Idols Amid High-Rises: The Changing Face of Chinese Folk Beliefs
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2017-09-01 03:33:40

Historically, religion was an integral part of Chinese life. Across the nation’s cities and countryside spread an archipelago of temples large and small. On temple holidays, some organized processions, parading idols of local deities through the streets. These processions were accompanied by music, stilt walkers, and dances honoring dragons or lions.

For a broadly agricultural society bereft of entertainment options, people often spent the whole year anticipating the processions. They weren’t always fun and games, however. If a procession from one temple crossed into the territory of another, villagers of the latter often saw it as an invasion, which could result in bloodshed.

These days, after 70 years of atheistic education and modernization, religion is no longer a vital part of most Chinese people’s lives. Many demolished or repurposed temples have yet to be restored. Idol processions, which depend on specialized knowledge, money, and labor, are now in serious decline. In many parts of China, local residents who still remember the traditional processions’ rituals are dying off; younger villagers have all left their hometowns in search of work; and temples are losing “incense fees,” the donations from local communities that go toward organizing processions. Taken together, these factors threaten the existence of a tradition that has lasted for hundreds of years.

Fortunately, along the coastal areas of southeastern China, a few temples are hanging on and continue to organize idol processions. There’s a reason why locals are so attached to their temple traditions: In imperial China, officials held weaker power over areas far from the capital and had to give autonomy to local clans as a means of maintaining order. Temples were not only the clans’ religious centers; they also transcended blood ties by binding different clans together through shared temple worship. Additionally, the high status accorded to religion in grassroots communities meant that temples could also serve more secular purposes as assembly halls or theaters.

A procession carrying an idol walks through a residential area in Fuzhou, Fujian province, Feb. 15, 2017. Courtesy of Zhang Jizhou

A procession carrying an idol walks through a residential area in Fuzhou, Fujian province, Feb. 15, 2017. Courtesy of Zhang Jizhou

Processions symbolized a personal visit from the local deity, who would then bless every corner of the temple’s domain. From a secular perspective, a procession was a display of a given community’s great human and financial resources. The more people involved, the more magnificent the procession, and the more admiration it would inspire.

While religious adherents in southeastern China were able to maintain their fragile traditions in the face of modernity’s initial assault, they now face an even more relentless and implacable foe: demolition. As China undergoes a period of rapid urbanization, communities nationwide — including the lands of old neighborhoods and ancient villages — are being commandeered by local governments, their residents relocated, and their buildings demolished and built anew. Although demolished temples are supposed to be rebuilt in another location, they are sometimes moved far from their previous communities, making it hard for members of the former congregation to visit.

As urbanization transforms local communities, idol processions must adapt to the new reality. Traditionally, communities were composed of single-story houses enclosed within courtyards. Believers would place offerings at their courtyard gates, and the idol would be paraded past as it wound its way through the alleys. Now, with many former residents living in towering apartment buildings and many alleys lying abandoned, procession routes are much shorter than before. This has robbed processions of much of their original color and grandeur.

Those hoping to preserve the tradition aren’t entirely without options, however. In the eastern city of Fuzhou, believers now place their offerings in the open space between apartment complexes and gather together there to worship. Even more remarkable is a practice found in the southern city of Haikou, on the island of Hainan, where adherents ride elevators up and down high-rises with their idols in order to reach every believer’s family.

Left and right: Residents parade idols by elevator inside a high-rise building in Haikou, Hainan province, Feb. 13, 2017. Courtesy of Zheng Xiangpeng

Left and right: Residents parade idols by elevator inside a high-rise building in Haikou, Hainan province, Feb. 13, 2017. Courtesy of Zheng Xiangpeng

Although these methods may seem like successful adaptations to the challenges of modernity, not everyone enjoys the idol processions. First, many atheist and Christian residents reject the practice, refusing to identify with such traditional expressions of faith. In the past, the whole community was under the local deity’s domain, and residents usually shared the same faith, meaning such religious conflicts were rare.

Second, urbanization has redrawn some temples’ original territorial boundaries, meaning that they are now not only home to adherents of that particular temple’s denomination, but also to many people from other areas. Locals and nonlocals alike now live side by side in the same residential compounds; the latter often have no attachment to the community temple and are unwilling to give donations. These mixed residential areas are actively avoided and left off idol procession routes, meaning the procession can no longer visit every street in the temple’s area of influence.

Finally, the festivities surrounding the procession are a magnet for noise complaints, including from residents who hail from the temple district itself. Traditional idol processions are noisy affairs and frequently include fireworks and loud music. Many processions last all night, inconveniencing those who work the next morning. In urban areas, processions occupy roads and leave discarded firework wrappers and other debris in their wake, causing traffic problems and necessitating large-scale municipal cleanups.

Idol processions can be spectacular affairs, yet many urbanites are indifferent to the charms of such events.

Idol processions can be spectacular affairs. Participants carry beautifully embroidered flags, and the idols are seated in delicately carved palanquins. The accompanying performances, musical or otherwise, are of a traditional ilk rarely seen in today’s China.

Yet many urbanites are indifferent to the charms of such events, with some actively opposed to their continuation. Even many procession organizers take a lax attitude to their work. It’s difficult for such events to attract younger participants, who have often received a modern education and grown up away from the land that gave birth to these traditions. As a result, they lack a deep appreciation for them and are often deterred from participating by the vociferousness of the opposition.

Traditionally, carrying the idol was a great honor for believers, something that could earn them blessings from the deity. Today, however, many temples can’t find enough young people for the task and instead have to pay people to do it. In the absence of any action, it is only a matter of time before they disappear forever, like a host of other folk traditions. And if such rituals are not preserved, traditional folk religions will fade away alongside them.

China’s high-rise apartments and urbanized communities are here to stay. To improve the image of idol processions and convince younger generations to get involved in their preservation and development, we must start by reforming the temples themselves.

Older temple leaders often overlook the fact that ancient traditions can be preserved through modern means. Nowadays, young Chinese are growing up amid a renaissance of traditional Chinese culture, and many are concerned with their own cultural heritage or feel a need for spiritual fulfillment.

Temples must be willing to adapt to young people’s ideas — perhaps by reaching out to media and research organizations or using WeMedia to explain the meaning underlying idol processions. At the same time, they should discard some less important customs, such as setting off fireworks in the middle of the night, to reduce disturbances to nearby residents. Such moves won’t solve every problem plaguing those who want to preserve China’s ancient traditions, but they’re a step in the right direction.

Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A parading procession walks past a local university in Fuzhou, Fujian province, Feb. 26, 2016. Courtesy of Zhang Jizhou)