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    Why China’s Coast Still Dances With the Gods

    The country’s southeastern coastline is home to a surprisingly robust and well preserved sense of ritual. Bringing that spirit back to the rest of the country may be harder than it looks.
    Mar 14, 2024#tradition

    During this year’s Spring Festival, the traditional youshen, or “wandering god,” festivities held by villages across Fujian became a surprise hit on Chinese social media. In particular, the raucous celebrations thrown by residents of Houfu, a small town just outside the provincial capital of Fuzhou, attracted crowds of enthusiastic tourists and millions of views online.

    Traditional religious festivities are rare in Han-majority areas of the Chinese mainland today. Perhaps that’s what made the sight of hundreds of effigies parading through the fields and villages of China’s southeastern coast, strutting to the rhythms of loud music, so appealing. The entire procession is one long party: At each stop along the way, locals set out long banquet tables with food and drink as offerings to the gods and light firecrackers in celebration.

    These effigies are a special type of idol unique to the Fujian coastline. Most are meant to represent divine generals, who in turn act as subordinates to the main deity in the parade. Known as takgok in the local dialect — literally “bamboo bones” — they feature a large wooden head, a body made from bamboo strips, and are dressed in clothes, a scarf, and a hat. After an “eye-opening ceremony” is held, a bag of incense sticks is added and the takgok is considered consecrated.

    Almost every village in eastern Fujian produces takgok as ritual offerings, though the area around Houfu, which is home to 300 to 400 such effigies, is particularly devout. But that begs the question: Why has this small, intensely local custom in eastern Fujian bucked the nationwide decline of traditional folk culture to arguably become more popular than ever?

    To start, youshen have a deep cultural importance in this part of China. In eastern Fujian, youshen parades cement the boundaries of “ritual territories,” a traditional unit of community in the region. During imperial times, state power in China was weak in the countryside. In Fujian, the void was mainly filled by religious and clan organizations, with ritual territories functioning as autonomous communities. The physical center of these territories was the village temple, where decisions, deliberations, judgments, and other affairs were handled.

    These ritual territories are closely connected with local clan networks, which play an important role in village governance in Fujian, even today. A ritual territory is often governed by a council of elders from one or more clans; large-scale annual events such as youshen parades act as a way to boost cohesion and unite the community.

    This connection to a living, breathing form of community governance makes youshen-style customs hard to replicate elsewhere. As the parades have grown in popularity over the past few years, other regions have attempted to jump on the bandwagon, with limited success. This year, one tourist attraction in the far-off southwestern province of Sichuan attempted to launch its own youshen event, only for it to be widely ridiculed online as a pale imitation.

    Crucially, youshen in eastern Fujian also have a stable source of local financial support. Hosting a parade can cost upward of 1 million yuan ($139,000), but the role of youshen in community life means that people are willing to give money regardless of the cost in the belief that the more they donate, the more pious and prosperous they will appear in the eyes of their neighbors. Even the region’s many emigrants remain involved: More than 200 Houfu natives returned to the village from overseas to take part in this year’s festivities.

    The other secret to the continued popularity of youshen lies in locals’ willingness to modernize the tradition. Takgok have existed in eastern Fujian for centuries, with photographic evidence dating to the 19th century. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), the practice spread from eastern Fujian across the strait to neighboring Taiwan, where it has since evolved into a kind of performance known as “Electric-Techno Neon Gods” — a unique mix of modern music and traditional ritual. Practices in Taiwan have in turn provided inspiration for the youshen activities in Fujian, modernizing the imagery of takgok as well as the performances.

    Takgok were originally given sinister faces to help them better ward off evil from the community. These idols remain common in the city of Fuqing, not far from Houfu, but elsewhere residents have been eager to create new images, from heroic generals to cute children and even anime-inspired figures. For example, Zhao Shizi, the viral star of this year’s youshen parades, was based on the main character from the Chinese animated film “The Island of Siliang.” While some critics have complained about these nontraditional practices, they have helped keep young Fujianese engaged in the festivities.

    Indeed, compared to older generations who grew up during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ’70s, people born between 1980 and 2000 are generally more enthusiastic about traditional culture and more interested in carrying on old customs.

    Translator: David Ball; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

    (Header image: “Youshen” in Tantou Town, Jan. 31, 2023. Lü Ming/CNS/VCG)