[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 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:

Chairman Mao enshrined — literally

When one of my young, very privileged Party-family students passionately told me, “Chairman Mao is like a god to us!” I understood he meant it as a simile. And the god metaphor is common when discussing Mao and his Cultural Revolution personality cult. But as it turns out, in some incredible irony, some other Chinese mean it literally. I heard about this before, but this is the first time I’ve found pictures — Mao actually enshrined in a local temple: Mao Temple in China – Chairman Mao Becomes Local God.

For more about Mao and the Mao Era, you can browse these topics:

Interview with Prof. Liu Peng on Religious Issues in China

Here’s a lengthy ten-part interview with Liu Peng from the Pu Shi Institute for Social Sciences, “an independent, nonprofit, non-governmental think tank” that exists to “promote freedom of belief within the framework of rule of law” and acts as “a ‘bridge’ between the government, the academic circles and religious groups.” Good for anyone with more than a passing interest in religious issues in China.

Render unto Caesar the Things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the Things that are God’s: Interview with Professor Liu Peng about Religious Issues in China

President Hu Jintao emphasized that we should enlist the participation of religious personnel and religious believers in the promotion of economic and social development. He explicitly affirmed the value of religion in Chinese society. . . It’s too simplistic to explain it away by saying that “cheaters bump into fools”. . . If you view religion as negative, then religion should be eradicated. If religion is not something negative, then it is another issue. Once we have established a correct understanding of religion, the next question centers on the measures that the state uses to manage religion.

More from Liu Peng and the Pu Shi Institute for Social Sciences can be found here:

More about how the Chinese government “enlists the participation of religious personnel and religious believers in the promotion of economic and social development” here:

ABC News’ Stephen McDonell wades through heavy surveillance to report on China’s “True Believers”

“The question is, can the State accept the idea that many of their citizens follow the word of their gods above the word of the Party?”

Watch the program and read a partial transcript here. See McDonell confront the agents trailing him — on camera — here.

It’s all interesting, but I was especially surprised by what they managed to film starting at 21:30.

New Photo Gallery: Bi Gan Temple in Henan

The Bi Gan Temple (比干庙) near Xīnxiāng (新乡) in Hénán (河南) claims 3000 years of history, priceless historical treasures and the two kinds of mythological figures especially beloved by Mainland Chinese: money gods and honest government officials. Click the link or the photos below to read the somewhat gruesome legend and see the photo gallery:

Bi Gan Temple 比干庙 near Xinxiang, Henan 新乡,河南 – 2010 Feb 22

The Chinese Santa Claus

Or maybe Santa Claus is the Western money god…

cái shén dào
“The god of wealth arrives”

This just went up at the subway station/shopping center that I walk through to get to work (小白楼). He faces a McDonald’s. Chinese New Year’s decorations are going up everywhere.

You can see lots of Chinese money god (财神 or 财神爷) images by doing a google image search for 财神。

For details on the story behind one particular incarnation of the Chinese money god, see Bi Gan Temple 比干庙 near Xinxiang, Henan 新乡,河南 – 2010 Feb 22.