Being Obnoxious With Monks

Actually, it was a nun, and I was arguing with her handlers. It was an irate customer who was yelling directly at the nun. (It looked like the customer got some money back in the end, but I couldn’t tell for sure — she’s in the orange jacket, near the centre of the photo.)

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A Buddhist fortune-teller eyes my camera in a Qingdao market.

Usually my conversations with Buddhists and Daoists are mostly me asking questions. I try to nail down what they actually think, and get a sense of how their beliefs and practices function in their lives. Because I want to understand them; I want to understand the worldviews we encounter on their own terms. (The “high” Buddhism and Daoism we studied in school seems to have precious little to do with the Buddhism and Daoism we regularly encounter at street level in China.) Since there are lots of little god shops around, when I have a few extra minutes I stop in to chat. It’s never been confrontational. Until the other day.

My almost 5-year-old daughter and I have just finished lunch in the market. We’re going to buy trees to plant in the public grass/dirt area outside our first-floor apartment’s windows. I have a bag of tomato and húlu (葫芦) seedlings in one hand and my daughter’s hand in the other.

There’s a crowd around something on the sidewalk. Actually most of the street and sidewalk is basically one big crowd, but Something is Happening up ahead. I peer down into the circle of heads (6’4″ lǎowài can do this in China) to discover a Buddhist nun doing what’s called 算命, where they tell your fortune and then, for a fee, perform rituals to help you avoid the bad things headed your way. (Apparently, so my friends tell me, you pay even more if your future predictions are good.)

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Reading futures, selling fortune

Judging by the surrounding interest, this seems like a minor Big Deal, so I pull out my phone and start taking pictures.
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Claiming a patch of sidewalk.

Wish I’d taken video; it’d be fun to have this exchange recorded:

“No! No! You can’t take pictures!”

(A handler comes toward me waving her hands.)

“Why not?”

(I wish I’d kept taking pictures.)

“You can’t take pictures of this. It’s bad for your ___.”

(Wish I could remember the exact term she used, but the idea is that me taking pictures of this nun in action would negatively affect my life/fate/etc.)

“No problem! I don’t believe in this superstition.”

(I’m feeling a little ornery. I don’t know why. Maybe being born on the Protestant side of the Reformation means I have a low tolerance for people selling indulgences. Or maybe (yes, actually) it’s because my hands are full, I’m with my daughter, and I’m in increasing need of a public restroom. At least I didn’t use the Mao Era term “feudal superstition” 封建迷信。)

“You can’t take pictures! This is a problem of belief.”

“Right, I don’t believe this. But what are you afraid of? This is a public–“

“We don’t have the same belief. In your country you all–“

(This is common point of worldview disconnect. In China, many people consider your heritage a perfectly valid reason for believing something; in the West, it’s usually the opposite — telling someone they only believe something because of their heritage is a way of saying that person has no good reasons to believe what they claim. Because — speaking very generally — when a North American says they “believe in X”, they usually mean they “think X is true”, but a Chinese using the same phrase isn’t necessarily making a truth claim. Personal convictions about the true nature of Life, the Universe and Everything (and ‘staying true to yourself’) just aren’t as high a value in China, compared with, say, getting along and getting by. And when personal convictions do matter to a Chinese, it can come off as really selfish. Anyway, it sometimes rubs my fur the wrong way when people assume that I think what I think for (what I think is) no good reason.)

“This has nothing to do with my country. Why can’t I take pictures? What are you afraid of?”

(I’m in a hurry, I suspect this whole thing is a scam, and I’m curious what objections they’ll raise since they couldn’t make me fear for my fate. But now the argument that’s been simultaneously happening on the opposite side of the crowd erupts into yelling and accusations of cheating people out of their money. The crowd starts thinning out, maybe feeling a little awkward between me/my camera on one side and the irate customer on the other. If you look closely at the above photos, to the the fortune-teller’s right you’ll see three handlers wearing hats facing away — they’re dealing with the angry woman, whose face can be seen in all the three crowd shots.)

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[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.

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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.

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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,

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and then a…

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…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.

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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

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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

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Surely there’s a “Confucius say…” joke to be made involving that Snickers bar…

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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.

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Yay juice box! (Technically: a blueberry yogurt drink.)

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There’s also a pagoda.

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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.

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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:)

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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: