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.

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

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

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

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.

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

There’s also a pagoda.

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:’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:

Defining You (Pt. 2): Pick your poison

This might read better if you put on a tinfoil hat first. :)

The Self: Eastern and Western

The first Defining “You” post contrasted typical Western and East Asian understandings of the self as explained by psychologist Richard Nisbett in The Geography of Thought. To briefly recap, here are some excerpts:

…Westerners and Asians literally experience the world in very different ways. Westerners are the protagonists of their autobiographical novels; Asians are merely cast members in movies touching on their existence (87).

To the Westerner, it makes sense to speak of a person as having attributes that are independent of circumstances or particular personal relations. This self – this bounded, impermeable free agent – can move from group to group and setting to setting without significant alteration (50).

But for the Easterner (and for many other people to one degree or another), the person is connected, fluid, and conditional. As philosopher Donald Munro put it, East Asians understand themselves “in terms of their relation to the whole, such as the family, society, Tao Principle, or Pure Consciousness.” The person participates in a set of relationships that make it possible to act and purely independent behaviour is usually not possible or really even desirable (50-51).

…For early Confucians, there can be no me in isolation, to be considered abstractly: I am the totality of roles I live in relation to specific others… Taken collectively, they weave, for each of us, a unique pattern of personal identity, such that if some of my roles change, the others will of necessity change also, literally making me a different person (5).

I wonder, for example, how individualistic Western assumptions about self-validation and self-actualization sound to people not raised in an individualistic culture?

Prescribing You

Anyway, I recently came across a documentary making the sobering case that the identities of individualistic Westerners are highly externally defined — deliberately, and not with our benefit in mind. It doesn’t contradict Nisbett’s psychological sketch of Westerners because it’s speaking in a relevant but different sense of the terms. In fact, I think you can see Nisbett’s explanation of the individualistic Western self embedded in this question posed by writer/director Pria Viswalingam in his documentary Decadence – The Decline of the Western World:

We’re led to believe that money gives us choice, status, and, increasingly, an identity. But there’s something hollow about all this. Who’s meaning or identity is it? Am I really defined by where I live, what I wear, eat or drive? Or am I just another willing victim of our sophisticated market?

Decadence argues that, in the absence of a new renaissance, Western civilization is doomed to collapse due to its own internal cultural rot a la the ancient Roman Empire.

One major instance of this fatal rot is how our lives and identities are shaped by the market to the point that our identities have been psychologically colonized by imperialistic market forces. If I understand it right, we’re basically peons, programmed puppets manipulated in our actions, feelings and ideas, desiring and working to consume things because we’ve been bred and brainwashed to anxiously need them.

It’s not merely the idea that good advertising makes me desire a newer car or makes me feel like I need products I actually don’t; it’s the psychological state in which my identity, sense of meaning and purpose, emotions and anxiety, all revolve around and are determined by the dictates of marketing forces that benefit from our relentless consumption. The market tunes our subconscious, tells us who we want to be and then provides means via consumerism to pursue our choice of the available options. We’ve been bred to seek fulfillment through consumption — subconsciously, automatically, unthinkingly; it’s the default posture we take to most aspects of our existence, including our relationships and beliefs.

We’re offered a choice of identities to assume, all of which depend on an unending stream of consumption, but the available options are empty at their core; it’s not possible to be satisfied in them, and it’s in the market’s interest to keep us unsatisfied and anxious. And we’re distracted away from this fact by our noisy entertainment culture and the over-worked lifestyle required by our treadmill consumption. The result is hollowed-out people, superficial husks of humanity who behave as cogs in the market machine, whose lives and activities are ultimately determined by and dedicated to the economic benefit of corporations.

As Westerners, we think of all this almost entirely in hyper-individualistic terms; we’re seeking identity in stuff rather than in people and relationships. There’s a critique of our extreme individualistic understanding of self, such as this quote from ANU social analyst Richard Eckersle, that ties directly back to Nisbett’s sketch of the Western self:

The result of construing the self as kind of independent and separate from others — and the evidence suggests that men tend to do this more than women — does mean that we are more likely to feel isolated and lonely, even in company, in the bosom of the family you get this effect.

I see no reason why this picture of parasitic market forces that colonize our identities for profit doesn’t also just as corrosively apply to East Asian conceptions of self, though I expect the dynamics are different. Whether Chinese or Western, collective or individualistic, are we all just willing peons of a psychologically imperialistic market?

Anyway, I’m not articulating any of this as well as Viswalingham does in the Money segment, but I found most of the episodes on YouTube:

  • Episode One — Money (YouTube: 1, 2, 3)
  • Episode Two — Sex (couldn’t find a working copy online)
  • Episode Three — Democracy (YouTube: 1, 2, 3)
  • Episode Four — Education (YouTube: 1, 2, 3)
  • Episode Five — Family (YouTube: 1, 2, 3)
  • Episode Six — God (YouTube: 1, 2, 3)

The documentary is about more than consumerism, of course, and it’s interesting to note that it manages to explain the possibly fatal condition of Western civilization without reference to China or any other outside competition.

If this is as good as it gets in the West, well then, we’re destined to drown in this abundance of nothing, and become the final chapter in this ‘Good Book’ of our modern life.

These big-picture takes on our own culture are usually interesting, but even more so when you’re living overseas in a culture so very different from your own. I wonder if we’ll be seeing an increase of comparisons to ancient Rome in the coming years — both Decadence and The Hunger Games independently make significant use of the “Bread and Circuses” idea.

Here’s an interview with director Pria Viswalingam about the documentary:

Other stuff about identity: