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2022-02-15 10:51:45 Voices

In the lead-up to China’s Spring Festival holiday, I received an unusual gift from Zheng Wuyi, a Taoist priest in the eastern city of Qingtian. Encased in a bright red tube inscribed with the traditional blessing “happiness and good fortune” was a set of chunlian, or Spring Festival couplets, a pair of menshen, or “door-gods,” and a novelty sticker.

So far, so ordinary. Indeed, at first glance, there was nothing remarkable about the door-gods — images of deities that Chinese have hung on their doors for centuries, hoping to protect their families from misfortune. The menshen Zheng selected for me were of two of the more commonly used deities, the Tang Dynasty (618-906) generals Qin Qiong and Yuchi Gong, dressed in military garb and holding jade hatchets. To believers, these portraits are talismans, and their annual replacement is an important ritual marking the start of a new year. In some families, the head of household even takes the old door-god portraits to be burned at a temple, as a way of expressing gratitude for the protection they provided over the course of the previous 12 months.

The door-god set produced by Zheng Wuyi. Courtesy of the author

The door-god set produced by Zheng Wuyi. Courtesy of the author

It was only because I knew Zheng — and was familiar with her attention to detail — that I could tell something was different about this set. A Taoist evangelist of sorts, she has devoted years to the popularization of traditional Taoist rituals. Every year, during the Xiayuan Festival, a traditional Taoist festival that takes place on the 15th day of the 10th lunar month, Zheng prepares the next year’s menshen by carrying out a consecration ceremony known as kaiguang. Unlike the typical kaiguang ceremonies conducted by large temples, during which Taoist priests might consecrate piles of menshen at a time, Zheng consecrates her menshen individually, marking the figures’ foreheads with a red brushstroke resembling a tick, symbolically bringing them to life. Over the next two months, between Xiayuan and the start of the Lunar New Year, Zheng passes her individually consecrated door gods out to believers who engage her for home-purification rituals; it’s her way of keeping the menshen tradition alive.

Zheng isn’t the only Taoist trying to breathe new life into China’s oldest religious tradition. The Chenghuang Temple in Shanghai, for example, also released a set of door-god portraits in 2016. That early effort wasn’t nearly as popular as another, later attempt at viral marketing, however. In 2019, the temple released a series of decorative stickers for smartphones representing the Tai Sui deities. As one of the temple’s priests, Li Daqian, explained to me, development on the stickers began in 2017. Li and his fellow priests saw them as a way to restore the popularity of protective Tai Sui talismans — and maybe even make them fashionable.

It worked. After Chenghuang Temple’s smartphone stickers took off, other Taoist temples in Shanghai followed suit with their own trendy Tai Sui talismans. To name just one example, blessing cards released by the Baiyun Temple come packaged with a special talisman dongle. Song Xiaolong, a priest at Baiyun Temple, explained to me that the faithful can attach the talisman to their smartphone, allowing them to carry it with them wherever they go, while the little card and its envelope can dispel evil in the home, provided it is displayed in a clean area.

A set of talismans released by the Baiyun Temple, Shanghai, Jan. 12, 2022. Courtesy of the author

A set of talismans released by the Baiyun Temple, Shanghai, Jan. 12, 2022. Courtesy of the author

Tai Sui, literally “Master of the Year,” is an ancient name for Jupiter, whose twelve-year rotation cycle served as the basis for the ancient “Earthly Branches and Heavenly Stems” dating system. According to this system, there are a total of sixty Taoist “Masters of the Years.” Everyone has their own deity based on their birth year, and Spring Festival marks the change from one deity’s year to the next. At the beginning of each new lunar year, people venerate the Tai Sui deities in the hopes that they will bring peace and prevent disasters. For those who were born in a year in conflict with the current year — known as fan taisui, or “offending the Master of the Year” — venerating the new deity is all the more important.

One Taoist priest I spoke with sees them as mass-produced sacrilege.

Because each Tai Sui deity has its own Taoist symbol, any talismans bearing these symbols, like menshen, must be changed from one year to the next. In addition to these symbols, the Tai Sui smartphone stickers produced by Chenghuang Temple also bear two other important components: a so-called decree and a seal commonly found in Taoist texts. This seal must be affixed to a document for it to have religious power. Above the seal sit three rising dots symbolizing the “three platforms” of six stars within the Big Dipper, as well as their corresponding deities: Fu (Fortune), Lu (Prosperity), and Shou (Longevity). The dots invoke these three deities, asking them to lend their strength to the decree.

One little Taoist talisman thus encapsulates a wealth of religious significance. But not everyone who slaps these stickers on their smartphone necessarily understands or cares about the mythology. Many treat the stickers as lucky charms rather than talismans to be venerated and respected.

Within the Taoist community, opinions on such commercialized Tai Sui talismans vary. One Taoist priest I spoke with sees them as mass-produced sacrilege. He may have a point, since according to tradition, Taoist priests must channel their energy and secret wisdom into talismans by writing them personally in order for them to have any power.

Still, it’s hard to deny that forms of Taoist cultural innovation like Tai Sui talismans have accomplished their goal of bringing the religion back into the public eye, in part by simply making it easier for less devout believers to carry visual symbols of their faith outside of temple grounds and into everyday life. In this sense, the stickers may be particularly well suited to China’s current landscape of faith. When a believer affixes a Tai Sui sticker to their phone, it acquires personal, private value: it becomes “their” deity, conferring good fortune upon them and them alone. That’s consistent with the increasingly individualistic mindset of religious believers in contemporary China.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: Shijue Select/People Visual)