A Chinese shrine to… Jesus?

Hong Kongers erected two shrines at different locations on their barricades in their battle against police and thugs: one to Guan Gong 关公 (aka 关羽 and 关帝, a ubiquitous Chinese folk deity especially worshiped by police, triads and restaurant owners), and one to Jesus.

(None of the HK images below are mine; click each for its source.)chinesejesusshrine.png A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?Comparing these shrines provides a fantastic little opportunity to explore contextualization and syncretism — big words for talking about how ideas, practices and objects are adopted by a culture, and whether or not their core meanings survive intact. But first, the pictures.

A Tale of Two Shrines: Jesus & Guan Gong

The Guan Gong shrine has all the images, statues, fruit, booze and incense offerings you’d expect in a typical Guan Gong shrine, the setting notwithstanding:

guanggongshrine1 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?guanggongshrine1 detail A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?The signs say:
[White, far right & left] — 关帝绝不保佑助纣为虐香港警察
Absolutely no way Emperor Guan will bless and protect Hong Kong police who are accomplices of evil-doers
[Pink, right] — 忠义神武
The Mighty Divine is quick to benevolently protect those who are loyal and righteous
[White, middle] — 亵渎神灵
Those who profane the gods will surely suffer the wrath of heaven
[Pink, left] — 威显
Bravely and powerfully protect the nation and the people
guangongshrine1 detail2 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?

It’s not really all that remarkable in itself, though it is kind of funny the way it’s being used against police and organized crime thugs. Supposedly one can often find shrines to Guan Gong in Hong Kong police stations, where they worship him for protection. Destroying the shrine invites a curse on oneself and one’s family.

Tsang says demonstrators built the shrine to the general to send a message to their antagonists: Guan Gong is on our side.

“We want this god to punish whoever tries to hurt unarmed citizens,” says Tsang

A Chinese shrine to Jesus understandably raises a few eyebrows (and opens a few shutters); it’s not like you see one of these everyday:

jesusshrine1 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
The vertical writing says (right to left):
上主正义[xx] The Lord manifests justice & dim0cr@sy
基督平安自由 Christ bestows peace & freedom
jesusshrine1 detail A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?

Turns out there’re at least two Jesus shrines, though in this case it seems shrine isn’t a terribly accurate descriptor. Key details suggest that there are much bigger differences between these two shrines than merely the name and picture of the deity involved.

The Jesus shrine has swapped out the incense, food and booze for flowers, pretty candles and an open Bible. It’s seems the Christians have ditched the offerings — gifts intended to predispose Guan Gong to look favorably upon his worshipers and act for their protection and fortune more than he would otherwise (a bit like giving a doctor a hongbao?) — for decorations and worship aids (Bible, icons), meant to look nice, inspire other Christians and help them focus when worshiping, rather than somehow elicit protection and fortune.

I can’t know for sure just from these photos what exactly is going on here because I’m not there to see how each of these “shrines” actually function in practice. But just from what we can see in the pictures it looks like an interesting contextualization of Christianity rather than syncretism, where Christianity appropriates an aspect of Chinese culture (they’ve made their ‘shrine’ conform to Christianity) rather than Jesus being treated like he’s just another traditional Chinese deity.

jesusshrine2detail A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
(Personal pet peeve: images of pasty British Jesus in Asian churches.)

These two shrines physically display a core distinction between Christianity and traditional Chinese religion: the way in which one relates to God/the gods.

Christians relate to God as the children of a perfect, loving, authoritative parent, or the subjects of a just and benevolent king. It’s in God’s character to always act for the good of his people; gifts can’t make God love more. Prayer is as much to influence the Christian as it is to influence God’s behaviour, who listens like a loving parent listens to a child and may or may not act in response to the child’s request.

With Guan Gong and other traditional Chinese deities it’s more like currying favour (but not seen in a negative way); gifts that show reverence make the deity more predisposed to provide protection or fortune. It doesn’t mean that Christians can’t use incense, for example, but when they do it means something different (if they’re being faithful to a broadly defined, international Christian orthodoxy).

ThaiChristianincense A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
An interesting attempt at contextualization in Thailand, where Thai Christians have incorporated some Thai/Buddhist forms into their worship practices while trying to maintain distinctly Christian meanings.

You can’t influence (or manipulate) Jesus, according to Christianity, in all the same ways that you can traditional Chinese deities according to traditional Chinese religion.

jesusshrine2 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
Reading the Bible… in the middle of the road.

That’s not the only fundamental difference between following Jesus and appealing to Guan Gong, of course. And it’s no surprise that each shrine’s respective signage conveys mutually distinct messages.

“There is this Christian spirit,” says Cheng, who wears a yellow ribbon pinned to his shirt pocket — a symbol of the movement. “You are more willing to suffer. Social justice means more to you.”

worshipservice A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
Singing hymns… in the middle of the road.

jesusshrine3 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
Praying at an altar… outside government headquarters.

Contextualization & Syncretism

Simply put: Syncretism changes the essence of the thing; contextualization allows the essence of that thing to be accurately expressed within the cultural context. Contextualization is concerned primarily with meaning; preserving the meaning of a thing in a new cultural context often requires significant changes to form.

(In the images above some unnecessary cultural ‘forms’ that have been directly imported, like British Jesus and ancient iconography. Direct cultural importing is not contextualization; contextualization uses local, rather than foreign, physical or intellectual forms to express meaning.)

jesusguangongcomic A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
Guan Gong: “You’re here, too?”
Jesus: “Had no choice, Carrie Lam made me.”
jesusguangongthreeposters A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
The text above Jesus says:
“People who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, because they will be satisfied.”

If the essential meaning of the thing being adopted stays more or less intact, then it’s contextualized. But when the core meaning of the thing is damaged or “lost in translation” due to it’s cultural incorporation, it’s called syncretism. Even though in reality the line between the two is not always crystal clear, and it’s maybe more accurate to think about degrees of syncretism rather than purely either/or, the difference between them is huge.

mao temple A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?One curious example of syncretism is the way Chairman Mao is becoming a Chinese folk deity. When average Zhou Chinese Mainlanders take Mao Zedong — who I assume enjoyed being treated like a god but was nevertheless violently anti-religion, anti-traditional-Chinese-culture and anti-capitalism — and turn him into a Chinese folk deity, it’s syncretism because it’s not faithful or compatible with what Mao was about. Atheism was mandatory. You can’t get much more un-Maoist than selling Mao folk deity figurines on the open market.

As a god he’s not as popular as Guanyin 观音, Laughing Buddha 笑佛, Cai Shen 财神 (the money god) or Guan Gong but you can buy him in the god shops, and you occasionally find him occupying spaces usually reserved for Laughing Buddha. It’s “Maoist” in the sense that it involves a lot of Mao — his image and name and greatness — but it’s not Maoist when it comes to the actual teachings of Maoism.

gods2mao A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
Our local traditional market has more than one place selling Mao alongside Buddhist, Daoist and even Hindu gods.
maocaishenposter A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
Mao with Cai Shen, the god of wealth, on the walls of our neighbourhood baozi shop. According to the stories, Mao supposedly refused to even touch money.

Syncretism is misleading because the integrity of the central meaning is lost while superficial elements are still adopted. The new idea gets swapped out for an old one, but the old idea dresses up as if it were the new idea.

mao temple2 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?Promoting Mao as a folk deity is not promoting Maoism; Maoism is against folk deities. Sticking a BMW logo on a Flying Pigeon bike doesn’t change the quality or nature of the vehicle, no matter how many people you convince to speak and act as if that bike was a luxury car. Swapping out a Chinese restaurant’s prosperity god statue for a Jesus figurine won’t make the shrine Christian; it just creates a new Chinese folk deity who looks like Jesus and is called “Jesus” but in any way that actually matters (according to Jesus) isn’t Jesus.

Doing that is bad — i.e. inaccurate — because the Jesus of Christianity and the deities of Chinese traditional religion are two different kinds of thing. And they each have a different kind of relationship to people; the way people relate to Jesus (according to Christianity) is different from the way people relate to Chinese folk deities (according to traditional Chinese religion). “Prayer” in the Christian sense of the word, as Jesus presents it, is a different kind of thing from “prayer” in a Chinese folk religion sense of the word. (Now if we swapped a God of Wealth statue for a Santa Claus figurine…I could get behind that. ;) )

The examples above are not awesome because they’re too obvious. In reality, syncretism is usually more subtle. The people doing it often don’t realize it, and if they care at all then they’d probably be offended and scandalized if they found out (not everyone cares). What people think they’re doing or say they’re doing is one thing, but their actual behaviour and the function of their language (rather than the surface meanings of their words) is another. What are they actually doing? Or what are they actually communicating by making those statements in those contexts? Are they, for example, really trying to promote and realize Maoism in their society, or just creating a Mao-themed object towards which they can express the worries of life and wish for prosperity and health? Or are they (second example) really trying to become the kind of people and live the kind of life to which Jesus invites them, or are they weekly participants in a religious-themed, self-help-dispensing, cultural values-affirming, family-friendly weekly social club? When it comes to Christians, if they’re the latter they probably still imagine they’re the former, and you’d have a heck of a time trying to make them see a difference.

There are four ubiquitous Chinese deities we routinely see in Qingdao: Cai Shen 财神 (prosperity god) and Guan Gong 关公 in the restaurants, Guanyin 观音 on necklace talismans, and Laughing Buddhas 笑佛 on business counters and dashboards. Lots more about Chinese deities and Mao below.

Mao as a god (literally & figuratively) in contemporary China:

Peruse the Chinese deities for sale:

How Christmas and traditional Chinese religion could so easily get along:

P.S. — It took a little while, but it seems at least some mainstream news media has finally discovered that Christianity is a significant factor in the Ongoing Event Which Must Not Be Named. See more from Bloomberg, NPR, FP, SCMP and CDT.

shrinebloomberg A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?

P.P.S. — A pre-dawn police raid on Oct. 17 has resulted in the unceremonious departure of Guan Gong. The Jesus shrine has apparently met a similar fate.guangongcleanup1 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?
guangongcleanup2 A Chinese shrine to... Jesus?

P.P.P.S. — Feel free to offer input/corrections on Guan Gong worship and traditional Chinese religion in general. Obviously I’m not as familiar with that as I am with Christianity. And since traditional Chinese religion isn’t formally theologized, details can be hard to nail down.

Sunrise sword dancing & taiji, our neighbourhood, Qingdao, China

Our neighbourhood still has a little bit of exotic China. These are from two weekends ago, literally a stone’s throw from the preschool and a 1-minute walk from our apartment.

cover2 Sunrise sword dancing & taiji, our neighbourhood, Qingdao, China
cover2a Sunrise sword dancing & taiji, our neighbourhood, Qingdao, China

Every morning a group of retirees practices tàijíquán 太极拳 and sword dancing 舞剑.

cover1 Sunrise sword dancing & taiji, our neighbourhood, Qingdao, China
cover3 Sunrise sword dancing & taiji, our neighbourhood, Qingdao, China
cover3a Sunrise sword dancing & taiji, our neighbourhood, Qingdao, China
cover3b Sunrise sword dancing & taiji, our neighbourhood, Qingdao, China
cover3c Sunrise sword dancing & taiji, our neighbourhood, Qingdao, China
cover4 Sunrise sword dancing & taiji, our neighbourhood, Qingdao, China

More sunrise taiji photos:

Sidewalk water calligraphy, Licun Park, Qingdao, China

At our favourite local park 李村公园 in Qingdao this past weekend, a little Chinese sidewalk water calligraphy magic:

IMG 23752 Sidewalk water calligraphy, Licun Park, Qingdao, China

At the beach in Qingdao, China: the biggest honking jellyfish I’ve ever seen in my entire life! [Updated!]

We were walking along the shore of Qingdao’s Shilaoren beach (老人海水浴场) today, just past that drainage river thing near where the ATV rental guys who think they own the beach are, and found THIS:

qingdaojellyfish1 At the beach in Qingdao, China: the biggest honking jellyfish Ive ever seen in my entire life! [Updated!]

That is the biggest honking jellyfish (水母 or 海蜇) I’ve ever seen in my entire life. I flipped it over with my shovel:

qingdaojellyfish2 At the beach in Qingdao, China: the biggest honking jellyfish Ive ever seen in my entire life! [Updated!]

From a distance I thought it was just some garbage (there’s lots of garbage). But man. Can you imagine bumping into this in chest-deep, murky Qingdao beach water?

qingdaojellyfish3 At the beach in Qingdao, China: the biggest honking jellyfish Ive ever seen in my entire life! [Updated!]

And keep in mind that my size-13 foot isn’t hovering *that* close to it, so the photos’ perspective makes the jellyfish look smaller that it really was.

I’d heard from friends about a local jellyfish infestation and checked the Chinese news yesterday. One guy has died this summer from jellyfish. And people we chatted with while taking pictures of this one said there was a 300 one on a beach east of here. I’ll give you one guess regarding it’s fate

P.S. – UPDATE:
Special thanks to science writer and jellyfish expert Dr. Juli Berwald, who’s ID’d this thing for us. It’s a Nomura’s jellyfish (Nemopilema nomurai), one of the two largest jellyfish species in the world. According to the internets, it’s got a painful sting but doesn’t *usually* kill people (?!) and is edible but not considered tasty enough to go to all the trouble it would take to harvest them. They’ve capsized fishing boats and shut down at least one nuclear reactor. And you can’t just go killing them, because whenever one gets stressed it releases billions of sperm or eggs into the water. It’s not the most venomous jellyfish in the ocean, but it is perhaps the most notorious for economic impact. Do an image or video search for “Noruma’s jellyfish” or “Nemopilema nomurai” — fascinating stuff.

More importantly, these recent and massive “blooms” of jellyfish have scientists’ attention. Jellyfish are an “iconic animal of our time”; scientists like Dr. Berwald are currently researching what these jellyfish blooms reveal about the future of our oceans and our role in shaping that future. You can check out her project Spineless here.

Facing Ebola… in Chinese [updated]

kentwalking Facing Ebola... in Chinese [updated]

A Chinese friend translated missionary doctor and Ebola patient Kent Brantly’s public statement, which he wrote from the Ebola isolation unit at Emory University Hospital. I’ve pasted both it and the original English version below, plus some related links (Chinese & English). Click the photos for sources.

Ebola = 埃博拉病毒 (also sometimes 伊波拉)
Kent Brantly = 肯特 布兰特利

这是这位感染埃博拉病毒的传教医生肯特布兰特利在隔离室写下的书信。跟大家分享一下,并请代祷:“现在我从我的隔离室写这封信,这里的医生和护士提供了他们所能提供的最好的支持和治疗。我每天都在强壮的成长,并且非常感恩上帝的恩典,即使现在我正在经历这样一个邪恶的疾病。

serving2 Facing Ebola... in Chinese [updated]我的妻子安芭和我,以及我们的两个孩子,不是为了战胜埃博拉病毒的目的而去利比亚的。我们举家搬到利比亚的目的,我们相信是上帝想让我们在当地的一家医院去通过服侍当地的利比亚人而去服侍我们的上帝。

通过这件事情,我认识到:跟随上帝,有时上帝会把我们带到一个我们所意想不到的地方。当埃博拉病毒开始在利比亚蔓延的时候,我所工作的医院开始接待大量的传染了埃博拉病毒的病人。我握着这些病人的手,并且亲眼目睹着他们的生命被疾病夺去。我见证了埃博拉的残害性,并清楚的记得每位失去生命的病人的面孔和他们的名字。

当我也开始感到有反应的时候,我立即隔离了自己并做了测试,3天后,结果显示阳性。当我得知我被传染了埃博拉的那一刻,我清楚地记得当时内心的平安,一种我内心深处,超越自我理解的内在的平安。上帝在提醒我,也是他多年来一直在教我的,那就是上帝一定会给我所需的一切让我去保持对他的信心和依靠。

现在,两周过去了。我现在在一个完全不同的环境中。我的专注,同样的没有改变——那就是追随我的上帝。当各位在为我和南希(另一名埃博拉被传染者)向上帝祷告的时候。当然,请为我们的康复而祷告。但是最重要的是,祈祷我们会对上帝的呼召而保持我们的信心,即使是在这样一个艰难的时刻。”

A related Chinese article 《了无遗憾?》
“”肯特‧布兰特利医师(Dr. Kent Brantly)因救助病人而染上伊波拉病毒,他坚持把可能救他一命的实验血清,让给另一位染上伊波拉的女宣教士。这不是女士优先的时刻,而是生死攸关的时刻;而这血清是从他所救活的一个病童身上抽取血液制成,只有一剂,他比任何人都有资格使用它来增加自己活命率。但他坚让。

他为什么那么勇敢?是什么原因让他在生死存亡之刻,选择无私?

kenteyesgear Facing Ebola... in Chinese [updated]他是去年10月加入利比亚宣教医疗团队,带着妻儿搬到赖比瑞亚。他美国同事分享布兰特利医师写的电邮,自述面对伊波拉病毒肆虐,真是感觉“惊恐”。也难怪他有这样的反应,短短时间内死于伊波拉病毒已经有七百多人,只要染上,死亡率是90%,且传染率极高。

教会朋友问他怎样面对?他回答:“上帝会救助我,即便祂没有救我脱离,我生命已经为祂而活,我没有遗憾。”

他72岁老母亲说:“这是压力非常大的时候。肯特是美好的年轻人,十分有同情心,他做的正是他预备自己一生要做的事。他把自己的生命交付在仁慈上帝的手上,上帝支撑着我们,给予我们爱来面对。我们不断地为他祈祷,也恳求大家为他祈祷。他是勇敢的人,他尽其所能服事他的上帝。请大家为他祷告。”

让我们为布兰特利医师脱离险境、恢复健康代祷!然而,也在面对最近各样灾祸(诸如接二连三空难、以巴和乌克兰和叙利亚战事、台湾高雄气爆、云南强震等)时,不妨反思自己是否能像布兰特利医师一样,确定人生了无遗憾?”

A third Chinese article: 《勇敢的心——感染埃博拉病毒的美国医生布兰特利的故事》

Kent’s statement:
“I am writing this update from my isolation room at Emory University Hospital, where the doctors and nurses are providing the very best care possible. I am growing stronger every day, and I thank God for His mercy as I have wrestled with this terrible disease. I also want to extend my deep and sincere thanks to all of you who have been praying for my recovery as well as for Nancy and for the people of Liberia and West Africa.

“My wife Amber and I, along with our two children, did not move to Liberia for the specific purpose of fighting Ebola. We went to Liberia because we believe God called us to serve Him at ELWA Hospital.

“One thing I have learned is that following God often leads us to unexpected places. When Ebola spread into Liberia, my usual hospital work turned more and more toward treating the increasing number of Ebola patients. I held the hands of countless individuals as this terrible disease took their lives away from them. I witnessed the horror first-hand, and I can still remember every face and name.

serving Facing Ebola... in Chinese [updated]

“When I started feeling ill on that Wednesday morning, I immediately isolated myself until the test confirmed my diagnosis three days later. When the result was positive, I remember a deep sense of peace that was beyond all understanding. God was reminding me of what He had taught me years ago, that He will give me everything I need to be faithful to Him.

“Now it is two weeks later, and I am in a totally different setting. My focus, however, remains the same – to follow God. As you continue to pray for Nancy and me, yes, please pray for our recovery. More importantly, pray that we would be faithful to God’s call on our lives in these new circumstances.”

Ebola crisis links:

Ebola Crisis in West Africa
Ken Isaacs, Vice President of Programs and Government Relations for Samaritan’s Purse, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee concerning Ebola in West Africa.

Ebola: My last day in the isolation zone (MSF)
“I enter, take in the scene and stop to look back at Sara, who has yet to see what lies before me. She said later she knew it would be bad from my eyes.”

Fighting Ebola for Us All (NYT)
don’t see Brantly and Writebol as reckless curiosities who somehow brought Ebola upon themselves. See them as leaders on the front line of an effort to help and protect Americans and Africans alike.

Infected Ebola Doctor Kent Brantly Is an Endangered Hero (The Daily Beast)
Even atheists could find a guide to goodness in asking themselves What Would Kent Do?

I’m the head nurse at Emory. This is why we wanted to bring the Ebola patients to the U.S.
These patients will benefit — not threaten — the country.

Americans with Ebola should be welcomed home (CNN)
There are two epidemics in the world today. The first is a troubling spread of the Ebola virus in poor countries in Africa…But the second epidemic is a more dangerous one.

Ebola, research ethics, and the ZMapp serum (WaPo)

Ebola in Africa and the U.S.: A Curation
That I am anti-Ebola panic — and especially anti-Ebola media scrum, which was disgraceful — does not mean I am not concerned about Ebola where it is authentically a problem, which is in the expanding epidemic in West Africa. It is a dreadful outbreak, it needs attention…

Things That Are Awesome (Fushan, Qingdao edition 青岛浮山)

Things That Are Awesome (in sharply descending degrees of awesomeness):

#2. The views on top of Qingdao’s Fushan mountain (浮山).

FushanviewQingdaoshibei Things That Are Awesome (Fushan, Qingdao edition 青岛浮山)

#3. Those portable personal fanny-pack radios popular in Mainland China.

#4. Those portable personal fanny-pack radios popular in Mainland China on top of Qingdao’s Fushan mountain.

#5. Those portable personal fanny-pack radios popular in Mainland China on top of Qingdao’s Fushan mountain playing We Are The World:

Aaaaand…. #1! Those portable personal fanny-pack radios popular in Mainland China on top of Qingdao’s Fushan mountain playing When a Man Loves a Woman when you’ve hiked up there to celebrate your 12th anniversary.

Snogging pics in

3…

2…

1…

Fushansnogging01 Things That Are Awesome (Fushan, Qingdao edition 青岛浮山)
Fushansnogging02 Things That Are Awesome (Fushan, Qingdao edition 青岛浮山)
fushansnogging03 Things That Are Awesome (Fushan, Qingdao edition 青岛浮山)
fushansnogging04 Things That Are Awesome (Fushan, Qingdao edition 青岛浮山)

How many construction cranes can you count in 30 seconds?

One thing that still amazes me about China is how things are sometimes done on a massive scale, bigger than anything I’ve even heard of anywhere else.

Took this video from a Qingdao taxi as we passed a construction site today. How many construction cranes can you count? I stopped counting after 30.

It’s embedded from YouTube, so you’ll need a VPN if you’re in China. Screenshot below, of only one portion of the entire building site:

IMG 0654a Copy How many construction cranes can you count in 30 seconds?