27. Pilgrimages

Pilgrimages to sacred sites to celebrate a particular deity, have played an important role in Chinese religion, documented from early ascents to sacred mountains to late medieval worship of the Perfect Warrior on Mount Wudang. After a hiatus during the Cultural Revolution, they have come to the fore again, to the point where in Beijing alone there are about eighty associations dedicated to celebrating the Daoist Goddess of the Morning Clouds during her two-week festival in late May at her sanctuary on Miaofeng shan 妙峰山, a medium-level peak about 40 miles west of the city.

Pilgrimage associations are non-profit organizations, encouraged and supervised by government officials, but essentially independent. They decide who gets to ascend the mountain and how they have to behave, what qualifications and requirements each has to meet. In all cases, the associations center on piety and charity. They come in two major forms, martial and civilian. While the former focus on physical performances, demonstrating their skills as lion dancers, sword fighters, stilt walkers, taiji boxers, acrobats, and more, the latter work hard to make the pilgrims welcome by providing them with physical and moral sustenance as they climb the mountain.

Each group has about thirty to forty members; their founders often dedicated senior individuals, who either have a long family tradition of service or made a vow to give charity in this manner after the goddess helped them through a major crisis. Both apply to Ni Zhenshan, founder of the Whole Heart Philanthropic Salvation Tea Association, which runs a small shrine on the ascent to the sanctuary and there provides pilgrims with good-quality tea and steamed buns. Chen Deqing, the founder of the Deqing Fresh Flower Association, began her activities in the 1980s, when, already in her fifties, she rode her pedal-powered trishaw to the mountain to honor the goddess with flowers. Today, with the support of family members and followers, she spends thousands of dollars on flowers while hosting her own shrine on the mountain and becoming a quasi-priestess for the festival’s duration.

The pilgrimage to Miaofeng shan, as others around the country, has grown substantially over the years, and even the younger generation is increasingly participating. Thus, Ni Jintang, the younger son of the patriarch, eagerly stepped into a leadership role upon his father’s passing, vigorously organizing the chaos of the first night, conscientiously recording the members’ names, and generously offering donation opportunities to like-minded businessmen. Martial practitioners, too, engage more and more young people, who learn the arts of performance from their parents and grandparents while yet juggling busy lives in the city. Their repertoire may be smaller, their skills may not be as precisely honed, but the will is there, and the tradition continues.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AnmYw3XTaWI

Read: Johnson, Ian. 2017. The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao. New York: Pantheon Books.

Lagerwey, John. 1992. “The Pilgrimage to Wu-tang Shan.” In Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China, edited by Susan Naquin and Chün-fang Yü, 293-332. Berkeley: University of California Press.



26. Fairs and Festivals

While Daoist principles can make a contribution to innovative thinking, it has a hands-on impact on the economy in the area of consumption. Notably temple fairs and festivals in particular offer great opportunities for people to engage in buying and selling, advance marketing and advertising.

Most inner city temples have regular fairs. For example, the Baxian an 八仙庵 (Eight Immortals’ Hermitage) in the eastern part of downtown Xi’an holds its fair twice weekly, on Wednesdays and Sundays. A cross between a farmers’ market and a flea market, it sees vendors of all kinds and status spread throughout the neighborhood, especially to the south and east of the temple, while crowds throng the streets.

Offerings include fresh fruit and vegetables, clothes, household goods, pottery, knickknacks, religious paraphernalia, and antiques. Some vendors set up on organized stalls on the roadside; others just spread a cloth to display their wares in squares and courtyards. In addition, shoppers can enjoy street food and snacks of all sorts and types, on-the-spot foot massages, and fortune-telling. The atmosphere is cheerful and vibrant, and a good time is had by all.

Festivals are fairs on steroids. They only occur once or twice a year, usually in conjunction with a major deity’s birthday or at special seasonal occasions such as New Year’s, but then they last several days or even a week. In addition to much larger numbers of vendors, coming from farther away and spreading more widely throughout the area, they come with elaborate rituals and performances of various kinds. Traditionally theater was always closely connected to religion, and many temples have stages for operatic and other presentations, dedicated primarily to the gods but also for humans to enjoy. In addition, festivals often feature daring acrobatics, magic shows, exploding fireworks, cacophonic music, lion dances, rhythmic drumming, as well as all different kinds of street performers and entertainers.

Beyond that, the local temple association will take the birthday god for a tour of the neighborhood, creating a noisy and colorful parade that may involve motorized vehicles, hand-drawn carts, people on foot, musical bands, and various special performers. Two distinct groups of local lay devotees usually accompany the deities on foot, wearing a common uniform that usual consists of T-shirts and ball caps bearing the name of the temple. One group usually has somewhat rough looking young men; the other—in sharp contrast—has merry older folks, both men and women. The former group can loosely be defined as temple parade security; the latter comprises the faithful who believe they gather divine favor by accompanying the parades.

All this creates great economic opportunity, businesses fulfilling the needs of participants—costumes, props, accommodation, food—as well as engaging with large crowds of onlookers, who often come from far away, engaging in an increasingly popular mix of tourism and pilgrimage.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyWQJPU_3-c


Read: Kennedy, Brian L, and Elizabeth Kuo. 2009. “Taiwanese Temple Parades and Their Martial Motifs.” Journal of Daoist Studies 2:197-209.


25. Innovation and Consumption

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot

As the Chinese economy moves away from manufacturing and export, it is bound to slow, leading to predicted growth rates of 3-4 percent. If it is to keep up even this much momentum, it will need to shift toward new forms of commerce and business, toward technological innovation and creative solutions, as well as toward a massive increase in consumer spending.

Both are fraught with certain difficulties. While there is bound to be an increase in consumer spending as the next hundreds of millions of people move up into the middle, their incomes expected to rise by 15-20 percent annually, the Chinese traditionally have tended to be frugal and personal savings rates are high, 30 percent of income for those with full employment, up to 50 percent among migrant workers.

In today’s China, this is mainly due to the lack of a reliable social network. It has no unemployment insurance, no pension scheme, no social security, no senior care, no assisted living, no hospice, and no fully reliably health care system. NGOs, which take care of many of these aspects in Western countries, and especially the U. S., are minimal and have to work semi-underground, since the government officially prohibits them in its drive toward total control. In other words, people use their disposable income to keep themselves save rather than increasing consumption.

Innovation, too, suffers from government control, especially internet and media censorship, hindering key axioms of science, such as skepticism, freedom of inquiry, respect for evidence, the equality of inquiring minds, and the universality of truth. Masking this, the state heavily invests in research, spending close to $50 billion annually, which is a lot in absolute terms but only about 2 percent of GDP, compared with 3.5 percent in Japan and 4.3 percent in South Korea.

The state directs where the investment goes, focusing mainly on large-scale engineering projects, such as transgenic crops, nuclear power, and lunar exploration. It tends to encourage quick successes and short-term gains that can show the Party in a positive light rather than long-term basic development. Being part of the government, moreover, this research suffers from bureaucratic oversight and a low work quality as well as from ubiquitous corruption. Some estimates suggest that as much as half of all allotted funds end up in private hands and do not actually support intended projects.

Private companies, in contrast, are more efficient and much more effective, leading to powerful instances of innovation. One area is environmentally friendly construction, first models of which appeared in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake: using cheaper and more renewable materials, they produced easily assembled houses, well insulated, with built-in solar cells and power-saving devices.

Public transportation is another sore point for many Chinese. Thus, a company in Guangdong pioneered a fully self-driving streetcar system that runs on batteries fed by the friction of the rails, which themselves are not built into the tarmac but easily screwed on top.

Since going outside is becoming more of a hardship, given traffic density and pollution, many consumers are increasingly shopping online. In China the also extends to groceries, a feature that never took off in the West and requires a whole new set of programming. In addition, they are now working on cell phone apps that track the provenance of each food item to its source to providing assurance about food safety. Another side effect is that delivery drivers and motor cycle riders are now among the best-paid low-skilled workers in the country.

Other internet companies with strong innovative power include Ali-baba, the Chinese answer to Amazon, who developed an entirely new way of online payment processing that keeps customers free from the clutches of state-owned banks and avoids credit cards, which the debt-shy Chinese tend to eschew; Xiaomi, a smartphone giant ironically called “Little Rice,” who comes out with new ideas and app improvements every week, testing them live through immediate customer feedback, and thus creating systems that people really want; and Tencent, the largest online gaming company in the world that also focuses on instant messaging, e-commerce, web browsers, and antivirus protection, and has been praised as the most innovative company on the planet.

Others include Apricot Forest with apps that help navigate the health care system; Baidu, the Chinese answer to Google, with increasingly efficient search engines, maps, and social media apps; Wanda, a real estate giant that also invests in public buildings like theaters, favoring unconventional forms of architecture; as well as a number of delivery companies that make online shopping more efficient.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLZNvCDgfUA


Read: Shirky, Clay. 2015. Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream. New York: Columbia Global Reports.

Tse, Edward. 2015. Chinas Disruptors: How Alibaba, Xiaomi, Tencent, and Other Companies Are Changing the Rules of Business. London: Portfolio Penguin.

24. Temple Growth

The shift in population dynamics has made communities more vulnerable, loosening or dissolving traditional ties and shifting focus away from the extended family. As a result, many Chinese actively seek new forms of community, often turning to sports groups or clubs, but increasingly also discovering or recovering religious organizations as a way to create social stability and support.

In this context, Daoist temples are becoming active community builders. Numerous in the old days, dotted across villages, towns, and mountains, with colorful frescoes, imposing statues, ornate furnishings, and gorgeous gardens, they were massively decimated after 1949 and completely eviscerated during the Cultural Revolution. Torturing leading monks as “rich land owners,” as Liao Yiwu describes in his interview with the 103-year-old Buddhist abbot Deng Kuan, Red Guards would destroy paraphernalia and smash up statues, whitewash walls and spray-paint slogans, then turn the place over to the locals. Many temples were completely razed, their building materials used by the peasants. The majority were reassigned, becoming military depots, kindergartens, or housing projects, their lands taken over by towns and local people, while monks and nuns practiced in secrecy. Leaving the area or dying, few survivors remained, and some places have lost all memory of a temple’s presence. For example, the Daoist sanctuary to Bixia yuanjun in Caishan蔡山near Xuzhou was discovered only after heavy rains in 2012 caused the roof to cave and plaster mud to wash away, uncovering murals that had been concealed for decades.

Most temples’ locations are known and, beginning in the mid-1980s, many have been rebuilt—leading to a three-fold increase in numbers over the last two decades. The process took many years of patient plodding, always respecting the population, honoring lay donors, cooperating with the authorities, and working very, very hard. As Adeline Herrou (2013) says about the Wengongci in Hanzhong, Shaanxi, when the first three monks returned, “the compound looked less like a temple than like an accumulation of houses without proper wall or context, singularly lacking in splendor” and partially occupied by lay families. However, the monks made it into a holy place through their vision: “They accurately described what had been there in the past and fervently outlined what they had planned for the future.” This future, moreover, is not a mere replica of the past. Daoists rebuild differently, not only because the earlier forms are irretrievably lost, but also because they wish to transform and adapt the religion to the new century.

In this process, Daoist temples often become a pivot in community building. As Adeline Herrou shows in her amazing video, “Master Feng: Portrait of a Daoist Monk, Rebuilder of Temples in China Today,” Master Feng first returned to and restored his home temple, then assisted in the relocation and revitalization of a nearby city temple, and afterwards turned his attention on largely ruined sanctuary in a remote village in the mountains of southern Shaanxi. The village, a single dirt road with a cluster of run-down houses, was too remote for people to find work, leaving behind only children and the elderly. Utterly dispirited, they had largely given up hope and were just vegetating along.

When Master Feng arrived with his crew of builders and craftsmen, supported by state funds and city donors, they took notice. For the first time in years, someone looked at them as if they mattered. Their spirits rose and, as the temple started to look better, they began to renovate their houses. When it offered the first services to newly installed deities, they applied for government grants and paved the main road, constructed a community center, and began to take pride in their home.

As the temple grew, moreover, tourists started to arrive, looking for peace and quiet as well as clean air and open nature. This opened a whole new level of economic opportunity, houses offering B & B stays, local shops stacking more goods, and vendors selling religious paraphernalia. Adults could now make a living, and some of the migrant workers returned. The Daoist temple, in other words, not only rebuilt religious structures but gave the community a new lease on life, transforming it in the process.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yv4LZZOpjOE

Read: Wei, Yanli. 2017. “The Caishan Goddess Temple: Then and Now.” Journal of Daoist Studies 10:196-210.

Liao, Yiwu. 2009. The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up. New York: Anchor, 73-92.

Herrou, Adeline. 2013. A World of Their Own: Monastics and Their Community in Contemporary China. St. Petersburg, Fla: Three Pines Press.