1995 / 4月
Ventine Tsai /tr. by Brent Heinrich
The car drives from the Fuzhou Airport headed for Meizhou Island. Upon entering Putian City's Zhenqian Village, nothing can be seen on either side of the road except endless bundles of spirit money and innumerable piles of joss sticks spread over the ground. When we reach the town of Huangshi, we see stone carvings amassed in front of the doors of every building, statues of the gods Matsu, Guangong, and Guanyin, sitting or standing in wait for a buyer. In Dongsha Village a group of locals is hurrying into the city, each pulling a horse by the reins. From early on this village has been famous for its "holy horses" which are used to carry placards or statues of the gods when they come out on inspection tours.
In Meizhou Island's Putian City (equivalent in size to a county in Taiwan), besides the official Puxian drama troupe, there are as many as 100 private "straw stage troupes" that specialize in performing religious dramas. These newly risen "cultural private enterprises" are enmeshed in fierce competition; actors are only allowed two days of holiday a year. A senior actor who performed orthodox communist Model Operas during the Cultural Revolution laughingly relates, "In the past no one dared to be an actor; now everyone wants to be one."
The Taiwanese religious pilgrimage groups which frantically bustle around the mainland often comment that "no one on the mainland really worships anymore; the temples are only maintained by virtue of Taiwan's contributions." But from this obviously grand display, such statements are a kind of exaggerated misperception. Academia Sinica researcher Lee Fong-mao, who has made many deep forays into mainland China for field surveys, states impartially that Taiwan's religious pilgrims certainly deserve considerable credit for their contributions in restoring temples; nevertheless, for the past 40 years in mainland China, religious activities "have always been in existence." Even in the Cultural Revolution era, when sacred statues were being smashed and no one could go to the temples, on the birthdays of the gods, the people would worship as usual, using rocks as their alters and mud as their incense vessels.
The dramatic rise in popularity of native religion was in fact not fanned into flames overnight by Taiwanese pilgrims. "And that's not all; we know that the more you repress religion, the more the demand for it increases. Once people are given freedom, it flares up big and bright," observes Lee Fong-mao.
During the fortnight around the time of the Lantern Festival, from one village to the next, palanquin troupes, banner troupes, marching bands, or the presently fashionable motorcycle brigades make a clamorous uproar to welcome the gods of the village temple as they make their inspection tours. These organizations, which in mainland China are called "cultural performance brigades," have all sprung up of their own accord. There are more than 60 gong and drum corps in the Hanjiang district of Putian City alone.
"If it weren't for the booming economy, religion would not be as widely popular as it is," explains Lin Guoping, associate professor at Fujian Normal University and author of the book The Faiths of the People of Fujian. To be sure, at the evening banquet in a private home in Dongsha Village, most of the folks proffering business cards to all in sight are the proprietors of Such-and-Such Textile Co. or So-and-So Construction, Inc. And at the Heavenly Empress Temple in Quanzhou, a young mainland entrepreneur who had struck it rich, to offer thanks commissioned an opera pageant that lasted nine days.
But business people are not the only ones who have new opportunities; the income from fishing and aquaculture along the coast is not to be ignored, either. On the outskirts of Quanzhou City, in a little town called Xunpu, on the wall of the Temple of Calm Seas is posted a ledger of all the contributors to last year's Matsu festival and all those who joined the pilgrimage to Meizhou. This little place which survives on fishing and selling crabs sent out more than 100 fishing boats for the festival at a total cost of nearly RMB 65,000. On the contributor's ledger it was not hard to find generous philanthropists who gave RMB 4000 or 5000. (The average annual income of a mainland Chinese citizen is approximately RMB 3600.)
The coasts have no shortage of factories and fisheries. Youth from the mountain regions of the hinterland are not afraid to leave home; what they fear is having no opportunity. When leaving their places of birth and venturing forth to make a living and test their luck, more than a few of them carry protective talismans (fu) from their hometowns.
In today's China, where every place is crowded with construction and the streets are clogged with an endless array of private shops seeking their fortune, the taxi driver caught in the jostling, crowded road hopes to ensure his own protection. Young people want to test into school, to have some decent luck when they go out into the world. Given the strict regulations of the one-child policy, anyone who wishes to ensure the birth of a boy may very well go before the Birth Goddess and burn a few more joss sticks than usual. . . . Through the progress of the "four modernizations" (of industry, agriculture, technology and defense), new Western-style houses and home appliances have become necessities of life. Nevertheless, religion continues to provide joy and salvation to society and to answer the individual's prayers for blessing and protection. Part and parcel of the so-called "four olds" (old styles, old habits, old culture, and old thinking), traditional Chinese religious customs are still on the ascent.
Embroidered banners flutter in the wind as the deities form their procession. Around the time of festivals, in mainland China's cities and country villages alike, one can often encounter such boisterous pageantry welcoming the gods.