Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Entry Nine: Having Faith in China

A few nights ago I again went to Wal-Mart. It is the only time in my life where shopping at Wal-Mart means buying local, so I don’t mind it as much as I used to.

This time it took me a while to catch a taxi, which is the best way to travel here. I was whistling and waving my hat trying to find an open cab, but because it was raining they were all full. I walked around and around an intersection like this for at least 15 minutes. Eventually I noticed a uniformed man watching me and taking notes. I had been unknowingly waving my arms like a mad man in front of a government building. Way to go Jason. Three minutes later I caught a cab and sped off to buy a few more t-shirts (oh, and by the way, in China I take an XXXL)

Looking out my cab window I again saw construction and the hustle and bustle of a thriving city. The focus on development here is extraordinary, and the infrastructure of Jinhua is pretty impressive as a result. There are two sections to the city, Bei and Nan (or North and South). I live in Bei Jinhua, which has the University and is closest to the mountains. Nan Jinhua is easily the busier section of the city, and hosts an impressive array of different types of Chinese food and minority shops. This includes a Tibet-themed shop where one can buy Buddhist prayer items, but someone told me that not all the merchandise is as authentic as advertised.

Everywhere in the city has freshly paved roads and wide sidewalks. In many ways, it is something to be envied by a Mainer. No potholes to be seen! The clinics and hospitals are, however, a little different.

I had to have a medical exam when I first arrived here - deep breath - blood drawn and all. Good news, I have a clean bill of health, and my demand to see the needle in the package before they used it on me was readily accepted. All the foreign teachers here have this examination, so I am not too worried, but the level of sanitation was a change from what I am used to (and the visit unexpected). Waiting in line behind an elderly Chinese woman I said a little prayer, being nervous about the needle. It drew a few funny looks from those around me, but no one really understood what I was doing. Needless to say, I survived.

While I have finally settled into life here, I also have begun to feel a little antsy. What would usually be days of celebration, like St. Patrick’s Day and Easter, rolled by with little excitement. My routine needed a break. I had been in China for one month without leaving Jinhua, and it was time for an adventure. Last weekend I set off for Hangzhou.

Hangzhou, famous for its beautiful West Lake and religious shrines, has grown to become a top Chinese tourist destination over the last decade. It is about 1 hour by fast train and 2 ½ hours by bus from where I live, and the ticket costs about $10 US.

Not bad, right? Well, once you actually get to Hangzhou the costs rise dramatically. I guess Kennebunkport isn’t the only place in the world where they take advantage of tourists by hiking prices. But, like in Maine, if you know where to go you can avoid some of the traps. I stayed in a Hostel for about $18 US a night, and was right on the lake.

Wanting to treat myself, I decided on trying some Italian food. All reviews claimed that the best place in town was the Shangri-La Hotel. I have never spent so much for mediocre spaghetti with meat sauce; enough said. The Indian food I had the next day was outstanding, however, and I might take the train again just for the Chicken Korma.

More than for the food, I went to Hangzhou to relax by the lake and see some temples. I have already written here about the amazing Taoist temples and the Double Dragon Caves. Everything I heard about Hangzhou suggested the natural beauty and holy relics would top even that.

West Lake, known all throughout China, is beautiful enough to warrant a visit. The landscaping is indeed extraordinary, however far from the natural scenery that I expected. Paved paths weave around well tended trees and flowers, along the lake and over newly constructed bridges. Traditional Chinese music hums softly in the background from speakers that are shaped like rocks. One can take a boat ride across the lake, or simply sit on a bench and enjoy the view. Strangely, though, between the thousands of people, meticulous landscaping and background music, I felt like I was at a Disney Park such as Epcot. This is not meant as an insult to West Lake, just a comment on how structured my experience was in a supposedly natural place. Nevertheless, it was beautiful and I have the pictures to prove it.

The only English Channel I get on TV at home is CCTV 9, and the commercials are either trying to sell me pillows filled with tea leaves (huh?) or pushing that I visit Hangzhou. The tourism advertisements make a big deal of the temples, and so naturally it was a priority on my trip to see them.

Unlike the remote Taoist temple on top of the mountain in Jinhua, the temples in Hangzhou were flooded with tourists. The largest pagoda temple, a Buddhist hybrid of Chinese and Indian architecture, had a gold spire and a hefty entrance fee. The view from the lake of the towering monument was stunning, but the closer I got to the temple the less spiritual the experience became. The traffic was unbearable, the vendors a little aggressive, and I only saw one person who appeared to making a pilgrimage. Most people, while respectful of the history and beauty, were there as tourists enjoying a cultural relic. There is nothing wrong with this, but it carried a different vibe than the temple in Jinhua.

Unwilling to fork over the money to climb the pagoda temple steps, I set off for the well regarded Lingyin Temple. It is the largest temple in Hangzhou, and considered a historically significant temple for Chinese Buddhists.

On the ride to the edge of city where the temple sits protected in the hillside, I tried to refresh my memory about Buddhism. Only casually familiar with the religion, my basic understanding is that prince Siddhartha Gautama gave up his possessions and social status to spend his days reflecting on life and truth. Rejecting the distractions and desires of daily life, he sought and achieved enlightenment and shared his wisdom across Asia. While the monks worship as a community, the spiritual journey is very much a personal one (although, of course, it transcends the individual).

Much like Taoism, today there are many different practices of Buddhism across the world, ranging from philosophical interpretations to downright mysticism. In Chinese literature one of the most famous classics, the Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en (1500-1582), describes the long path of a monk and his followers to retrieve Buddhist manuscripts from India. The novel includes characters such as the infamous Monkey King among other mystical creatures with superhuman powers. This is not meant as a blanket observation on the Chinese interpretation of Buddhism, but rather just an historic example of the different ways in which Buddhist influences have been received in Chinese culture.

When we arrived at the Lingyin Temple we had to pay a pretty steep fee to enter what was called the “scenic area.” Once inside, a pathway led to a series of caves where the rock walls revealed ancient Buddhist statues and text. They were AMAZING! Rumor has it that during the Cultural Revolution monks covered the art on the cave walls with official party posters so that they would not be destroyed. I cannot verify this claim, but it is certainly possible. Regardless of how they were preserved, the carvings were breathtaking.

We continued up the path, still surrounded by people, however feeling much more encouraged about the day because of the amazing statues. Before we entered the actual temple we found another gate. Outside there was a sign warning to “Respect and Protect These Cultural Relics.” Inside there was a massive electronic sign explaining events and ticket prices! Baffled because we had already paid a handsome price to enter the park, we stood in disbelief that once again there was a fee to see the temple.

Almost out of money (due to my indulgent pursuit of Italian food the day before) we could not afford to enter and have enough left for the train ride home. So, we turned and started back to the road, disappointed.

We began by following the path we had taken up the hill, but signs (in English, which should have been a red flag) directed us to take an alternative route down the hill. We followed the signs, but they led us through a gauntlet of vendors and mini-mall shops selling toy swords and other souvenirs. We were harassed by people wanting to sell fake Rolex watches for the next ten minutes of fast walking. It was not exactly an experience that brought me a great deal of inner peace, and despite the amazing cave walls, I almost ran out of patience.

As we finally emerged onto the street we waited for a taxi. It began to rain, and when it rains the taxis fill up fast. Down the road to the left was an older looking foreigner who appeared confused. We walked up and introduced ourselves to him. Turns out he is a physicist from Belgium traveling as part of an official lecture series. He wanted to see the temple while he was in town, but could not speak any Chinese. He had tried without success to capture a taxi for the last hour. Thankfully, with our powers combined we caught a cab in about 10 minutes, and all of us made our way back into town. He was so grateful for the help he paid the cab fair, which was a nice treat given how low on cash I was at the time. Karma, perhaps?

From the temple I went directly to the bus station, tired of the busy pace and price of Hangzhou for a tourist. Leaving town we twice passed a building, more like a warehouse than a church in architecture, with a cross sprouting from the roof. It was surprising to see a cross in China. The only other time I had encountered a Christian symbol here was on Good Friday a few days before Easter.

While walking the streets of Jinhua that Friday, a woman approached me with a pamphlet bearing a cross. I stopped and let her talk to me for a moment, but she spoke so quickly I could not understand. Others basically shoed her away, but she stood her ground. Eventually she realized my Chinese was not good enough to follow what she was trying to express, so she winked at me and walked away. She approached others as well, but like on a street corner in any American city, the average passerby did not want to stop and talk with someone about religion. After I finished my business in town I walked back the same way to see if she was still there. She was not, and the vendors seemed more comfortable now that they were the only attention grabbers on the roadside.

I have, in private, spoken with a handful of Chinese people about spirituality. I have met one Christian, quite a few people who casually believe in Buddhism, and others that are either agnostic or not comfortable enough with me to really discuss it. One of my closest friends just sighed and said, “I did not grow up with it around me, so I am really not sure.”

A recent comment/question on this blog asked about religion in China, but I must confess that I have no grand conclusions. It seems religion in China is typically a personal affair. People have the constitutional right to choose and practice their own faith. However, either a product of the culture or the system, it is pretty rare to see too much of this out in the open. The government has worked hard to rebuild religious sites over the last decade, and the people are rightfully proud of their rich and diverse history and culture. These sites have become popular destinations, a real matter of national pride. I cannot comment conclusively about the religiosity of all these sites in China, but I can say that at the Hangzhou temples I saw tourists - not pilgrims. Then again, I could have misinterpreted what I saw.

One thing is certain, traditions are alive and well here, as are superstitions. A colleague of mine at the school insists that when you sneeze twice in a row it means someone is thinking of you, and I was surprised to discover on St. Patrick’s Day that people here also believe in the power of a four leafed clover. One should never wear a green hat, because it is a symbol of adultery. Furthermore, this coming Friday many families will only eat cold food and visit tombs, part of the tradition for the Qing Ming Jie, or Tomb Sweeping Festival.

This Friday there is no school in honor of Tomb Sweeping Day, an ancient practice that both welcomes spring and honors one’s ancestors. People visit family burial places and clean them, as well as make offerings of food and other favorites of the deceased.

The cold food tradition is part of an ancient story where a prince mourned the loss of a loyal supporter whom died in a fire. The prince then ordered no fires on the anniversary of his supporter’s death; hence, cold food. This tradition was naturally absorbed into the larger festival to honor the dead.

In addition to the actual tomb, many families also have a small alter to their ancestors in a living room. Some will burn incense and make more extravagant offerings during this time in the privacy of their home. This seems to be a common way to express/celebrate spiritual ideas. I have heard from some, that much like my trying to catch a cab to Wal-Mart, it is better to go about your business without stirring up a fuss.

In some ways, religious beliefs are kept very personal, yet other festivals and holy places are celebrated out in the open as a matter of common culture and history. Religion does not play the exact same role in China as it does in the USA, but there is a sense of spirituality and tradition that should not be discounted just because it is different. Maybe what we have in common is that in both places the issue is sensitive and complicated.

After all, I have visited impressive churches in the USA and Canada and have been directed to a gift shop. As an American public school teacher I have encountered sensitivities when talking about faiths. In the Maine Mall there is a kiosk selling religious items and carvings from the “Holy Land.” People who are openly atheist or agnostic celebrate Christmas, Easter and so on in America. It sometimes frustrates the devout to see what they might consider hypocrisy or insincerity. But, sometimes, the line between religious belief and mass culture is too blurry to discern. My only point is, before making too many conclusions about religious life in China, one should expel a little energy to pull the plank out of our collective eye. And, considering the present prosperity in the context of the last century, I can see how some of the more pragmatic are satisfied to simply have faith in China.

In conclusion, what I have encountered so far in “public-life China” treats religion more like a set of traditions to be celebrated as a matter of national pride (like in Hangzhou) rather than as organized institutions or doctrines. That being said, spirituality does exist and the religions exist as well, but the practice is largely private. Because of my limited exposure, I especially welcome any further comment from my readers to help explain this complicated and perhaps controversial issue. As always, I mean to do no one harm by offering these observations, and only wish to get people talking.

One final thought.... The relationship between ethics and organized faith is often a close one for Americans. I think it is a shade different here. Because many Eastern religions are designed as spiritual pathways, rather than monotheistic beliefs with absolute doctrines, the line between philosophy and faith is even harder to draw. Perhaps in the future I will explore ethics in a blog entry, but I am still such a neophyte when it comes to China that I am not yet prepared. Any suggestions?


Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying your blog. It is very insightful. You are giving a very open minded view of religion. Your pictures are beautiful.
Donna K, SS SAC SAD #17

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