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.


23. Population Dynamics

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot

China today is the world’s most populous country, with a population of 1.3 billion that, although with a median age of 37 years, is rapidly aging, reaching doing in a mere ten years what took other countries half a century. Retirees over 65 numbered 100 million in 2005; there will be 330 million of them by 2050. Combined with a continuing low birth rate, this means that by then 44 percent of the population will not be working, placing a great burden of financial and social support on remaining workers and the state.

China was well on the way to lower birth rates and the two-child family in the 1950s, before Mao Zedong decreed that the country’s true wealth lay in its people and ordered everyone to multiply as much as possible. This trend contributed to the overarching poverty encompassing the country and would have slowed quite naturally once the edict was rescinded and economic progress set in.

However, the Party, never content to leave well enough alone, in blatant opposition to the good old Daoist wisdom of nonaction, in 1980 instituted the one child policy, imposing heavy fines on anyone daring to have a second or even third child. Local governments having to fulfill quotas of child birth took to harassing anyone resisting, from trashing their homes through taking their valuables to forcing women into (even late-term) abortions and involuntary sterilization.

Although rescinded now in favor a two-child model, the price has been high, especially since most of the population, still living in the countryside and following traditional forms of ancestor worship—however outlawed—saw a male heir as absolutely essential and either killed or abandoned females. Many Western families came to adopt a Chinese baby girl, often from legitimate orphanages but on occasion also the product of human trafficking. Selling a girl abroad, after all, made it possible to pay the fine for the next try for a boy.

Population-wise, the policy has left China with a screwed gender ratio: while the normal rate is 103-108 males per every 100 females, in China it is as high as 118-120 in the countryside and about 110-112 in the cities. Not only creating a potential political powder keg, this has also made it difficult for men to find marriage partners, who often require not only a steady job but also home ownership and other assets before consenting to even date. These are increasingly hard to come by as the Chinese education system is failing: unending memorization no longer cuts it in the rapidly shifting economy. Even college graduates, of whom there are more than ever before, often cannot find jobs. Having grown up in times of rising prosperity, they tend to have a sense of entitlement, wanting a cushy position with little effort and lots of money. Employers, on the other hand, are looking for people with real skills and creative thinking.

Another major factor in the population dynamics is the household registration (hukou) system, which firmly places each family in one particular location. While it is possible to travel to other places, anything requiring official involvement has to be done in one’s hometown: health care, housing permit, driver’s license, children’s education, to name but a few. As a result, huge numbers of people have become migrant workers, living unregistered and without benefits in slums on the fringes of the big cities, making minimal wage and only seeing their families once or twice a year.

Some are well-educated but, as Liao Yiwu shows in the case of the village teacher Huang Zhiyuan, cannot make ends meet in their home town and move into the city. Unable to find legal employment, Huang was forced to do hard labor and eventually ended up driving a flatbed tricycle. Even then, he was constantly on the run from police and on occasion faced imprisonment and had his vehicle impounded. Children suffer the most. If they join their migrant parents, they have no schools to attend and grow up illiterate and unskilled, becoming part of a potentially explosive underclass that digs China deeper into the middle income trap.

The government is set to alleviate this situation and has indicated easements in the registration system. It is also intent on urbanizing 300 million more people, moving them into newly build high-rises on the outskirts of smaller cities. However, the people are not all that keen on these artificial monstrosities, especially where there are no jobs, leaving projects to turn into ghost cities—another huge expenditure with no return grown by crony capitalism.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNKQT7Ub2Ps



Read: Fong, Mei. 2016. One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Shepard, Wade. 2015. Ghost Cities of China. London: Zed Books.

Schmitz, Rob. 2016. Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams along a Shanghai Road. New York: Crown Publishers, 134-40.

Liao, Yiwu. 2009. The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up. New York: Anchor, 160-72.

22. City Temples

Daoist and other popular temples are part of the positive dynamic of the Chinese economy. Situated centrally in major cities, they are often the focus of commerce and the site of fairs and markets, plus they offer an opportunity to pray for protection and prosperity.

A prime example is the temple of the City God of Shanghai, smack in the middle of a vibrant tourism and shopping district called Yuyuan 豫园 (Pleasure Garden) after a beautiful Qing-dynasty garden, complete with ponds, bridges, pavilions, and rock formations. Pedestrian walkways meander among reconstructed traditional-style buildings housing all sorts of shops, from Starbucks through fashion accessories to souvenirs. Numerous stalls and vendors provide a mouth-watering selection of Shanghai street food, including cookies, buns, dumplings, and more.

The temple itself centers around a large open courtyard, where an incense burner smolders with numerous incense sticks. Various side halls, equipped with benches for kneeling and boxes for money offerings, worship a slew of Daoist and popular deities, while the main hall is dedicated to Qin Yubo秦羽博(1295–1373), a local official under the Yuan dynasty and a distant relative of the late China scholar Julia Ching. Having done much to improve the plight of citizens during his lifetime, after his death his spiritual energy was considered too potent to be limited to just his own family as an ordinary ancestor. Accommodating petitions by the local elite, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, appointed him as city god of Shanghai. Believed to have greatly aided the city during times of crisis, notably in the 19th and 20th century under colonial rule and foreign occupation, by appearing to leading citizens in dreams and dispensing advice, he remained popular even after the founding of the People’s Republic.

As China’s economy expanded in the 19th century, the temple grew increasingly popular, offering an opportunity to express thanks and pray for good fortune. Growing to include various side halls and niches of worship to other deities, the temple also housed regular fairs and became the center of a popular market with numerous local businesses setting up shop. In 1951, it was subsumed under the Shanghai Daoist Association and made into a Daoist center. As a result, statues representing folk and Buddhist figures were removed and more Daoist deities installed. Closed during the Cultural Revolution used for other purposes, it reopened in 1994 and was renovated in 2005-06.

Today, as much as other city temples, it is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. It also contains a significant shrine to the God of Wealth, Guan Yu, originally a general during the Three Kingdoms, and offers the opportunity to pray for interference to the god of one’s year of birth, one among twelve supernatural administrators arranged according to the Chinese zodiac serving in of the Department of Destiny. In times of growing economic dynamic as well as insecurity, it provides succor and spiritual support, the opportunity to pray for wealth, success, and personal good fortune.

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

Read: Kohn, Livia. 1997. “The Taoist Adoption of the City God.” Ming Qing Yanjiu 5 (1997), 68-106.