippers come and go, pausing only to take some incense to offer to the temple’s god(s), which is usually offered free of charge as well. At Shanghai’s City God Temple, it felt like the believers who maintain the temple had “sold out” to commercialization and capitalism to turn a profit. Johnson talks about how he worried about the same thing when he found himself atop Mount Heng:

The mountains were seen as pillars holding up the Chinese world; even the emperor worshipped them at the Temple of the Earth in Beijing. But when I made this trip to visit it in 2000, the North Peak had only been officially open for a year and was mostly in the hands of greedy government officials, who sold tickets and tourism “insurance” policies and harassed the few Taoists who tried to live there. Soon into my trip, I was pretty sure that the rich Taoist traditions I’d come searching for had been extinguished.

It is easy to assume that sixty years of rule by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is strictly secular and which, until reform and opening, actively worked to destroy religious tradition, have driven religious practice to the sidelines in this country. On the surface, China feels very secular, and what religious aspects do remain often seem to have been caught up in the commercialization of the last three decades. However, closer examination reveals that traditional religion still plays an important role in the lives of many Chinese: many restaurants sport small altars to stove gods or wealth gods; errant Buddhist monks stroll the streets; families still leave offerings at shrines for their ancestors; the dashboards of many cabs are graced by small statues of gods watching over the driver and his passengers. As Ian Johnson points out, surveys have indicated that “over two-thirds of Chinese say they believe in a higher being, while a quarter say that over the past year, they have experienced the presence of a deity – figures similar to those for Western countries like the United States or Britain.”

As Johnson concludes in his article, religion is still a deeply meaningful experience and an important part of the lives of Chinese people. I believe it is safe to say, then, that for the average Chinese person, religion has a different meaning than it does for most people in the west. At times, it may seem commercialized, but does that really matter, if, at the end of the day, individuals can still live their lives according to their beliefs?