Chairman Mao the Daoist immortal, and his Bodhisattva friends

(P.S. — If you just want fun China pictures without all the blah blah blah, you can go here: ChinaHopeLive.net’s Instagram Fun.)

One of the easiest places to see real live Mainland Chinese folk beliefs is in the front seat of a Chinese taxi.

And one fun thing about Chinese culture is they tend not to have our Western hang-ups about openly discussing differing beliefs, whether Buddhist or Atheist or Christian or whatever; it’s just generally not as awkward for them. I find it refreshing, and I’m still not totally used to it.

Of course, that might be because they are less bothered by the inherent incompatibilities and logical contradictions involved in doing things like making Mao, who was violently anti-religion and anti-traditional Chinese culture, into a traditional Chinese god. And never mind the differences between Daoism and Buddhism. Because “truth” and personal beliefs are prioritized differently here, as I hope this will illustrate.

(I’m bummed I can’t find the pictures I took in a taxi that had the 5 Daoist Immortals (天上的神仙) glued to the dash. That would provide a nice visual for the folk belief context of the Chairman Mao bust pictured above. Here’s a similar example of Mao in a religious context, from a charm seller at a local market:)

Mao the god — literally and figuratively

A twenty-something student once passionately told me, “Chairman Mao is like a god to us!” He was explaining why he went off on an elderly student who criticized Mao during a discussion class. He meant it metaphorically, but to many that’s more than just a figure of speech.

The driver of the taxi in the photos above told me yesterday that Mao is a god () now. I asked him if people just put these things out for fun, or if they really believe it has an actual influence on their life. I was trying to give him every opportunity to ‘explain it away’, but he immediately emphasized that these things actually have an influence. He was emphatic that these were not mere decorations.

I ran out of time, but next time I’m going start asking how this works, given that during the Mao Era these types of things were violently suppressed. This one (below) was in the bus our school rented recently for a field trip:


Auspicious Good Thoughts; Peaceful Travels
吉祥好意 出入平安

What’s *really* going on?
My knee-jerk reaction to encountering these things (and the reasons people give for them) is to not take them only at face value. What you see on the surface isn’t always at the heart of it. Sometimes people aren’t even aware of why they think and do the things they do. I don’t mean to magically get into people’s heads as if I understand their opinions and their reasons for holding them better than they do (that’s actually a major pet-peeve). But many people just haven’t bothered to vigorously sift their own opinions, reasons and motives. Or they just think that hammering out solid personal opinions regarding what’s ultimately true is unimportant. Or, more simply, what they’re actually doing isn’t what it looks like they’re doing.

For example, if you go to a cemetery in North America and happen to overhear someone talking at their loved one’s grave, would you assume that the person actually believes that they are communicating with their dead relative? Or are they simply giving expression to their grief? Chances are good it’s the latter, for reasons relating to North American culture. Understanding the basic cultural context is necessary for interpreting the person’s actions no matter what country you’re in.

So in China, for example, why are they burning spirit money in the intersections? Do they really believe that their grandfather exists in an underworld that’s a shadowy mirror of this one, that the spirit money and paper goods actually become real in that world and that their relative would be hungry, cold, and malevolent toward them without those burnt offerings? Or are they simply fulfilling their moral obligations to show respect for their parents? Is it connected to “face”? Do they feel a need to demonstrate to everyone that they are decent, filial people (and the details of the ritual with their theological implications are irrelevant)? Or do they not hold any strong particular opinions about death, but they can’t shake a superstitious “just in case” kind of fear? What’s at the heart of it: metaphysical convictions, duty, face, or superstitious fear? In China it could be yes to some or all of those. What would they say if you asked them? Chances are good that the people involved care less about hammering all that out than the person who bothers to ask those kinds of questions. But I want to remember to ask more often.

When truth matters
A coworker recently lost her grandmother, and the family had some conflict over these kinds of funeral rituals. She refused to perform some of them because they contained a spiritual element that was incompatible with her Christian beliefs. Staying true to yourself in this kind of way can come off as very selfish in China; as if your personal opinions about ultimate reality and ‘staying true to yourself’ are more important than these immediate family concerns! “Truth” as an abstract value is not so highly prioritized, and individualism is nowhere near as absolute. Some of her family members (who hadn’t shouldered the bulk of the care responsibilities when grandma was still alive) accused her of not caring about her grandma; they thought it selfish that she would not compromise her beliefs. But she called their bluff, saying that if they really cared then they would have shown it while grandma was still alive, and that they weren’t performing these rituals (burning incense, spirit money and clothes for grandma in the afterlife) out of care for their grandmother anyway; they were doing it to impress the people around them — for “face,” basically.

In the end her dad stood up for her and “protected” her from her disgruntled relatives, even though he doesn’t share her beliefs. But I think it’s important to notice that the conflict wasn’t over differing opinions regarding the afterlife — it wasn’t folk Daoism/Buddhism or atheism vs. Christianity. The conflict was over how the values involved (truth, personal conviction, face, family harmony) should be prioritized. My coworker’s relatives don’t care what she believes or whether or not it’s true. But they cared that she would prioritize her convictions over other values.

About Mao the god:

About burning spirit money in the road:

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