The Hungry Ghost Festival — a traditional holiday observed in China and throughout Asia — fell on Aug. 25 this year. Had any famished spirits happened past Shanghai’s Suzhou Creek, they would have found plenty of seafood on offer. For days after the celebration, the creek’s waters were choked with rotting fish. But this time, the issue wasn’t pollution — water quality in the creek has improved markedly in recent years — but local Buddhists. In honor of the holiday, dozens of observant Buddhists had converged on the creek to perform a rite known as fangsheng, or “life release.”
Fangsheng refers to the practice of saving animals from captivity — thereby sparing them the suffering of slaughter — and releasing them into the wild. While the number of fangsheng practitioners typically spikes on and around religious holidays, there are also those who perform it weekly. Adherents see it as a way to improve their karma by both promoting equality between living things and performing an act of mercy.
On the morning of this year’s Hungry Ghost Festival, there were two large trucks laden with fish parked below an underpass not far from the creek. For much of the day, the trucks had a steady stream of business, as fangsheng practitioners — mostly older women — stopped by to purchase fish to release.
Some bought the tiny fish on sale by the hundreds, filling entire buckets with their “catch.” Once they had paid, they lugged their acquisitions over to the creek, recited a few lines of Buddhist scripture, and released the fish — which had spent their whole lives up to that point in fish farms — out into the wild.
Although motivated by the best of intentions, fangsheng has proved a magnet for controversy in recent years, especially as it has become increasingly commercialized. Some critics now argue that those who perform fangsheng are actually accomplishing the opposite of what they set out to do, with more and more animals being captured and raised in cruel conditions in order to feed the industry’s growing appetite for life.
‘Fangsheng’ practitioners release fish bought from a local market (left), the fish were later caught by other residents (right) in Yuncheng, Shanxi province, March 16, 2017. Yang Jinglong/VCG
And release is no guarantee of freedom. Most of the animals let go as part of fangsheng rituals were bred in captivity — and thus cannot survive in the wild. Unfortunately, the majority of fangsheng practitioners don’t seem to pay much attention to the fate of their offerings once they are set free. In 2016, fangsheng enthusiasts in the eastern city of Qingdao released thousands of captive sparrows into the wild. Used to being fed by humans, many quickly died of starvation. Others have let robins native to southern China loose in the north, where they soon freeze to death.
Just as concerning, some fangsheng practitioners have released potentially dangerous predators into densely populated urban or semi-urban environments. In 2017, residents of the southern city of Guangzhou let a knot of snakes that altogether weighed about 75 kilograms loose in one of the city’s rivers. The reptiles quickly slithered up onto the riverbank, where they terrorized passers-by. It could have been worse: The snakes could have been poisonous. Two years ago in Xiamen, a city located on the country’s eastern coastline, a man died after being bitten by the snake he planned to release into the wild.
Even when humans aren’t being put in any immediate danger, fangsheng rituals can harm the environment. There have been a number of reports across China in recent years of sensitive ecosystems suffering from the release of invasive species, including red-eared slider turtles, alligator snapping turtles, and suckermouth catfish, all of which pose a threat to local wildlife. The Yangtze River is an example of an environment that has been particularly hard hit.
The classic Taoist text “Liezi” contains a parable about the practice of fangsheng. It tells the tale of a particular New Year’s celebration in the city of Handan — in what is now northern China — roughly 2,500 years ago. In honor of the holiday, Handan residents gifted Jian, a prominent minister, with turtledoves. Pleased with the present, Jian rewarded the givers handsomely and released the turtledoves back into the wild as an act of kindness.
But one of Jian’s guests took issue with the host’s benevolent deed. He pointed out that, since everyone now knew they could be rewarded for giving turtledoves, people would soon start racing to catch as many of the birds as they could. He argued that if Jian truly cared for the turtledoves, then the merciful thing to do would be to ban people from hunting them. Otherwise, the guest said, “The kindness you do in releasing the birds from captivity will not compensate for the cruelty committed in catching them.”
Over 2,000 years later, we’re still having the same debate. Today, fangsheng practitioners frequently order magpies — seen as a symbol of good fortune in China — from bird traders in order to release them. To procure the birds, sellers turn to hunters. It’s a vicious cycle.
Many of the freed animals are re-caught soon afterward. In one well-known instance, a fangsheng practitioner bought and released dozens of captive-bred sika deer into the Inner Mongolian wilds, apparently not realizing that the deer would attract the attention of local hunters. Likewise, many of the fish that were released into Suzhou Creek in Shanghai were quickly caught by opportunistic fishers who had set up just downstream. Hsing Yun, a prominent Buddhist monk based in Taiwan, once likened this kind of fangsheng to fangsi — releasing animals to die.
This is not to dismiss the importance of fangsheng or to call for an end to it. Indeed, we should applaud practitioners for their efforts to save animals. But there is a better way to go about doing so.
Part of the problem is that many fangsheng adherents are unaware of the broader issues that stem from the ritual. Government and religious leaders should take steps to educate people about these issues and encourage them to steer their energies in a more positive direction.
Since Chinese participate in fangsheng rites to do good and improve their karma, we should leverage their altruistic intent to interest them in a wider range of environmental causes. Some monks have already started to do so, calling on their followers to broaden their horizons and take a more modern, holistic approach to fangsheng. Instead of focusing on releasing animals from captivity, they say, practitioners could advocate for habitat protection and wildlife preservation. Yin Neng, a Chinese Buddhist monk, has called on Buddhists to practice fangsheng by planting trees on the fringes of deserts. In Yin’s view, halting desertification is a more environmentally conscious means of accomplishing what the true aim of fangsheng is supposed to be: protecting animals.
In 2016, the Chinese government issued a new set of rules aimed at regulating fangsheng rituals. Given repeated reports of well-meaning practitioners releasing invasive or dangerous species into the wild, it was probably a necessary step. Yet in the long term, an outright ban is not the answer. Perhaps, instead of trapping animals in an endless cycle of catch and release, we should try giving them — and ourselves — a better world in which to live.
Translator: Katherine Tse, editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: ‘Fangsheng’ practitioners release fish bought from a local market into the water in Jinan, Shandong province, Feb. 22, 2016. VCG)