A Soiled Tradition

Early Thursday morning, the group got ready to head out for a two-day trip to Suzhou and Tongli, an ancient water village.  We soon realized we were not the only people in China who had the idea to travel to these famous towns during the long, country-wide holiday called Golden Week.  The crowds were overflowing and we could see and hear people in every corner of the gardens, bridges, and restaurants.  There were children, teenagers, adults, and elderly people exploring the towns and taking lots of pictures.  In the midst of these large crowds, especially in Tongli, there were a few clues that gave away who was and was not a local.  One woman in particular drew my attention because she was washing a towel and wiping it on her face.  I saw her exit a small home in the village that was right near the water before coming toward me.

The quotidian act of immersing a small face towel into a river would not have been something to catch my eye on any regular day, but in crowded and tourist-filled Tongli, it did.  I cringed as I watched this woman drop her towel into the river and repeatedly wipe her face with it as I thought about all the bacteria in the water.  I thought about the number of people who had traveled through the river on the boat tours, the number of people who had spit in the water, and the number of sewage systems that directly or indirectly lead into that same body of water.  I looked down at the murky, green water and thought about how it could make her physically ill.  This event was a microcosm of a wider critique by Elizabeth C. Economy in her book The River Runs Black.

In this book, Economy discusses the impact of densely populated China bearing an insufficient amount of resources and, as she describes it, a tradition of using nature to fulfill human needs.  Historically, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism have all influenced the way people see nature and their relationship to it.  Taoist school of thought in particular teaches that humans are one with nature and that they have a responsibility to create material things out of nature for sustainment.  The high levels of population growth, the pollution that comes as a consequence of that growth, and the policies in place to make China more “productive” make it unsafe for everyday people to use natural resources in their backyard.

Illuminated Cultures

With the Golden Week right around the corner, a group of students and I went to see the annual Shanghai International Lantern Festival (上海国际灯会) at Lu Xun Park. We arrived in the late afternoon and explored the front portion of the park. Named after a famous 20th century writer, Lu Xun Park provides a large, calming space for people of all generations to enjoy. The trees, curved paths and ponds offer a sanctuary away from the loud, bustling city of Shanghai. While walking around the park, I observed children playing with their friends, locals practicing t’ai qi and groups of retired residents playing cards.

After an hour or so of walking, our group left the park to eat dinner and wait for the sun to set. We knew the Lantern Festival’s lights turned on at 6:30pm sharp, so we hurried back around that time. We used our Fudan University student cards to enter at a discounted rate of 35 Yuan, and the fee was well worth the sight!

Lu Xun Park transformed entirely. The daytime’s natural, calming atmosphere disappeared and the park became a colorful, exciting spectacle. Hundreds of red lanterns lined the paths filled with groups of friends and families. At the entrance, the Oriental Giant Dragon, a 200.2-meter long handmade dragon sculpture, was glowing, moving and breathing smoke. Near the center of the park, vendors, entertainers and food booths provided another layer of entertainment. Mal and Charlotte courageously ordered some stinky tofu (臭豆腐). The bland taste did not live up to the dreadful smell, but it was still exciting to try a bite.

My favorite part of the Lantern Festival was the large light displays positioned alongside the paths. These displays highlighted important symbols and representations of Chinese culture. Additionally, displays of icons from cultures outside of China existed further into the park. My favorite light displays included The Journey to the West, Korean drums, Disney princesses, the London Olympics and the Indian elephants. Although the Shanghai International Lantern Festival is linked to the Mid-Autumn Festival, a Chinese holiday, it includes displays representing non-Chinese societies and histories. For instance, the Great Wall display was placed next to the Egyptian pyramids display. The juxtaposition of eastern and western images throughout the park parallels other signs globalization throughout Shanghai and China. With modernization the barriers among cultures dissolve and the exchange among cultures increase.

Even after more than two hours of sightseeing, there was still more to see and do. The Lantern Festival is only on display during the weeks leading to the Mid-Autumn Festival and Golden Week. Since lights will be taken down in the near future, the festival is something to be treasured. I look forward to seeing what other special events Shanghai has in stored for China’s weeklong celebration.

A Believer Among _Believers_

Full disclosure: I’m a Christian.

In America, this is something people often take as a given. In a country where 76% of the adult population self-identifies as Christian, this is understandable. It’s a safe assumption to make. Furthermore, because the United States has such a large Christian population and has historically had a similarly large Christian population, the majority of Christians in America were raised by Christian parents and at a young age were exposed to at least a modicum of the Christian religious experience. Even non-Christians in America are exposed to Christianity, which is engrained deeply into Western culture. Biblical concepts like “The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,”  “Noah and the Ark,” and “Jesus turning water into wine” are widely known.

Imagine, then, the following conversation:

Person on the street: So, how do you know each other?

Chinese friend: We’re both Christians, we just came from a Bible study.

Person on the street: What’s a Christian?

Chinese friend: We’re people who follow Jesus.

Person on the street: Who’s Jesus?

Seems bizarre, right? I understand why the average Chinese person would not have heard of Jesus – it’s just a matter of statistics – but the idea that someone has not heard of Jesus still seems bizarre to me. We’re talking about Jesus here, a man who, regardless of whether or not you believe in him as a Christian, can probably be safely considered the most important historical figure in Western culture, by sheer impact on that culture alone.

Christianity is growing in China. This means that most Chinese Christians were not raised by Christian parents and simply adopted the religion by osmosis, but were converts to Christianity later in the lives. For them, becoming a Christian was a life-changing experience; being baptized made them into a new person in a profound way.

This became clear to me as I sat in the living room of a woman I was introduced to by a Chinese friend, participating in a Bible study she hosts weekly. After singing a few hymns, everyone in the room introduced themselves: “Hi everyone, I’m [name], I’m originally from [place], I was baptized [time], I’m really glad to be here with everyone tonight.” These introductions were not set up this way (no one told us to share this particular set of information), but yet almost everyone in the room was drawn to sharing this information. For them (most of whom had been Christians for only a few years), the fact they had been baptized and the time of their baptism (one individual even shared the exact date of his baptism) was as fundamental to their identity as their name and their home. For me, this was a new experience; in churches I have been a member of in America, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone share how long they’ve been a Christian.

Among these people, I felt a little out of place. For them, their conversion to Christianity was perhaps the most important, defining moment in their life. For me, my faith is important, but I can’t say that I’ve ever felt transformed by it.

After the Bible study had ended, the woman hosting it came over to speak with me. I shared the observations and feelings mentioned above. She told me I shouldn’t be worried: “I had been a Christian for ten years before I really became a Christian, really let it change my life. I think that’s what being a Christian is really all about: allowing Jesus to change the way you live your life.”

That seemed to be a belief shared by almost everyone in the room. What is interesting to me is that as China changes rapidly, the lives of its people change rapidly as well. What drives people already confronting so much change to seek out another change in their life, particularly one as fundamental as religious conversion, is something I still don’t understand, however.

For some great insights on Christianity in China, check out Chinese Christians are filling vital roles in their communities and Talking with Christians in rural China from the blog Seeing Red in China.

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?

Religion and Modernity

I was prompted to write this post when I saw a Buddhist monk dressed in traditional garb walking down the street, as I happened to glace out the window. His bright orange robe seemed like a splash of light on an otherwise banal city sidewalk. I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of this monk, who looked like he belonged in a beautiful temple high in the Chinese mountains, and the run-down, dirty city street in which we both found ourselves. As Wassterstrom says, China is a country of contradictions.

Photo Credit: Michael Shepard, http://mynikonlife.com.au/photos/1638.

This week’s reading has also led me to think about the concept of religion in a modern China. While the opening up of China to the West has allowed for an increase in economic and cultural exchange, this process has done the same for religious ideas. Just as Chinese people have gone from living in groups with their family lineages to high-rises, or from eating dumplings to eating KFC, or from riding bikes to riding the subway, religious practices are shifting. This is not to say, however, that there is any kind of absolute change. To the contrary, a mergence of the old and the new is constantly seen in everyday life (hence the Buddhist monk walking down the street).

The other concept I’ve thought about is that of capitalism and how it is tied to religion. Lizhu Fan in “Spirituality in a Modern Chinese Metropolis” mentioned, “economic opportunity seems to have quickened the impulse of spiritual renewal (Location 595).” The questions I would pose are: Does economic opportunity quicken our spiritual impulse, or does it create it? Does the complexity and stress that comes with modernization cause the desire for us to be spiritually connected or just awaken it? What I am basically suggesting from an economic standpoint is that a new market is being created in the arena of religion. Just as foreign products and luxuries are becoming available to Chinese people, the abundance of ideas and beliefs are now becoming products that individuals can consume. Perhaps the growing obsession with one’s possible material possessions (created in great part by capitalism) is causing people to look inside themselves in order to find what it is that really gives them peace. I don’t mean to cheapen the value in investigating one’s spiritual self, but it is interesting to see the kinds of deep issues and considerations that become pressing when one’s world becomes more complex, or “modern.”