Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Professor Deborah Post - Chinese Spirituality

Visiting China is always an adventure in cross-cultural understanding. Probably the one issue that defies translation is the system of beliefs that constitute religion or spirituality. I made my annual visit with students to the Buddhist temple at Nan Putuo. We watched as the Chinese visiting the temple placed gifts of flowers or fruits, burned incense or knelt before the images of Buddha and the compassionate Bodhisatva Guanyin with her 100 arms and two heads. The students took up the game of pitching pennies or yuan onto a rock or into a pagoda’s tiny doors, or hiked the mountain to the shrine at the top of the hill, and I took myself to the stand at the base of the path up the mountain that offers items tourists want to buy and ritual paper money.

Behind the store is a large furnace, and pilgrims to the temple take paper wealth to that furnace and burn it. If the Chinese are right, my parents have a little pocket money now in that other dimension inhabited by human spirits. The Chinese believe that burning paper money or cars or computers or flat screen televisions works to deliver these items to ancestors. Actually, my volunteer, Chenhuan, tells me that she is not concerned with remote ancestors. She burns paper money for her grandmother, and her father does the same for his grandmother. Between the two of them the Chen family is providing for physical and financial comfort of the prior two generations.

Chenhuan also warned me that in the year of the Ox, the Chinese astrological sign in the year of my birth, I must wear red underwear or at least a red string on my wrist to fend off bad luck or bad spirits. I wish I had known this last year, 2009, which was indeed the year of the Ox. If I had known, I might have avoided some of the challenges that presented themselves during the year.

If you are a fan of Amy Tan, who introduced us to the Kitchen Gods Wife and to the spirits that inhabit Chinese cosmology in The Hundred Secret Senses, or if you pay attention to something other than your food when you eat at a Chinese restaurant in the U.S., you won’t be surprised at the ubiquitous shrines to local small “g” gods that we found in China. I finally asked Hannah and Charles the identity of the god in one Cantonese restaurant, and I was told that the god was Cai Shen, the god of prosperity. In Chengzhou, in the home of Charles’ mother, I saw another shrine, and I asked the identity of that god. The figurines on the shrine looked remarkably like Guanyin, but I was told that this is a shrine to the god of the earth, Tu Di. I have since learned that Tu Di is a very local god. Each locality has its own earth god, but apparently these gods share the same name. The god of prosperity and the god of the earth are both protector deities. Makes sense that farmers would want to propitiate the god of the earth and that merchants would look to a god who was concerned with profits. The gods in China are quite specialized.

This god of the earth, if the figurines are actually the gods and not handmaidens to the god, looks a lot like Matzu, the goddess of the sea who looks after the fishermen in Jimei and Xiamen. Matzu in her turn looks like many of the figures of Guanyin that they sell in Nan Putuo and some versions of Guanyin begin to look a lot like Madonna and child.

I have heard it said that the current government has been reinstituting old traditions, like the tomb-sweeping holiday that takes place in the Spring, QingMing. I don’t think much encouragement is necessary. I am not sure that these traditions were ever really abandoned, except perhaps by those who were immediately and intimately involved in the Cultural Revolution. It is pretty hard to eradicate traditions that are deeply rooted in centuries old cultural traditions even when the ferocity of youth is unleashed and directed at the “old” or the “feudal” in society.

I try not to probe too deeply into matters of religion with our volunteers. It came up only twice this summer. Once I asked as delicately as I could about the arrest of public interest lawyers. I did not name them: Gao Zhisheng and two other lawyers, Tang Jitian and Liu Wi, the two lawyers most recently disbarred. The Chinese student looked confused. “Why would a lawyer be arrested?” she asked. “Because they represented unpopular clients, like the members of the Falun Gong movement,” I answered. Her response was immediate. “Falun Gong is evil. It encourages its members to kill themselves.” There was a case of self immolation by a member of Falun Gong a while back so I was not surprised by her response. If this law student is typical of the average Chinese then the government has been quite successful in persuading people that Falun Gong is a threat to public safety.

What I did not expect was the discussion I had some days later about Christianity. I was told, somewhat to my surprise, by a volunteer that she was considering seriously the advantages of Christianity after viewing the last episode of Lost. I am not sure why Lost would inspire one to convert or whether the producers of the show knew or intended the show to have this effect. Who knew that Lost could be used to proselytize? If I understood the student correctly, she thought that Lost proved that there are things in life that cannot be explained by science. Why a work of fiction would have probative effect I am not certain. In any event, it seems to me that people who burn money for the benefit of ancestors have already acknowledged the existence of the supernatural and its proximity to our own world. What exactly was in that episode of Lost?

Anyone interested in a more authoritative discussion of spirituality in China should visit Speaking of Faith to hear an interview with the anthropologist Mayfair Yang.

By Professor Deborah Post, Touro Law Summer Abroad Program in China 2010

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