Waving turtles at traffic

After so many years here, we rarely see anything “new.” But this recently made me do a double-take:


I’ve passed this woman twice now, and each time I asked about her on Weixin (what we use in China instead of Facebook). It’s a handy way to get interesting answers to cultural questions (like that time my superstitious neighbours made me uproot trees I’d planted in our shared grass area). Also, “What turtle?” 什么龟 and “What the heck?!” 什么鬼 are near homophones (shénme guÄ«/guǐ), so it’s fun. You usually get a variety of answers because even if various regions share similar traditions, sometimes the stories and reasons behind them are different. But I couldn’t get much of a consensus on this one, except for: “It’s a scam!”


Weixin friends gave me various explanations. Here’s a sampling:

  • She’s advertising a traditional turtle soup (very nutritious!) 炖汤很滋补。见过有人停车买。
  • She’s selling turtles 路边卖老鳖
  • She’s extorting Buddhists, who will pay her to let the turtle go free (but then she’ll go catch it again!) 悲催的乌龟先生被人贩子以积德行善名义高价卖给有缘人(一般会是信佛教的人)去放生,然后他会偷偷的跟着买家等放生后用一种技巧召回乌龟,继续卖。周而复始……我弟弟亲眼见过,而且这样的人喜欢在河附近的大马路上卖乌龟。有人会做大补的食物买去,也有人会被卖家说服了去放生。“Miserable Mr. Turtle, kidnapped in order to be sold at a high price to those fated to accumulate merit through good works (usually its people who believe in Buddhism) who buy them to set them free, and then he’ll secretly follow the buyer and wait until after its been released, and use a special trick to call the turtle back and continue selling it. Over and over again… My younger brother saw it with his own eyes, also this kind of person likes to sell turtles near rivers. Some people make a really nutritious food to sell, other people will be convinced by the seller to release it for merit.”
  • Chinese medicine 中药
  • She’s scamming people by passing off raised turtles as wild turtles. 骗人的 / 忽悠人的 / 这个人是骗子 / 这些人是骗钱的,很便宜的价格买进鳄龟,然后把它们身上搞上点泥土,再打扮成农民工的某样,说这龟是在河里干活捉到的野生龟,可以卖高价格,千万别上当。 “These people are scammers, they purchase cheaply priced turtles and put mud on them, then dress up like migrant peasant workers and say they caught this wild turtle while working at the river, they can be sold for a really high price, by all means do not be taken in!”

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.)

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

Reading futures, selling fortune
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.
Claiming a patch of sidewalk.
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.)

Telling fortunes

[Photo Gallery:] It’s 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 fú, there a fú, everywhere a fúfú” — 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.

Have a fu.

On locals’ advice, a coworker and I squeezed around back and forth through it during xiÅ«xi 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.

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 grown with stickers to make the sun shine “riches” è´¢, “respect” 恭, and “advance” è¿› 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,

then a prayer wheel,

and then a…

…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 元宵节 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” 至圣先师孔子之位。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 (五位天上的神仙) 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 (神) 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: