FOLK RELIGION IN CHINA
Exorcism in the 1920s Spiritual beliefs and superstitions still abound in China even though they are frowned upon and in some cases suppressed by the authorities. Ancient rites and customs thrive in almost every village, town and city across China, There are literally millions of ancestral shrines and temples honoring local heroes, important ancestors, and local deities, as well as important figures in Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.
Folk religions can vary a great deal from region to region and even individual to individual. Arguably they are strongest in rural areas, especially places left out of the economic boom, where people need something to help them deal with the frustrations of the modern world and fill the emptiness left behind by Communism’s ideological demise.
While Confucianism and Taoism have traditionally been popular with the Chinese upper classes, folk religion has traditionally been popular with the Chinese masses. Over the years, Chinese folk religion has absorbed and assimilated elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism and they in turn have absorbed and assimilated elements of Chinese folk religion. Each often relies on practitioners of the others to perform its rituals and organize events.
Folk religion and Taoism are intimately tied together. Taoism grew out of folk religion and incorporates shamanism, animism and many folk deities and traditions ( See Taoism). Confucianism also incorporates some folk beliefs such as ancestor worship. Buddhism has been influenced by local religion too. In some cases local Chinese gods have been transplanted on Buddhist ones.
World religions (percentage of practioners in the world) : 1) Christianity (33 percent); 2) Islam (20 percent); 3) Non-religion and atheism (15.4 percent); 4) Hinduism (13 percent); 5) Chinese folk religions (6 percent); 6) Buddhism (6 percent); and 7) Other (7 percent).
Scientists and scholars have devoted a lot of time to the study of Taoism and Confucianism, but Chinese folk religion, superstition and everyday spiritual life remain little studied.
Good Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com ; Brief Look at Chinese Folk Religion fccj.edu ; Deities Worshipped by Farmers China Vista ; Mazu China Vista Links in this Website: MYSTICISM AND SUPERSTITION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; SYMBOLS AND LUCKY NUMBERS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE LUNAR CALENDAR AND ZODIAC Factsanddetails.com/China ;FENG SHUI AND QI QONG Factsanddetails.com/China
Links in this Website to Different Religions in China: RELIGION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CONFUCIANISM AND CONFUCIUS Factsanddetails.com/China ; CONFUCIAN BELIEFS Factsanddetails.com/China ; TAOISM Factsanddetails.com/China ; TAOIST BELIEFS Factsanddetails.com/China ; BUDDHISM IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ;HISTORY OF BUDDHISM IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; HISTORY OF TIBETAN BUDDHISM Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN BUDDHISM BELIEFS Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHRISTIANITY IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; MUSLIMS AND JEWS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; IDEAS ABOUT DEATH IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ;
Kinds of Folk Religion in China
Folk religion is alive in various forms of magic and sorcery, the worship of personal household gods, personalized spirits, and ancestral ghosts, and the rituals of antler-headed shaman and local holy men. Shamanism and animism have persisted, especially in the countryside. For many Chinese, Confucianism is unsatisfying because it doesn't supply answers to the questions of the afterlife. Taoism has many elements found in Chinese folk religions.
Animist and shamanist groups and cults have had large following throughout China's history. The Quietists were famous for incorporating trance and ecstacy techniques in their religious rituals. The "Yellow Turbans" roused the peasant masses in A.D. 184 into believing that world was going to end and "blue heaven" was going to be replaced by "yellow heaven."
Manchu shaman Shamanism is China's oldest indigenous belief system. It is still widely practiced in villages and even cities, especially during times of ritual transition and crisis. Shaman rituals are performed on mountaintops, at traditional shrines and in village homes.
Shaman are people who have visions and perform various deeds while in a trance and are believed to have the power to control spirits in the body and leave everyday existence and travel or fly to other worlds. The word Shaman means "agitated or frenzied person" in the language of the Manchu-Tungus nomads of Siberia and northern China.
Shaman are viewed as bridges between their communities and the spiritual world. During their trances, which are usually induced in some kind of ritual, shaman seek the help of spirits to do things like cure illnesses, bring about good weather, predict the future, or communicate with deceased ancestors. Shaman have traditionally had a serious illness followed by a a deep religious experience before they become shaman.
Shaman are generally poor and come from the lower social classes. Sometimes their spiritual power is seen as so great that they need to be separated from society. In the past, it is believed, almost all villages had a shaman and they were members of a caste that passed their traditions down from generation to generation. Some shaman are afraid to reveal their secrets because they believe that after they pass on their secrets the shaman will die.
Animism is also practiced in China. It refers to the collective worship of spirits and dead ancestors rather than individual gods. Derived from anima, the Latin word for soul, it was coined in 1871 by Edward Taylor to describe a theory of religion. Animism and ancestor worship are often closely linked. Animism is not the worship of animals.
Animism emphasizes a reverence for all living things. Many animists believe that every living thing and some non-living ones too—mountains, special rocks and landscape formations—have a spirit. Commonly these spirits merge with other spirits such as a common river or forest spirit and a general life spirit. Some spirits are conjured up before a tree is chopped down or food is eaten to appease them. Others are believed to be responsible for fighting disease or promoting fertility. Animist spirits are often associated with places or objects because they were thought to live close by.
Many anthropologists believe that animism developed out of the belief in some cultures that natural spirits and dead ancestors exist because they appear in dreams and visions. Other anthropologists speculate that the idea of spirits developed among early men out of the concept that something alive contains a spirit and something dead doesn’t, and when something alive dies its spirit has to go somewhere.
Ancient Texts and Shamanism in China
According to a 4th century B.C. Chinese text Discourses of the State, "Ancient men and spirits did not intermingle. At that time there were certain persons who were so perspicacious, single-minded and reverential that their understanding enabled them to make meaningful collation of what lies above and below and their insight [enabled them] to illuminate what is distant and profound Therefore the spirits would descend into them."
"The possessors of such power were, if men call xi, and if women, wu," the text continued. "It is they who supervised the positions of the spirits at the ceremonies, sacrificed to them, and otherwise handled religious matters...as a consequence the spheres of the divine and the profane were kept distinct. The spirits sent down blessing on the people, an accepted from them offerings. There were no natural calamities."
Ancient historical texts described shamanist rituals in southern China in the forth century B.C. that honored mountain and river goddesses and local heros with erotic ceremonies that climaxed with fornication with the gods. The following poem describes such a ritual, performed by men and women shaman, who wore colorful clothes and doused themselves in perfume:
Strike the bells until the bell-stand rocks!
Let the flutes sound! Blow the pan-pipes!
See, the priestess, how skilled and lovely!
Whirling and dipping like birds in flight...
I aim my long arrow and shoot the Wolf of heaven;
I seize the Dipper to ladle cinnamon wine.
Then holding my reins I plunge down to my setting.
Becoming a Shaman and Shaman Techniques
Lighting joss sticks Shaman can be both men and women. Many are women. Traditionally, they have not chosen to become shaman but rather had shamanism thrust upon them. The process of becoming a shaman usually follows five steps: 1) a break with life as usual; 2) a journey to an "other world;" 3) dying and being reborn: 4) gaining a new vision: 5) and emerging with a deep sense of connectedness and purpose.
Most shaman begin their careers with a life-threatening illness, during which time they embark on a spiritual journey and communicate with the gods, spirits and ancestors that become the source of their powers. After recovering from the illness, they go through a long period of training, characterized by fasts and hardships and instruction from senior shaman that climaxes with a long period of isolation in which the shaman goes without food and experiences more visions.
Ancient shaman likely used jade ornaments with divine markings to command mystical forces and communicate with gods and ancestors. Ancient Chinese believed that there ancestors originated with God and communicated through supernatural beings and symbols, whose images were placed on jade ornaments.
The status of individuals in ancient China was determined by the perceived degree of his or her association with the supernatural. Ancient li rituals were used to communicate with spirits and promote harmonious relations in society. These tituals were held at ancestral shrines and meetings with rulers and vassals.
Shaman in Taiwan
Jonathan Adams of New York Times met with Chang Tin a jitong, or Taiwanese shaman who dispenses advice while said to be possessed by a spirit, inside a modern office building next to Taipei’s bustling main train station. In the past, such shamans played a central role in rural village life. Based in local temples, they would resolve community disputes and pick auspicious dates for important occasions, and they were believed to help heal the sick by channeling spirits. [Source:Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]
“In the U.S. or the West, people go to a psychologist,’ said one 40-year-old man seek help from Chang told the New York Times,’The jitong plays the same role. In Taiwan, we think going to a psychologist feels a bit strange. A psychologist is just a person, but this is a god. I can say anything to a god, but I can’t say everything to a psychologist.” [Ibid]
Most often, Chang said, she is possessed by Ji Gong, a maverick Buddhist monk who lived in China in the 12th century and loved his meat and liquor. Thus, the cans of beer as offerings on the altar and Chang’s slurred speech as she channeled the tipsy monk. Another popular god is Santaizi (literally, the third prince), the youngest son of a Tang Dynasty general who has a third eye and boundless energy. But she says other spirits, including Jesus, can speak through her. “ [Ibid]
“I usually ask Ji Gong to answer peoples’ questions, she said. When I start the ritual, I need to dress in Ji Gong’s clothes and drink alcohol, because Ji Gong likes it.’ She says she does not remember anything that happens while possessed by the spirits. ‘ My assistant helps me, recording everything I say and telling me what I did,’ she said. “ [Ibid]
In an interview, Chang said that the spirits called her to be a jitong; she did not choose it. ‘When I was 6, I asked my mother why there were people walking in the sky through the clouds, she said. They didn’t blame me or think I was seeing things; they bought a book with pictures of holy beings and asked me which ones I’d seen.’ When she was 12, a Taoist priest began teaching her the ways of the jitong during summer and winter school breaks. At 15, she said, she was capable of being possessed. She completed vocational school and held jobs in a hospital and in sales, but she said the spirits kept pestering her to be a jitong and to deliver their messages. A few years ago she did. “ [Ibid]
Shaman Ritual in Taiwan
Taoist demons at Dongyue Temple One Sunday a month Chang invites those contacts to her office for an openspirit medium session. The day that Adams visited she answered petitioners’ questions as several elderly men lounged nearby on pillows and chairs, watching the proceedings. Children ran in and out of the room. Chang’s assistants bustled around in the office and an attached kitchen, lighting joss sticks, washing dishes, tending to accounts. Her office door remained open, with about 15 waiting visitors and passers-by chatting and eating in the outside hallway. As clients knelt on pillows before her and aired their troubles, Chang was by turns marriage counselor, family therapist and psychotherapist. [Source: Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]
Describing a shaman ritual, Adams wrote in New York Times, ‘After 10 minutes of drum-beating and incense-burning by her assistants, Chang Yin donned a black, spotted robe and a pointed hat. She picked up a fan with her right hand and a silver flask of sorghum liquor with her left...Then, she sat in a chair before an altar piled with joss sticks, cans of beer, fruit, other snacks and images of deities. The session began. She appeared to slip into a trance.” [Ibid]
“A visibly relaxed Chang, as Ji Gong, was cracking jokes, sipping liquor, hiccuping, waving a fan, teasing questioners, scolding a child and in general thoroughly enjoying the experience and putting everyone at ease. “ [Ibid]
The questioners all listened calmly, letting Ji Gong do most of the talking. i Gong assured one troubled woman who had recently lost a baby that the child was doing well on the other side. Give me your heart, and I’ll open it, Ji Gong told the woman, using a Chinese phrase for giving happiness. The woman put her hand to her heart and then extended it to the shaman..’That’s not your heart, that’s your hand,’ Ji Gong said, chuckling mischievously. ‘I was just kidding; only you can open your heart, Ji Gong said. If you want to open it, just open it. You think too much.” [Ibid]
Another time, Ji Gong gave specific advice to a couple and their young son, repeat visitors. To the wife, he said, ‘Your husband’s not gentle enough, as usual, and gently upbraided the man.’ Then Ji Gong had another message: ‘Your son wants to ask you for money, but he’s afraid to. He wants money for an online game; he’s been trying so hard to overcome an obstacle, but he needs a weapon. Just give him 100 dollars or 200 dollars.’ (Those sums, in Taiwanese dollars, are equivalent to about $3 or $6.) “ [Ibid]
Shaman Ritual Adapted to 21st Century
Taoist demon at Dongyue Temple Ting Jen-chieh, a specialist in Taiwanese religion at the Institute of Ethnology at the Academia Sinica in Taipei, told the New York Times that forty years ago, shamanistic ceremonies were still a frequent feature of village temples, with jitong playing an important public role. Now, Ting said, few young Taiwanese are interested in becoming jitong. Many older people who carry on the shaman tradition have switched to private practice, often in cities, operating out of homes, storefronts or offices rather than temples. [Source: Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]
In the southern Taiwanese village that Ting has been studying, there were eight jitong in the 1960s. Now there are none. Before, jitong were seen as performing a public service, Ting said. But now, as people have become more educated, they’ve come to think the practice isn’t scientific, that it’s uncivilized. But if jitong are less visible, the underlying beliefs that prevailed when Taiwan was a predominantly poor, rural society are surprisingly resilient. The problems they are called upon to solve have changed, too: there are fewer village-level quarrels, more questions on marital disharmony or workplace setbacks. “ [Ibid]
Chang is one of a small number of people who aremaintaining the shamanistic practice but adapting it to the needs of modern city dwellers. Chang does not charge for the jitong services. She teaches classes, and most of her income derives from advising businesses on feng shui and other such matters. To keep her clients abreast of what is happening she regularly sends out text messages to about 300 people. That virtual network has replaced the tightly knit village setting of old. “ [Ibid]
Chang said it was not only the jitong who had adjusted. She said that these days the gods were more likely to be consulted on thorny personal relationships than on physical illness. So now they give a different type of guidance, she said. The gods have changed along with the times and kept up with the trends. [Source: Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]
Chinese Creation Story
According to the most accepted version of the Chinese Creation story, before heaven and earth were created everything was vague and amorphous. The Great Beginning produced emptiness and from this emptiness the universe was created. Everything that was clear and light rose to form heaven and everything that was heavy and turbid became the earth. [Source: Huai-nan Tzu, reprinted in the People's Almanac]
The combined essences of heaven and earth became the yin and yang, the concentrated essences of the yin and yang became the four seasons, and the scattered essences of the four seasons became the creatures of the world. The hot force of accumulated yang produced fire and the essence of the fire force became the sun; the cold force of the accumulated yin became the water and the moon. What was left over from the excess force of the sun and the moon became the stars and planets. Heaven received the sun while the earth received the water and soil.
"When heaven and earth were joined in emptiness and all was in simplicity, then without having been created, things came into being. This was the Great Oneness. All things issued from this oneness but all became different, being divided into various species of plants, animals, birds, fish and beasts. When something moves it is called living, and when it dies it is said to become exhausted."
See Taoist Creation Theory, Taoism
Yin and Yang
The concept of yin and yang, which literally means "dark side" and "sunny side," is sometimes attributed to the forth century B.C. Taoist philosopher Tsou Yen, but it seems likely that the idea had been around for at least two thousand years before that. Yin and yang are thought of as two opposing forces—male and female, positive and negative, strong and weak, and light and dark—that are also attracted one another, with yang being male, strong and light and yin being female, weak, and dark. Each force needs the other to define itself and the interaction of yin and yang is believed to influence destinies and things. [Source: World Religions, edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]
The classic Chinese scholar Liu Zi explained yin and yang this way: "When the yang has reached its highest point, the yin begins to rise, and when the yin has reached its greatest altitude, it begins to decline. And when the moon has waxed to its full it begins to wane. This is the changeless Rao of Heaven. After the year's fullness follows decay, and the keener joy is followed by sadness. This is the changeless condition of man."
Yin is generally perceived as a negative force while yang is seen as a positive force Some gods are shown carrying a demon trap, which is used to catch the five noxious creatures of yin forces: centipedes, spiders, snakes, geckos and toads. Tigers are seen as powerful yang animals and they can be used to dispel negative yin forces. The heavenly dragon represents the power of heaven and is regarded as the yang force in its highest form.
Some Asians have used the concept of ying and yang to justify a hierarchal order of the human world and argue that social classes are the basic order of society and not subject to change.
Spiritual Beings in China
Demon killer Zhing Kui
Chinese generally recognize three different kinds of spiritual beings; 1) ancestors, generally benign dead relatives; 2) ghosts, the angry souls of people who died in accidents or without getting married; and 3) gods, in many cases the souls of dead people who lived such meritorious lives they developed spiritual powers which they can use to help others.
One Asian scholar told National Geographic, "The best educated and the illiterate alike, believe exactly what the emperors believed. They believe in the morality propounded by Confucius. They are in awe of vague Buddhism. Above all, they bow to the spirits of their ancestors and to many others; to the spirit of great men; to the spirits of the sky and the fields, of the trees and of the animals; to the spirits good and evil and changeable in between."
Ancestors are generally honored and appeased with daily and seasonal offerings and rituals. Ghost are regarded as dangerous, particularly to children. They bring sickness and other problems. Great effort is made to avoid creating ghosts. If someone dies in an accident or is unmarried at the time of their death efforts are made to appease them so they do not cause trouble for the living. Seasonal rituals are held to appease them. God are generally honored and petitioned for help in various matters.
“Ghosts” are souls that remain on earth harassing and causing trouble for the living. They are thought to be souls that failed to reach the afterlife because of some problem they encountered on their journey; a lack of a proper send off by their living relatives on earth; or tragic circumstances surrounding their death or life. Special rituals are often held to send these ghosts to their afterlife destination. See Ghosts, Superstitions
Most Taoist gods originated as local folk gods. Important ones include Shou Hsing (God of Longevity), Fu Hsing (God of Happiness), Lu Hsing (God of High Rank), Tsai She (God of Wealth), Pao Sheng (God of Medicine), Ju Lai Of (God of Luck), Chu Sheng Niang (Goddess of Birth and Fertility), Kuan Kung (God of War), and a variety of local underworld magistrates. Tsao Chun (the Kitchen God) controls each persons lifespan and destiny. He and his wife observe everybody during the year and issue reports to the Jade Emperor at New Year.
Local Deities in China
8th century Guanyin Guanyin (Kuanyan), the Goddess of Mercy, is arguably the most popular deity in China. Found in Buddhist and Taoist temples and on family altars at home, she is associated with both purity and compassion and has traditionally been sought by expectant mother for help with child birth. Often depicted with multiple heads and arms, she is closely linked with Avalokitesvara, the eleven-headed and the multi-armed Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. Guanyin is usually represented sitting on a lotus blossom. The lotus symbolizes purity because it grows from dirty water without getting dirty.
Guanyin is believed to have been a real person who lived in southwestern China around 300 B.C. and was killed by her father because she refused to marry the man he wanted her to marry. According to legend, after she died she transformed hell into paradise and was permitted by the God of the Underworld to return to earth. During her nine year stay on earth she performed many deeds and miracles, including saving her father.
Guan Yin was originally the God of Mercy. He became the Goddess of Mercy after the introduction of Christianity to China as an answer to the Virgin Mary.
The god Fachu is worshiped by people who are recovering from an illness or who want to succeed in business. He is particularly revered by tea merchants. On Fuchu's birthday worshipers go to a temple and present his image with two red "turtle" rice cakes that represents payment plus interest for a wish granted in the previous year.
The Goddess of the Sea—known as Matsu or mazu in Fujian Province and Taiwan, and Tianhau in Hong Kong and Guangdong—is popular in coastal areas. Many Chinese fishing vessels carry a shrine to this goddess, who, according to legend, was originally a real young girl who used her powers to predict the weather and save fishermen from storms. Thousands visit a shrine dedicated to her on Meizhou Island.
The Dragon King is a popular deity in Shaanxi Province. A visitor to a temple honoring the god told Newsday, “I pay respects to the Dragon King. If you have a problem, you come here and cast lots. That can tell you how to solve your problems.
In the village of Xialing in Guangdong Province, peasants make offerings at roadside altars to wooden images of the Heaven Mother and the King of Three Mountains. Villages say the gods are not connected to Taoism or Buddhism but are local deities that "bring the village prosperity, harmony, wealth and strong children."
Many households have statues or other objects associated with deities. These objects are not regarded as bought but rather are “invited” into one’s home in the belief they will bring good fortune.
The writer and dissident Liao Yiwu met one man in prison who was there because he burned is wife alive, convinced he was possessed by an evil dragon. The man converted to Christianity and prayed everyday, “hoping that evil dragon will not come back and harm people again.”
Some villagers say that ghost no longer exist because Mao got rid of them in 1957. Even so, to hedge their bets perhaps, they wear charms with clusters of old coins. “The more coins the more you can avoid unclean ghosts,” one village women told the writer Amy Tan.
Many Chinese believe in animals spirits. The fox spirit is particularly well known. So too are the rabbit and snake. Some people protect their house from the fox’s influence with a circle incense.
Many Chinese believe that certain people have the ability ro see the spirit world. Clairvoyants are called mingbairen, “those who understand.” They were discouraged in the Mao era but have made a comeback in recent years.
Chinese temples are often comprised of many buildings, halls and shrines. They tend to be situated in the middle of towns and have north-south axises. Large halls, shrines and important temple buildings have traditionally been dominated by tiled roofs, which are usually green or yellow and sit atop eaves decorated with religious figures and good luck symbols. The roofs are often supported on magnificently carved and decorated beams, which in turn are supported by intricately carved stone dragon pillars. Many temples are entered through the left door and exited through the right.
Pagodas are towers generally found in conjunction with temples or viewed as temples themselves. Some can be entered; others can not. The Chinese have traditionally believed that the heavens were round and the earth was square. This concept is reflected in the fact that pagodas have square bases rooted to the earth but have a circular or octagonal plans so they look round when viewed by the gods above in the sky.
In the Mao era, temples were often used as storehouse for the local production team. Since Mao’s death many temples have been reclaimed for religious observances and thousands of new temples, many devoted to local gods in rural areas, have been built. More than 1,300 temples were built in Shaanxi province alone in the 1990s.
In many cases, these temples have not only become a place to worship but have become a center of social and welfare activity. The Black Dragon Temple in Shaanxi, for example, sponsors deforestation and irrigation projects, builds schools and provides assistance for the poor.
Chinese Temple Features
Temple under construction Many temples have courtyards. Often, in the middle of the courtyard is a small bowl where incense and paper money are burnt. Offerings of fruit and flowers are left in a main hall at the intricately-carved altars, often decorated with red brocade embroidery with gilded characters.
Traditional Chinese temples contain wall paintings, carved tile walls and shrines to gods and ancestors that in turn are wonderfully decorated with wood carvings, murals, ceramic figures and plaster moldings with motifs that the Chinese regard as auspicious.
On the outside of temples there are often stone walls with simple carvings; gates with statues of fanged, bug-eyed goblins, intended to keep evil spirits away; and monuments of children who displayed filial piety to their parents and virgins who lost their fiances before marriage but remained pure their entire life.
Wealthy Chinese temples often contain gongs, bells, drums, side altars, adjoining rooms, accommodation for the temple keepers, chapels for praying and shrines devoted to certain deities. There is generally no set time for praying or making offerings—people visit whenever they feel like it—and the only communal services are funerals.
At Chinese temples orange and red signifies happiness and joy; white represents purity and death; green symbolizes harmony; yellow and gold represents heaven; and grey and black symbolize death and misfortune. Swastikas are often seen on Chinese temples. The Chinese word for swastika (wan) is a homonym of the word for "ten thousand," and is often used in the lucky phrase "chi-hsiang wan-fu chih suo chü" meaning "the coming of great fortune and happiness." See Hinduism, Buddhism
Chinese Temple Practices
Busy Chinese temples are smokey places crowded with people lighting bouquets of smoking joss sticks, saying prayers, leaving jade orchid blossoms as offerings, throwing sheng bei (fortune-telling wooden blocks) and donating ghost money to variety of ancient gods in return for things like good luck on the lottery, good scores for children on important exams and good business.
Temple goers burn fake money for longevity and set fire to paper cars and TV sets at funerals. In 1995, the Chinese government banned the practice of burning money during ancestor worship ceremonies because the custom was officially deemed a fire hazard and a superstition.
K’o t’ous (kowtows) are bows performed as acts of worship. Worshipers at local temples for the Dragon King bow three times before an image of deity, place incense sticks before it, cast lots of numbered bamboo sticks and make donations. Pilgrims visiting temples sometimes line up and stop every few steps and bow.
Temples in China are not good places to visit if you have respiratory problems: burning incense coils, some of them 50-feet in length when unraveled, hang from the ceiling; joss sticks smoke away in urns; and pieces of ignited rice paper are tossed into the air by worshipers.
In January 2006, 36 people were killed in an explosion when devout Buddhists in the central province of Henan burned incense and prayed at a temple near warehouse storing firecrackers, igniting the fireworks.
Mountains and Religion in China
Huangshan Mountains are important in China's religions. The Kun-lun Shan, a range of mountains in northern Tibet, is where Taoists believe paradise can be found. The Kimkang mountains in Tibet are an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists. China has five sacred mountains, and many Chinese hope that in their lifetime they can climb all five. Most of these mountains have stairways to the summit, where there are nice views and noodle stands and postcards-selling monks.
Taishan (near Qufu) is China's most sacred mountain and one of China's most popular tourist sites. Revered by Taoists and Confucians, it covers an area of 426 square kilometers and is 4,700 feet high. Many emperors came here to make offerings and pray to heaven. Poets and philosophers drew inspiration from it. Pilgrims prayed on an alter said to be the highest in China.
Confucius is said to have climbed Taishan and proclaimed “I feel the world is much smaller” when he reached the top. The Emperor Wu Di ascended it in his quest for immortality. Taishan means “big mountain” or “exalted mountain” It is the eastern peak among the five holy mountains associated with the cult of Confucius. The five peaks represent the directions—north, south, east, west and central—and Taishan is considered the holiest because it is in the east, the direction from which the sun rises. For many Chinese it is like Mecca. Climbing it is as much a nationalist and spiritual experience as a recreational one.
Hermits and Chinese Religion
Hermits have lived in the mountains since ancient times. There are Taoist and Buddhist ones as well as one ones with closer affiliations to traditional Chinese folk religion. But they are not limited to Taoists or Buddhists. Poets, political figures and average people have also been hermits. [Source: Jiang Yuxia, Global Times, February 17, 2011]
Hermits are "unique images that ancient Chinese culture has nurtured. [They] represent Chinese people's pursuit of an ideal way of life," the writer Zhou Yu told the Global Times. "Their lifestyle is completely self-supporting, without demanding too much from the outside world....For hermits, to live a secluded life and practice Daoism or Buddhism is not solely about 'benevolence,' but living a real, simple life…What they do is to make their heart bright, clear and natural," explained Zhou, who is also editor of Wendao (Seeking Way), a magazine dedicated to promoting traditional Chinese culture. [Ibid]
In recent years, more and more people have become interested in the exclusive life led by the hermits in Zhongnan Mountain, especially following the publication of books such as Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits by American author and translator Bill Porter in 1993. [Ibid]
Attraction of the Hermit Lifestyle and Zhongnan Mountain
Jiang Yuxia wrote in the Global Times: “Cherishing his reverence and curiosity for Chinese hermits, writer Zhou Yu was eager to change his fast-paced urban life. He thus embarked on a journey, in the spring of 2010, to seek hermits in the legendary Zhongnan Mountain, one of the birthplaces of Taoism, in northwest China's Shaanxi Province. Also known as Taiyi or Difei Mountain, Zhongnan Mountain is a section of the Qinling Mountains with the reputation of "Fairyland," "the first paradise under heaven" and a home to hermits for over 3,000 years. Legend has it that Taoism founder Laozipreached scriptures and nurtured the idea for his classic work Tao the Ching here. [Source: Jiang Yuxia, Global Times, February 17, 2011]
"Everyone wishes that he or she has the chance to get to know about his or her own life again and the lifestyle of hermits provides us another picture. . . When they realize that they need to make adjustments to their lives, they go to the mountains to seek them," Zhou said. However, he added, real hermits don't have to live in mountains. "If you don't have peace and quiet in your heart, you cannot have tranquility even if you live deep in the mountains...Start with the simplest practice: To get to know your needs and desires, and find a proper position for yourself. If you can do that, you can find peace and quiet even if you live in the city."
After traveling to Zhongan Mountain Zhou came across "Hermit Ming," who has resided in a thatched valley cottage for a decade, living an ascetic and self-sufficient life. Although Ming does not meet the typical image of ancient hermits, his unique lifestyle, both traditional and modern, and charisma aroused Zhou's interest enough for him to stay and turn the story of his solitary life into his latest book, Bai Yun Shen Chu (“Deep in the Clouds”). [Source: Jiang Yuxia, Global Times, February 17, 2011]
"Hermit Ming lives in the mountain not only to practice Taoism, but to have a place where he can live a life in which he can face disputes peacefully," Zhou wrote in the book. "Only in this way are his mind and body able to grow like trees and flowers to show their natural side." Ming's daily routine, according to Jiang, consists of: “an early morning start to do chores including hoeing weeds, tilling land and picking herbs; two meals a day, snack and tea at lunchtime, dinner at four; then a walk before settling down to read sutras or do other chores.” By sunset he returned home, “falling asleep to the sounds of springs, wind and birds.” [Ibid]
“Born into a wealthy South China family of Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners for generations,” Jiang wrote, “ Ming was beset with strict rules, complex relationships and feuds among family members from a young age. After witnessing a series of mishaps and the death of his mother at eight, Ming left his family at 17 and began his long-cherished dream of traveling around the country to seek answers to the many questions that had bothered him, including life and death. With only an aluminum mug and two lighters, Ming traveled all the way to Fujian, Guangdong, Jiangxi, Hubei and other provinces before he finally settled down at Zhongnan Mountain.” [Ibid]
“In the valley, he built his own cottage with help from other hermits and villagers living at the foot of the mountain, spending time growing vegetables, practicing Taosim and doing his chores. Unlike those secluded hermits recorded in old books, Ming is unconventional: He does not reject the outside world or its civilization. He has a telephone at his place to keep contact with other hermit friends while they travel around and is skilled at riding a motorbike. He has shared quarters with a female hermit for a decade. Ming has explored as far as Nepal to have a look of the outside world and is friendly to unexpected, curious visitors.” [Ibid]
According to Ming, "the major reason that we have too many agonies is because we receive too much information and we are not good at dealing with it properly. Then you become unhappy... When you live in the mountain, you have time to think about problems." Ming's lifestyle has also evoked Zhou to ponder modern urban life and even seek a way out. "In our life, most of the time we are asking for things from others to satisfy our endless demands. Hermits, however, are the other way round," Zhou said. “I found the possibility of a [new] lifestyle. When we feel bothered, we begin to examine our lives and ask ourselves if there are chances to change it. To some extend, many hermits in Zhongnan Mountain can be called seekers of a new lifestyle."
Image Sources: 1) Exorcism, Bucklin archives http://www.bucklinchinaarchive.com/ ; 2) Shaman, Crystal Punk blog; 3) Ancestor Hall and Home altar, Columbia University; 4) Ancestor offering, Beifan.com; 5) Demon killer, University of Washington; 6) Guanyin, wikipedia; 7) Temple, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 8) Temple constrcution, kowtowing child and joss sticks, beifan.com http://www.beifan.com/; Asia Obscura http://asiaobscura.com/ ;
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated July 2011