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.)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:

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

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:

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

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.

(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).

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.

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.”

Singing hymns… in the middle of the road.

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.)

Guan Gong: “You’re here, too?”
Jesus: “Had no choice, Carrie Lam made me.”

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.

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.

Our local traditional market has more than one place selling Mao alongside Buddhist, Daoist and even Hindu gods.

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.

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.

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.

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.

[Photo Gallery:] Hong Kong, 2006 May 4

We got up at 4am to catch an early morning flight into Hong Kong, and made it back to Taipei around midnight. A quick stop to do some more visa applying (for residency this time), meet some of the folks from Jian Hua (who will facilitate our language learning in Tianjin), and take a couple pictures along the way.

You’ll see pig snouts and nets of live frogs in the meat market; a guy using an abacus; turtle shells and snake skins; and packages of paper clothing/shoes, which were next to paper stereos, cigs, cell phones, computers, and T.V.’s – all used as burnt offerings to the dead. And, lest people get the impression that Hong Kong is all street vendors with animal parts, we included a shot from inside Pacific Place, one of the many upscale shopping malls. On this occasion a couple of violinists were celebrating Mozart’s birthday.

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Hong Kong…

Sorry it’s taken us so long to post anything concrete about our trip to Hong Kong. We left on February 12 and were there through the 14th, so we had 2 nights and 2 and a half days in Hong Kong. That is not nearly enough time to explore a city of that magnitude, but we sure gave it our best shot.

We started exploring Hong Kong at around 12:30 on the 12th, shortly after checking into our hotel and finding a map. First order of business was to find some lunch, so we wandered through the market that was behind our hotel. Amidst the pig head skins, giant snails, and fresh fish jumping out of their buckets, we found a little noodle shop. One of the items on our list (provided by our friends in Taiwan) of things to try in Hong Kong was a drink called “yuanyang.” Yuanyang is the chinese word for some kind of waterfowl that always come in pairs, but the beverage is a mixture that is half coffee/half tea. This noodle restaurant had it, so we tried it out. It’s really good, but different…it doesn’t really taste like coffee or tea and it has a lot of milk in it. Yuanyang is kind of like Hong Kong…a mix of Western (coffee) and eastern (tea) flavors.

From lunch, we found the closest MTR (subway) station and took the subway from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon (which is connected to the mainland, but is still part of Hong Kong). There we walked along the waterfront, where you get the best view of all of the office buildings and on the Hong Kong Island side. While we were walking around, some guy in a turban came up and told Joel that he had a “very lucky forehead” and wanted to tell him why, for a small fee. It took a few minutes for the guy to realize that Joel wasn’t going to go for the offer. I saw Mr. Turban a few minutes later, examining another tall white guy’s forehead. Hmmm. Must’ve been lots of lucky foreheads running around in Kowloon that day. We also went down the “Avenue of Stars, which is sort of Hong Kong’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, commemorating famous Hong Kong film stars, directors, and producers. I put my hand in Jet Li’s handprint (Ooooo)…and my hand is the same size as his!!! Between Joel’s lucky forehead, and my almost famous hand…aren’t you guys glad to know us?

Kowloon has one of Hong Kong’s most famous shopping districts, located all along “Nathan Road.” I was surprised to see how upscale it all is, with tons of world famous brands like Burberry, Ralph Lauren, Manolo Blahnik, etc. All along this route, there were Indian guys hanging out trying to look casual. When we’d walk past, they’d kind of walk along side us for a few seconds and say, “Hey, would you like to buy fake Rolex? Very cheap, good quality.” It was kind of funny, because it looked like they were trying to be inconspicuous, but everyone knows what they’re up to. We (of course) didn’t buy anything there, either in the stores or from the Rolex salesmen, but pushed past all of the high-end shopping to find a couple of the local markets. There was a “ladies market” that we went through, which had all kinds of stuff for women – from bikinis and baby clothes to designer knockoff handbags. We also found the “Temple Street Night Market”. This had some interesting stuff, but there were mostly tourists shopping there. Joel tried to bargain with a couple of the guys, but didn’t really get anywhere.

By this time, it was getting late, and our feet were tired so we decided to head back to the hotel. Instead of taking the MTR over to the Hong Kong Island side, we got aboard the top deck of the “Star Ferry” and enjoyed the view of the city lights all the way across. Back to the hotel to collapse…

The next morning, we found a little bakery in the same market and grabbed some yummy coconut filled rolls, and ate them at a local coffee shop. Then we went and turned in our visa applications in time to start exploring by 10:30 am. This time, we explored the Hollywood Road area of Hong Kong (as well as many other streets that I can’t remember…all in the same general area). Hollywood Road was lined with antique shops, and there was a little antique market on a neighboring street. Of course, the market was more “tourist antiques” than the real deal…but we still picked up a couple of items. Another street was the “Ginseng and Birdnest Street”, where nearly all of the shops sell birdnests (I still don’t know what they really are…I’ll tell you when I know) and ginseng for various medicinal purposes. Then there was the Traditional Chinese Medicine street, which had everything from dried seahorses, starfish, and jellyfish to dried tongues, dried lizards stretched out on a stick, and a ton of stuff that we couldn’t even begin to recognize. A very weird and interesting place. I wish I could capture the smell of it in a picture and post it here for you. It’s not a bad smell, but it’s definitely nothing you’ve ever smelled unless you’ve been in a traditional Chinese medicine shop. The last weird street was the “Dried seafood street.” Pretty much anything that can be found in the ocean can be found here, dried.

By the time we finished exploring all of those streets, it was time to go check on our visas, which were approved with no problems. We were so worn out that we decided to find dinner near the hotel and relax. Our friends in Taiwan had recommended that we try a certain type of restaurant, something like a “teahouse,” which would be the least touristy and most authentic place we’d eat. We found one a street or two away from the hotel, and had some of the best duck I’ve ever eaten. We also tried octopus tentacle (or something octopus-like, anyway) on a stick. Not a bad flavor…a little spicy, but it takes a lot of chewing.

Tuesday, Valentine’s day, was our last day. Hong Kong is world famous for its “dim sum” and we still hadn’t tried it. So, for brunch we found a nice little dim sum restaurant. This place had the coolest atmosphere. It was like a big party, everybody was eating and laughing, drinking tea, reading the newspaper, and hanging out. Dim sum is kind of hard to describe (a lot of little small foods, like dumplings and rolls with fillings and stuff) but if you ever get the chance to try it, go for it. We loved both the food and the atmosphere.

We still had a few more items on our checklist of things to try, so we ran around the neighborhood in search of them before catching the shuttle to the plane. There is this mango ice drink, which is incredible. Joel got the mango one, with coconut milk and I got the strawberry ice, with coconut milk. Soooooo good. We also picked up a few more treats at the local bakery to eat at the airport.

All in all, a great trip. Sorry this recap is so long, but it was such a cool place. So many sights and sounds (and smells and tastes) that I wish all of you could experience. The only thing I didn’t write about in this is the “Man Mo” temple, which we visited on Monday. That deserves it’s own post, so hopefully I’ll get that up before the end of the week.

[Photo Gallery:] Hong Kong (again!)

We had to leave Taiwan in order to apply for our visas, so that meant two nights in Hong Kong over Valentines Day, travel and lodging courtesy of our employers. Included here are pictures of the local wet market next to our hotel, where the seafood was so fresh it often tried to escape down the street. We lowered the resolution on all photos for the internet, but you still might be able to check out what’s in those tanks and buckets. Also look for the hanging pig’s heads, feet, and tongues/gums. The Man Mo Temple pictures appear fuzzy because that’s how thick the incense was. The staff there encouraged pictures and the worshippers didn’t seem to notice or care. Worshippers place food, drink, incense, and spirit money on various altars throughout the temple to appeal to/appease/manipulate various spirits for blessing/fortune/prosperity. At certain altars a bell and drum are also sounded. We also saw two big Christian ads: the first says “Jesus is Lord” and the second says, “The greatest is love” in poor Hong Kong Mandarin (according to our Taipei friends). In one street shot there’s a man in the lower right corner poking a stick into a bucket. That, along with the tiny altar shown in another photos, are things we see almost everyday: merchants burning spirit money in special containers or placing offerings outside their place of business.

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