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: 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:

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:

A short intro to the Confucian “Mandate of Heaven” (天命)

More than once I’ve found Andrew Hong’s Chinese Culture category to be a good source for easy introductions to basic, relevant Confucianism. Here’s the latest:

Confucianism – and the mandate of heaven (part 1)

Confucianism has a strong focus on the leader as the chief means for bringing about peace and harmony. And one important dynamic that shapes the Confucian leaders’ understanding of their place in all things is the concept of the Mandate of Heaven (tianming, 天命). And this concept continues to influence how Chinese leaders understand their role today. . .

I assume Confucianists would find plenty to pick at in these brief introductions – heck, I don’t even agree with some of his theology and exegesis – but if you know next to nothing about Confucianism, this is a handy place to start.

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.

Chinese Communist Party getting too religious, senior Party official reminds members to believe what they’re told

China’s official Xinhua News Agency reports that a senior Chinese Communist Party official has reminded the increasingly religious ranks of the Party what they’re required to believe. From China party official warns members over religion (AP)

“Religious practice among Chinese Communist Party members is increasing and threatens its unity and national leadership, a top party official said in remarks reported Monday.

“Party members are required to be atheists and must not believe in religion or engage in religious practice, said Zhu Weiqun, a member of the party’s Central Committee […]

“”Voices have appeared within the party calling for an end to the ban on religion, arguing in favor of the benefits of religion for party members and even claiming the ban on religion for party members is unconstitutional,” Zhu said.

“”In fact, our party’s principled stance regarding forbidding members from believing in religion has not changed one iota,” he said.”

Confucianism and Christianity: Looming Confrontation?

A review of a Chinese article in which Confucian scholars apparently feel threatened by Chinese Christianity: “One would have to be deaf not to hear that warning shot across the bow of the growing Christian church in China. Having identified Confucius as a “cultural sage,” and his hometown temple as “the heartland center of Chinese civilization,” Wen raises the stakes to the highest level: Will the Christians seek to displace Confucius and Confucianism, and thus radically re-define Chinese civilization? What would happen to the government’s comprehensive call for “harmonious society”? With Communism effectively sidelined as a viable “state orthodoxy,” the call for some sort of revived Confucianism has become increasingly insistent. Simply naming its “soft-power” centers around the world “Confucius Institutes” indicates the government’s awareness that it must identify itself as the guardian of Chinese culture in order to retain ideological legitimacy.” Link: Confucianism and Christianity: Looming Confrontation?