[Photo Gallery:] It’s Fú Time! Get ready for Chinese New Year 2014!

fu5 [Photo Gallery:] Its Fú Time! Get ready for Chinese New Year 2014!

Qingdao’s canal bed Licun Daji traditional market is epic on a normal day (see photos here). But on the last market day before Chinese New Year, it’s “here a , there a , everywhere a -” — like a ginormous red, yellow and black ant colony that some kid has just poked with a stick, all charged up and buzzing with Chinese New Year colour, food and traditions.

fu1 [Photo Gallery:] Its Fú Time! Get ready for Chinese New Year 2014!
Have a fu.

On locals’ advice, a coworker and I squeezed around back and forth through it during xiūxi time (aka after lunch siesta), when the crowds weren’t as lethal as in the morning. We weren’t aiming to document the whole thing, just look around and chat and take pictures of whatever caught our eye, and ended up with a lots of red and religious stuff (in which Chairman Mao makes an expected strong appearance), along with the usual things that make foreigners stop and take pictures.

gods1 [Photo Gallery:] Its Fú Time! Get ready for Chinese New Year 2014!
财神,the money god, for sale.

(Aside from one pile of pig heads, there aren’t any other photos of piles of animal parts, though it was interesting to see shoppers inspect piles of cold, shiny intestines the same way you would check over tomatoes — i.e. with your bare hands.)

apples [Photo Gallery:] Its Fú Time! Get ready for Chinese New Year 2014!
Apples grown with stickers to make the sun shine “riches” , “respect” , and “advance” into the peels.

Anyway, here you go!

More photos from this market: Licunji – Qingdao’s most epic market

Chinese New Year photo galleries:

Chinese New Year songs to learn:

Lucky Panties & Fu:

Chairman Mao the good luck god

Walked out to the street market at the entrance to our neighbourhood to get some bǐng before dinner yesterday. The late afternoon sun was sparkling brightly off the superstitious dashboard ornaments of the cars that clog our complex. First a Guānyīn,

IMG 6526guanyin Chairman Mao the good luck god

then a prayer wheel,

IMG 6527prayerwheel Chairman Mao the good luck god

and then a…

IMG 6531maobust Chairman Mao the good luck god

…Chairman Mao.

Mao as a part of Chinese folk beliefs isn’t anything new, of course. But I thought it was funny the way it just fell across my path today. For more about Mao’s current status in China’s popular spiritual imagination:

Snickers for Confucius, juice box for Buddha

Wandered around Qingdao’s Licun Park 李村公园 for the first time on the afternoon of the Lantern Festival 元宵 just to see what there was to see. Turns out they have a temple to Confucius, which also accommodates Daoist and Buddhist deities and a pagoda you can climb up for the view. I thought the offerings in the temple were curious.

20130224 109xiang Snickers for Confucius, juice box for Buddha
The incense sticks say, “All things according to one’s wishes” 万事如意 and “Certainly grant what is requested” 有求必应

20130224 106kongzi Snickers for Confucius, juice box for Buddha
The sign between Confucius’ (孔子) knees says, “Seat of the most sacred master Confucius” 孔子。The offering box behind the cushion says, “Merits and Virtues Box” 功德箱

20130224 100kongzisnickers Snickers for Confucius, juice box for Buddha
Surely there’s a “Confucius say…” joke to be made involving that Snickers bar…

20130224 104buddhas Snickers for Confucius, juice box for Buddha
Laughing Buddha 布袋/笑佛 and Guanyin 观音 (on Confucius’ left) were faring much better than the God of Wealth 财神, who was over on Confucius’ other side.

20130224 273juicebox Snickers for Confucius, juice box for Buddha
Yay juice box! (Technically: a blueberry yogurt drink.)

20130224 056pagodaexposed Snickers for Confucius, juice box for Buddha
There’s also a pagoda.

20130224 085pagoda Snickers for Confucius, juice box for Buddha
Chinese mythological beasts, which I can never keep straight, maintain watch over the solar water heaters of the apartments below.

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.

maodao Chairman Mao the Daoist immortal, and his Bodhisattva friends

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.

maofo Chairman Mao the Daoist immortal, and his Bodhisattva friends

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:)

20130118 1112maobuddhahor Chairman Mao the Daoist immortal, and his Bodhisattva friends

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.

20130118 1121maoguanyinvert1 Chairman Mao the Daoist immortal, and his Bodhisattva friends

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:

danglemao Chairman Mao the Daoist immortal, and his Bodhisattva friends
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.

20130118 1122maobuddhavert2 Chairman Mao the Daoist immortal, and his Bodhisattva friends

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:

Interview with Prof. Liu Peng on Religious Issues in China

Here’s a lengthy ten-part interview with Liu Peng from the Pu Shi Institute for Social Sciences, “an independent, nonprofit, non-governmental think tank” that exists to “promote freedom of belief within the framework of rule of law” and acts as “a ‘bridge’ between the government, the academic circles and religious groups.” Good for anyone with more than a passing interest in religious issues in China.

Render unto Caesar the Things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the Things that are God’s: Interview with Professor Liu Peng about Religious Issues in China

President Hu Jintao emphasized that we should enlist the participation of religious personnel and religious believers in the promotion of economic and social development. He explicitly affirmed the value of religion in Chinese society. . . It’s too simplistic to explain it away by saying that “cheaters bump into fools”. . . If you view religion as negative, then religion should be eradicated. If religion is not something negative, then it is another issue. Once we have established a correct understanding of religion, the next question centers on the measures that the state uses to manage religion.

More from Liu Peng and the Pu Shi Institute for Social Sciences can be found here:

More about how the Chinese government “enlists the participation of religious personnel and religious believers in the promotion of economic and social development” here:

Political inoculation and personal empathy in China

According to one of my one-on-one students who loves to monologue about Chinese politics, members of a certain ethnic and religious minority in China keep setting themselves on fire (see here here here here here here here here here here here and here) because they are greedy, ungrateful, and just trying to squeeze more money and privilege out of the benevolent government, which is already giving them a better deal than they deserve, and oh for the life of ethnic and religious minorities in China, they have it so good. (I generally avoid politics with my Chinese students and don’t bring it up, except for one time.)

Of course I’ve heard and read that opinion before; it’s part of the prescribed script in Mainland China. But when I heard it passionately delivered again this week by a 17-year-old ESL student from Shenzhen, some previously unconnected China anecdotes came to mind, reminding me that in China, people do empathy differently.

chinesepolicevsambulance Political inoculation and personal empathy in China
A policeman stops an ambulance with patient en-route to the hospital so a government official can come down the road unimpeded by traffic. [Link]

I’m wondering if — and if I were still in school this might make an interesting research project — collectivist cultures paradoxically tend to result in a lesser degree of personal empathy or ability to empathize, or in an alternate distribution of empathetic emotional energies (relatively more to in-group and less to strangers), or something. I’m not the first to wonder that, of course. Visitors to China who stay long enough often get conflicting impressions: locals can seem both incredibly attentive (to friends, family and connections) and shockingly callous (to strangers), depending on the situation. A quick google search turned up this article, which:

focuses on the propensity of Chinese young adults (age 30 and younger) to help strangers, investigating how the shift from collectivist values to individualism and universal morality may make young Chinese more likely than older Chinese to help strangers.

Obviously in China, as in any country, there would be multiple contributing factors to this kind of thing.

Anyway, let’s get on with the irresponsible use of cultural anecdotes. :)

If I wasn’t already familiar with China, I’m sure my jaw would have hit the floor when my student went off about the greedy T!bet@n self-immolators. Petty, selfish monks and greedy farmers, lighting themselves on fire like that! After asking him a few questions, it became clear that my student had never thought (and didn’t think it relevant at all) to find out from the people themselves why they were doing it — that was apparently unnecessary to understanding the situation. I don’t expect him to agree with the monks’ complaints or approve of their actions, but I was appalled at his apparent total lack of empathy. And that reminded me of many other startling lack-of-empathy anecdotes — not all of which are so serious:

  • The Factory Girls author describes staying in one of her subject’s crowded village homes. The parents wake up extra early one morning for some reason and precede to talk at full-volume as if it doesn’t occur to them to be considerate of a house full of sleeping people.
  • Brutal advice-giving and ‘help’ in tragic circumstances, for example, after a miscarriage, when the family members blame the mother directly for transgressing traditional Chinese pregnancy customs (of which there are legion);
  • The apparent lack of a Good Samaritan ethos in traditional Chinese culture (which contains a whole string of specific anecdotes);
  • Some forms of personal talk, where people draw attention to and comment publicly on aspects of each other that the other person probably doesn’t want commented on: you’re getting pretty fat, you’ve got some bad acne, etc.

None of these actually prove anything, of course. You can cherry pick and present anecdotes of any society to make it appear any way you want, but that doesn’t mean your anecdotes are truly representative. Anecdotes don’t prove anything. They can helpfully illustrate things if they are used appropriately, but I’m not even claiming that here. These are merely what came to mind when I heard my student’s take on the self-immolations.

But thinking it over also reminds me of situations where locals displayed attentiveness above and beyond what I would expect to see in North America; where people seemed way more “tuned-in” to others than I usually am. Two specific instances that immediately spring to mind involve two different couples (Chinese guy, American girl) where the husbands/fiances were way more tuned in to their wives/fiancees than I expected — they put the average American boyfriend to shame, and probably made their fiancees’ foreign girl friends jealous. All that to say, my student’s comments got me thinking about how empathy works in China, and how in at least some ways, they do it differently than we do in North America.

Referenced stuff:

The Chinese Communist Party among other, rival faiths

Each major world religion with a significant presence in China troubles the CCP in similar and different ways: Buddhism and Islam are seen as the tools of separatists, while Christianity is more a potential Trojan horse and ideological competition for the “communists.” All three are considered the tool of “hostile foreign forces”.

Here are three interesting and very different takes on the CCP’s recent and on-going struggle to decide what to do with competing worldviews within its domain.

China’s ‘Come to Jesus’ Moment: How Beijing got religion. (Foreign Policy)

Amid growing social tension and an ominous economic outlook, some quarters of the officially atheist Chinese Communist Party seem to be warming to Christianity. [...] The traditional antipathy toward religion in the Communist Party stems from Karl Marx’s idea that it is the “opiate of the masses” that “dulls the pain of oppression” [...]

But recent moves toward religion suggest this ideological aversion is transforming along with China’s socioeconomic situation … Corruption, yawning wealth inequality, environmental degradation, and the threat of a major banking crisis weigh on the Communist Party’s ability to maintain control. The religious opiate could be just what the doctor ordered for a nervous Communist Party.
[...]
some liberal Marxists within the party see religion as one way to pacify a public increasingly agitated over inequality. “In general, using and controlling religions is not something new in Chinese history. Almost every emperor knew the power of religion,” says Peng Guoxiang, Peking University professor of Chinese philosophy, intellectual history, and religions. “For classical Marxist ideology, religion is nothing but spiritual opium. But recently, it is very possible that the authorities have started to rethink the function of religion and how to manipulate it skillfully, instead of simply trying to curb or even uproot its development.”
[...]
“There’s still quite an ambivalent feeling toward Christianity,” says Wielander. “Both Buddhism and Daoism are fairly otherworldly. They’re more about how to escape from all this chaos and hide from this terrible world, whereas Christianity is very proactive. That can be a good thing for the government provided it manages to channel this energy into projects on the government’s agenda.”
[...]
One Christian factory manager in Wenzhou in 2010 told the BBC that he prefers to hire Christian workers. “When they do things wrong, they feel guilty — that’s the difference,” he said.

The Achilles’ Heel of China’s Rise: Belief (Pu Shi Institute for Social Sciences)

the key factor that determines China’s future development lies not in the realm of the material, but in the realm of the spiritual. [...]

The reason why Chinese society has seen an abundance of outrageous and ridiculous phenomena, with little corresponding uprightness is not because we are short of money. Rather, it is because we have lost our faith. … When the old faith was destroyed, but a new one not yet built up, the imbalance between the spiritual and the material which is caused by a spiritual emptiness and moral void becomes increasingly salient. [...]

In other words, for China to rise to the status of a great power, she has to answer the following question: What is the spiritual pillar, the core value and belief system for the Chinese people? [...]

If China avoids dealing with the question of faith, she will never become a real power. The question of faith and the future of China are connected. [...]

When the term “loss of faith” is used in China today, it refers to the loss of a system of belief in the state, nation, and society. It does not mean that there is no official belief system; rather the belief system established and advocated by the state has lost its status as the collection and manifestation of individual faiths. In other words, the common ground between individual faith and official faith has disappeared. Both the individual and the state need a “god”to resort to, but as it currently stands the one set up by the authorities and the one worshipped by the common people are not the same. [...]

The harsh reality is that Chinese people (including those in Hong Kong and Macau) accept the leadership of the Communist Party, but the majority does not sincerely believe in it and will not voluntarily make it their spiritual pillar. If someone doesn’t admit this, he is not being honest. The lack of faith in society today is not due to a lack of officially advocated belief, but due to the unwillingness of the people to believe it.
[...]
what counts is not the object of faith, but if it performs the function of a belief.

Without a belief system that is unanimously acknowledged as the standard, the national common good cannot be realized, and the Achilles’ heel of China’s rise will not be solved. Practically speaking, upholding the slogan of “harmonious as one”will gain overseas support, since whoever opposes it will be opposing the will of the general public. If we truly adopt the slogan of “harmonious as one,”and strive for harmony between each other, between man and nature, man and the environment, then both the micro- and macro- situations in China will greatly improve.

Render unto Caesar: The party’s conservative wing finds religion—and dislikes it (The Economist)

Although people join the party more for career reasons these days than for ideological ones, it still officially forbids religious belief among its members. In practice, this has for some years been a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. But signs are now growing that the party is about to become tougher on believers within its ranks. And behind it might be Mr Chang’s notion of Christianity as a Trojan horse.