民間道敎 as Religion of the People: Journey to the West, Part 2.

We must start our discussion from author. Author Wu Cheng En has relatively humble background, compared to other major literary figures in Chinese history. He was born in the family of small merchant. Though he didn’t have economic hardships, his social position is the lowest according to the Confucian division of labor’s preciousness (士農工商 – obviously, he was the last one) Only to add difficulty, his family had absolutely no connection with mainstream politicians. Under these conditions, though he had high talents, he never made it though 科考.

The 科考, when it was first introduced in 唐代, effectively served the role of providing government the real smart human resources, strictly judged on their ability – merit. However, by 明代, corruption took over scoring process, eventually taking away chance of hiring people like Wu Cheng En. Indeed, he held quite a grudge against this phenomenon and quotes in one of the poems he has written: Ugliness of the reality is due to rulers’ nepotism. Not only him, but the whole low class people were thinking the same. Analyzing the history, we can find out that whenever there were Taoism-led insurgences, common men replied passionately (Take an example, 白蓮敎 or 黃巾賊.) Why would that be? It obviously was because Confucianism pretending gentleness or Buddhism chasing ultimate emptiness, both could not save people.

His merchant lineage also made him to contact with Civilian Taoism quite often. Just like lower class people of China back then, his father used to pray in various temples for the success of running business. Following him, Wu Cheng En naturally came across various aspects of Taoism. Also, he enjoyed in hearing to weird tales and owning rare paintings – the referential resources that helped him writing Journey to the West. These features combined make 西遊記 a novel which criticizes Buddhism and Confucianism in Taoist world view.

Let me first go with how Confucianism was criticized. First of all, author shows satire against both nepotism and corruption. Heaven depicted in Journey to the West is not much different from imperial court back then. Though supposedly moral and gentle Confucianism ruled, bureaucrats were extremely corrupt. If you compare 玉皇上帝 to the Emperor and heaven’s corrupt bureaucrats and demons to Confucian officials in reality, this appears clearer. Since ‘Heaven’ is corrupt too, people have nowhere to depend on.

Author also criticizes inability of Confucianism. In the beginning, when 孫悟空 started riot against Heaven and 龍王, even extremely high ranked officials – including those ranked higher than 孫悟空 – could not defeat him. Everything went back to place only when 太上老君 engaged the battle. Officials and bureaucrats didn’t have ability because they were hired according to nepotism, not by ability. There seems to be an additional criticism against extreme formalism and harsh punishment. 沙悟淨 was hit by rod 800 times and driven to the earth because he broke a single vase. The reality wasn’t much different. Even to some minimal crimes, punishment could be unreasonably harsh.

Though little less criticized than Confucianism, Buddhism is also under criticism. One might think, since the whole story of this novel is about monk brining Buddhism bible from India, the author would be favorable to it, but that’s not true. To begin with, 玄奘, who is the main character, seems to be created entirely for satire against Buddhist. He always emphasizes extremely impractical and needlessly moral rules such as mercy against monsters ahead of his way. Meanwhile, it doesn’t seem that he has capability to defeat such monsters – he would rather sit and cry only. Yet he always criticizes 孫悟空, who is trying hardest to think of solutions and eventually resolve the situation, simply because 悟空 didn’t follow some minimal rules of Buddhism. He in fact, is the biggest reason why the travel of four people becomes difficult and dangerous.

Criticism against Buddhism also includes one against absurdly impractical and inflexible idealism thereof. Travel itself is a little bit difficult to understand. 玄奘 argues that it is not meaningful if he brings bible back to China easily dependant to the cloud of 悟空. I personally wonder whether riding the cloud and getting bible conveniently, safely, and fastly will change the content. After all, he was bringing bible to save the people, not to discipline himself. More absurdly, at the end of the travel, 如來 orders 悟空 to drop 玄奘 because they are 8 days short from number of days they have to spend on the road, and lack of one hardship to experience from 81 hardships. It seems that 如來 has totally about the original reason of bringing bible from India: to save 衆生 from hardships and encourage the development of Buddhism. Normal, sane and reasonable person would never think this way.

民間道敎 as Religion of the People: Journey to the West, Part 1.

Often, need of the people and need of the social elites diverge immensely. Social elites have a room to be idealistic, ponder about deep philosophical thoughts or focus on inner refinement, because they are economically stable. When you are hungry, bound by worldly concerns, you reach out for practical solution – so will your belief be. That was how “Folk Religion” differed from “Established Religion” in every part of the world. While the latter’s complex theology argued about abstract concerns such as correct morality, afterlife, and philosophy, former satisfied the taste of common men by talking about success, this life, and practical benefits. Why care about other life, while this life is already so stuffed?

In China, Taoism served the role of Folk Religion. In fact, even the Taoism has two sorts: Civilian Taoism (民間道敎) and Governmental Taoism (官房道敎). As name suggests, the true Folk Religion would be the Civilian Taoism. It is indeed interesting religion to study. It’s the most unique feature is its democratic nature and religious inclusiveness. While most religions tend to have one set theology for all believers to obey, decided by the starter (e.x. Jesus Christ) and elite theologians, Civilian Taoism does not. Hundreds of mutually opposable theories exist, without forcing each other to fade away. They continuously debate, nonetheless recognizing others’ legitimacy. Religious inclusiveness of Taoism is unparalleled by any other religion. Taoist temples serve all kinds of gods – not limited to thousands of traditional Chinese gods, but also historical figure like 關羽 or total non-Chinese foreigner like Jesus Christ. These features provided Civilian Taoism with millions of different forms of worships. It is hard to find any two Taoist temples that serve same set of gods in same way.

Yet, all these immensely different denominations of Civilian Taoism have few features in common. First, they all argue this one principle: prayer brings fortune in your life now. They understand prayer as a sort of payment for good events or lucks in their life. In this case, scope of life is strictly the present one. Second, they have numerous detailed discussions of physical features of religion and less of metaphysical features. (For instance, they would talk more about what kind of supernatural powers each gods have, rather than philosophical theology.) Third, gods are extremely humane, perhaps like gods in Greek myth. Some of them behave divine and respectable, but often times, even the highest authority Jade Emperor (玉皇上帝) may have negative aspect. These common features all owe to the fact that subject of Civilian Taoism were extremely practical people – members of economically or socially burdened classes. We can clearly read this tendency in literatures too.

While I was in China, I had a chance to read the original of 西遊記 or Journey to the West by written Wu Cheng En. Born and raised in Korea, I was already familiar with the overall plot of the novel, but long full version with detailed descriptions and elongated scenario was first time to experience. After reading the original, I concluded that Journey to the West is way more than a mere fantasy fiction. It is in fact rich of hidden religious codes, in a meantime, containing sharp social and religious criticisms. In this aspect, Journey to the West also meets with previously discussed topic – the Civilian Taoism as true people’s religion. It’s favorable description of Taoist character and overall practical, non-abstract worldview clearly show tendency of embracing Civilian Taoism as popular religion.


Though Coffee has taken up majority of beverage market globally, in China, Korea and Japan, tea still has significance. Among them, China is even more outstanding, for it has been open for less ages than other two. There also is symbolic significance. China is the place where tea was born. It is therefore held dear by Chinese people, just like Korean people du with Kimchi. Significance of tea has brought numerous secondary social trends. When I came to China, first difference I noticed from my country or America is that people always brought heat-preserving water bottle with tea filter to wherever they go, and bring their own packs of tea. Second thing was that most restaurants serve hot water or tea as default instead of cold water – in fact, some restaurants don’t even have cold water.

Tea in China is interesting not only that it is socially significant but also because of its cultural depth and width. History of Tea in China, according to some sources, goes up to mythical age of 三皇五帝 神農氏. 神農 is thought to be the ruler who developed farming in China for the first time – his name alludes that for it means God of Farming. In this perspective, we can assume that tea in China has developed at the same time with the development of farming. However, contemporary method of drinking tea – which is drinking only tea leaf with water – first began in Tang dynsaty. Before Tang, tea was often served as a form of porridge (粥), mixed with boild rice or other kinds of grains.

Variety of tea is stunning. Widely known are Black tea and Green tea, but depending on the degree of fermentation, there are way more divisions. Even within same Green tea, people sort it depending on where it was harvested, when it was harvested, or how it was manufactured. If you vist tea shops in China, you will see countless kinds of different teas absolutely outstanding that of coffee. According to such varieties, cost differs significantly too. Normal grade Barley Teas sold in 7-11 China would cost 2 dollars per one fist sized packets. At the same time, for some genuine hand-crafted Puer tea from specific regions could cost several thousands dollars for the same amount.

Though it is hard to access to variety of teas from places out of East Asia, I think tea culture is worth learning about. It is perhaps the most varied beverage which can satisfy the taste of the widest range of people.

A Glow-in-the-Dark Jade


In class we learned about a certain kind of jade that is so translucent in material that it appears to glows in the dark. This famous jade first appeared in history during the Zhou Dynasty when the Emperor Zhou Mu Wang was given this gift from a neighboring kingdom. The luminous jade came in the form of a cup, called the 夜光杯。

I have encountered this luminous cup in one of my favorite novels when the title character, an alcohol connoisseur, was taught by an alcohol expert how to match the right alcohol to the right cup. When they spoke of wine, the alcohol expert referred to a poem written by Wang Han, a famous Tang Dynasty poet. This poem in Chinese as follows:


In the poem, the speaker has just brought a cup of red wine held in the luminous jade cup to his lips when he was reported to fight for his country. In the last couplet, he compares the aimless feeling on the battlefield to drunkenness, wondering how long he will have to fight. The poem describes the speaker’s sadness from being far from home and luxuries like a small cup of wine. In the novel that I read, drinking red wine juxtaposed against the green glow of the luminous jade cup was a classy thing to do – the act comes from this poet.

Jade has been a long-time precious treasure of China. With such stories that appear in history, it makes sense that people are fascinated by jade and the beautiful qualities of it, giving way to romance and poetry. I, for one, wanted a luminous jade cup the minute I read about it.

Professor Shao, then, told us how he has one.

“It doesn’t work,” he told us.

Ah, if only history wasn’t dotted with all these myths.





Yangtze river cruise.

The Yangtze river cruise was one of the main highlights of the trip so far. We got the opportunity to visit some of the more rural towns located close to the river banks ad well as see the three gorges and go through the three gorges dam. One moment that really stuck with me was when we saw the gorge that was on the ten yuan bill in real life. First we started from Chengdu, which was an amazing city where we saw the panda reserve and a while different way of life. 20141126_091515


Then we went on to ride down the Yangtze transitioning between alot of natural scenery and city skylines frequently. This was some of the most uniquely beautiful scenery I have seen in my life, and that’s including the great wall from our Beijing, Xi’An trip. One of the most exciting experiences was going through the three gorges dam. The pure mechanical feat of taking boats down several meters in water was impressive to say the least. On the second or third day we stopped in this small riverside town where there was a temple built into the side of a mountain, where it had been for hundreds of years.

Visual of the surrounding town across the water from the temple

Visual of the surrounding town across the water from the temple

In addition, a day or so before that, I saw one of the more impressive sculptures I’ve seen at a location near the the forst gorge (depicted in the first photo). It stood several times taller than me and boasted intricate details that indicated a high level of craftsmanship.



The sights only got better by night as lights lit up the banks of the river. Besides the visual aspect that made the trip great, I also learned a good amount about the Yangtze river from the experts on board. I learned that the Yangtze is almost 4,000 miles long and for that has earned the spot of Asia’s longest river and the world’s third longest river. I also learned about the famous 1998 Yangtze river flood. It apparently took a huge toll on the country, leaving over 25 billion dollars worth of damage in its aftermath. It lasted for three months and is considered by many to be the worst flood of the river’s history. This was no doubt a huge impacting flood because, as I also learned from the experts aboard the ship, approximately one third of chinese citizens live along the river. Together, learning about the river as well as seeing with my own eyes the beautiful towns and nature that lined its banks, made for an amazing and unforgettable experience.20141127_144057