Why Spiritualism is China’s Newest Celebrity Fad
The well-known author Zhou Weihui had been out of the public eye for some time before resurfacing with a viral internet video late last year. In the clip, Zhou, clad in a simple mauve gown, claims to have had her spiritual eyes opened, saying that she is now a dedicated practitioner of both Zen Buddhism and Systemic Family Constellations, a form of alternative therapy based on Zulu attitudes toward family.
The video was quick to catch the public’s attention, not least because Zhou’s image in it contrasted so sharply with how she had presented herself in the past. Back in 2000, Zhou made a name for herself as a talented author of so-called body writing, a form of erotic literature. Her graphic depictions of sex in her novels “My Zen” and “Shanghai Baby” made her an influential figure in literary circles. Almost two decades later, however, Zhou has reimagined herself as a spiritual mentor.
Zhou’s self-transformation was met with a collective sigh of exasperation from Chinese netizens. She is the latest in a long line of artistic young women who, having achieved a degree of success, dive into spiritualism once they hit middle age. Several in Zhou’s cohort, including Mian Mian and Li Jie (the latter better known by her pen name, “Baby Annie”), have been similarly taken with spiritual healing.
Authors are not the only ones practicing spirituality, either: Healing therapies are currently a craze among the social elite more generally. Company executives, entrepreneurs, and high-level managers are signing up in ever greater numbers to a wide range of spiritual classes and workshops. For some, like popstar Faye Wang, spiritual fulfillment comes via traditional Buddhist teachings; for others, it comes from altogether more exotic sources. Real estate power couple Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, for example, adhere to the Baha’í Faith, a religion that emerged in 19th-century Persia and emphasizes the spiritual unity of all humankind.
The definition of spiritualism in China is difficult to pin down. Traditional culture counts Tibetan Buddhism — a faith that preaches self-cultivation as a means of achieving enlightenment — as part of the canon of spiritual beliefs. Yoga and traditional breathing exercises also have their place in spiritual culture. However, in recent years, these practices have been joined by a number of new trends imported from abroad, many of which bear little relevance to traditional spiritualism.
Today, however, the pursuit of spiritual fulfillment is largely the preserve of China’s wealthier classes. In some cases, this phenomenon has proven to be fertile ground for scammers. In 2010, former Taoist priest Li Yi was revealed to have conned many of his followers — including celebrities — out of vast sums of money. As recently as October last year, followers of the teachings of Zhang Xiyue, the founder of spiritual guidance organization Create Abundance, reported the company to police amid accusations of extorting increasingly large donations from wealthy Chinese.
The questionable credentials of many spiritual leaders have left China’s celebrity-watchers wondering why so many among the social elite seemingly allow themselves to be swindled by unscrupulous con artists. On one level, financial success does not always equate to spiritual fulfillment, and many wealthy Chinese hope to focus more on enlightening their minds than on fattening their wallets.
On another level, however, spiritual elevation in China is commonly seen as having a direct effect on further material gain. The theory goes that cleansing the mind and purifying the soul allow shrewd businesspeople the clarity of thought required to make better financial decisions. The upshot is a win-win scenario in which the individual becomes exponentially richer — in spiritual terms as much as in financial terms.
As a result of this phenomenon, rich spiritual enthusiasts commonly display rather paradoxical behavior. One minute they may speak in lofty, ethereal terms; go on diets and cleanses; and practice all kinds of sacred rituals. The next minute, they will have thrown themselves into the capital markets, fighting tooth and nail for fame and fortune.
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking inner peace or spiritual salvation. However, the approach taken by wealthy Chinese leaves them particularly open to fraud, according to Yang Derui, a professor in the Department of Sociology at Nanjing University.
Yang contends that the lifestyles of China’s rich and famous cause people to associate money with quality. If something costs more, it must therefore be better. In comparison with religious and spiritual people from other social classes, the rich are therefore more likely to spend their money on expensive materials promising spiritual fulfillment, even though the market is flooded with fake or grossly simplified products. Because of their wealth, they ignore more qualified religious masters who ask for little in return. At the same time, their money attracts frauds like moths to a flame.
Yet spiritual wealth cannot be valued in monetary terms. As a result, the behavior of the rich, whether they realize it or not, is in the end little more than posturing designed to puff up their elite status.
The influx of alternative healing therapies now available in China is changing the class connotations of spiritualism. Up until a few years ago, various forms of spiritualism were practiced by princes and paupers alike. These days, however, the art of so-called spiritual healing is considered truly worthwhile only once you’ve forked out for workshops, classes, and training sessions.
Rich people in China are no longer satisfied merely with being members of the economic elite; they long to be part of the cultural elite as well. Put simply, only the wealthy are able to afford the resources connecting them to alternative spiritual practices. In some cases — like those of Zhou and Pan above — participation in expensive, esoteric therapies allows the rich to enjoy a special status as trendsetters.
While I agree that many participants probably find spiritual fulfillment by alternative means, I still wonder if there is not an element of vanity in the choices of others. Until the idea of value is uncoupled from monetary expense, celebrities’ spiritual healing choices will likely continue to be a source of ridicule for the general public, as well as a source of income for scammers.
(Header image: VCG)