Blessings, To Go

Earlier this week Amy, Lisa and I decided to take advantage of some nice weather and escape the city to the mountains west of Beijing. Our destination was Miaofeng Shan, in Mentougou district. The complex of temples on the mountain is a classic example of Chinese pragmatism, mixing Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. “One temple, 3 religions.”

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The temples were built during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), and over time became an annual pilgrimage destination. Here’s a description from Tour-Beijing: 

The highlight or the most valuable asset of Miao Feng Shan is the Miao Feng Shan Goddess Temple, or locally referred as Niang Niang Miao ( 娘娘庙 ). The Goddess Temple at Miao Feng Shan is dedicated to Bixia Yuanjun (碧霞元君), also known as the “Heavenly Jade Maiden” ( 天仙玉女 )or the “Empress of Mount Tai” (泰山娘娘). According to one of the legends, she is the daughter of the Emperor Lord of Mount Tai. Statues of Bixia Yuanjun often depict her holding a tablet with the Big Dipper as a symbol of her authority.
Bixia Yuanjun has given Mt. Miao Feng Shan a reputation in the whole China. The legend has it that the pilgrims come to have their petitions before their their goddess, the lame can be made to walk, the ill can be cured, prosperity can be brought to merchants, and longed for children can be given.

There were a couple of busloads of pensioners there (in the old days they — and we — would have walked up), but other than that we had the place to ourselves. Everyone was in a good mood, and we could track the groups as they wandered around from the noise of their laughter.

We hiked up to the rose garden, hoping to enjoy a sea of roses, but were disappointed. Even though the roses are in full bloom in the city, at this elevation (nearly 4000ft), the bushes were still bare.

We climbed to the highest temple and sat down to enjoy our picnic lunches in the glorious sunshine. The solitude that we were enjoying was broken when an extended family reached the top of the stairs, and arrived, huffing and puffing, at the platform where we were sitting. Their pilgrimage to pay homage to the Jade Emperor was complete.

But wait! A bonus was lurking in the shadows of the temple — 3 foreigners! They immediately rushed over and lined up to have their photos taken one by one with Lisa, who was standing along a wall. Amy and I sat off to the side, eating our sandwiches, hoping not to be dragged into the impromptu photo shoot.

At one point the family dragged their toothless grandpa over, and he mistakenly tried to sit down between Amy and me to have his picture taken. I leaned over to him and said in Chinese, “I’m sorry, we’re not participating in this event,” whereupon the family members grabbed him and threw him into Lisa’s arms instead.

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After everyone had gotten their picture taken with Lisa, they went in to burn their incense to the Jade Emperor, and we scampered back down the stairs to the main courtyard of the temple.

In the courtyard we found a group of men sitting under a tree, and noticed they were each wearing a bright red ribbon attached to their shirts. They were the kind of ribbons that one might see as a 2nd place prize for one’s zucchini at the state fair, but these had Chinese characters on them.

Taking the Blessing Home

I asked one of the men what it was, and they all replied in unison DAI FU HUAN JIA. Now. whatever could that mean, we wondered. Daifu — doctor? Huan jia — exchange house?  The doctor is exchanging his house? That didn’t make any sense, so I took a closer look at the characters: 戴福还家. Roughly translated, it means ‘take the blessing home.’ I asked for an explanation, and they said the ribbon was their way of taking home to their families the blessings they had received by praying at the temples.

Blessings, to go!

Here are some more photos from the day:

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Looking back towards Beijing

It was a target-rich environment for Chinglish signs

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Temple-Hopping

Yesterday afternoon we visited one of the many Buddhist temples that are scattered throughout these hills.  As we were walkiing through the temple, we were discussing the Chinese practice of Buddhism with our friend who is serving as host/guide for this week. “Chinese Buddhism is like a giant hot-pot,” he said.  “It takes things from many religions and puts them all together. What’s more, it’s not so much a belief system to live by; rather it is more like an insurance policy.”

That reminded me of a time quite a few years ago when I was asked to join some friends for an afternoon of “temple-hopping” in the mountains outside of Beijing.  I wrote about it in a post titled “Pragmatic Religiousity.”

I am re-posting it in its entirety here:

PRAGMATIC RELIGIOUSITY

The folks over at CNNgo recently had a chat with Petter Hessler about his new book “China Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory.” As readers of this blog know, I’m a big Hessler fan, and recently had the pleasure of reading this book (my comments and observations can be found here, here, and here).  In this interview, one particular exchange caught my eye:

CNNGo: In “Country Driving,” villager Cao Chunmei turns to religion as a way to deal with the stresses of the country’s rapid development. Do you think Chinese will increasingly turn to religion?

Peter Hessler:

I think we’ve already seen more and more Chinese taking an interest in religion. It’s going to continue, often for the same reason that Cao Chunmei turned to Buddhism — because she was overwhelmed by the incredible pace of change and the relentless materialism of this age. She wanted some deeper meaning in her life. I think that a lot of people in China feel this way, especially middle and upper class people who have already satisfied many of their fundamental material needs.

Still, it’s very different from religion in America or Europe. People in America see the statistics for numbers of Christians in China, and they envision a potentially deeply religious nation. The Chinese relationship with religion is pragmatic and fluid; people often change their faith very quickly. And I don’t see them following religion to a degree where it’s clearly not in their self-interest. Also, religion in China is very weak institutionally. It doesn’t matter so much whether a person says he or she believes in something; what matters is whether that person can become attached to a serious religious institution that has some impact on the community

I got a glimpse of this “pragmatic religiousity” a few years ago when some Chinese friends invited me to join them for a day in the mountains west of Beijing visiting Buddhist and Daoist temples.  It was a nice weekend and I always enjoy an excuse to head to the hills, so off we went.  Our ‘temple-hopping’ party included me (the only foreigner) and six Chinese in our little two-car caravan, one of which was a little yellow sports car, but that’s beside the point.

What is not beside the point is that all of these friends were thirty-something members of the Communist Party and five of them had fairly lofty positions (for their age) in either the central government or the city government.  When pressed, all would profess atheism.

So as we went from temple to temple (some of which dated back 800 or 1000 years), I became increasingly intrigued by the fact that at each alter in each temple they would buy incense to burn and stand in front of the idols doing something that looked like praying. They asked me to join them, but I politely declined.

Eventually my bewilderment got the best of me and I had to ask them what was going on.

“Wait a minute,” I said.  “You’re all members of the Chinese Communist Party, right?”

They all nodded their heads.

“But here you are burning incense and praying.  Do you really believe this?”

Practically in unison they responded “No!  We’re doing this just in case.”

Pragmatic religiousity; right there; on full display.

(Noel has put up a great post about our visit to the temple and Esther’s vacations in this region in the 1930’s, titled Come Again Next Summer.)