Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: modernity
Tuesday, 08 November 2011 11:12

At the Chinese Pharmacy

It is a dark and humid Friday night, we are wandering around Sanchong, a district of Taipei when we encounter Mr. Wu, the owner of a traditional Chinese Medicine shop.

"What are you doing here," he says. 
"Oh, just taking in the atmosphere of Sanchong."

 


Tuesday, 30 July 2013 16:34

In Search of Lost Faith

Photography by Liz Hingley

Few would deny that the modern world is facing a spiritual crisis today. This observation was met with consensus in the beginning of the 20th century and continues on today.

As late as the Renaissance, Western civilization was dominated by Christianity. As scientific knowledge and methodology evolved, they started to chip away at the foundations of the Western theological worldview, starting with the findings of scientists such as Galileo Galilei and reaching an apex with the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origins of Species in 1859. Nowadays, most people do not buy in to the idea that our lives are governed by a certain deity (or deities). Neither do they believe that our world was created by some supernatural force. Science has apparently won the battle over religion, and many of us would pride ourselves as enlightened, intelligent modern human beings, free from the superstitious beliefs that dimmed the minds of our ancestors.

However, the proliferation of New Age theosophy and the increasingly complex discourse on astrology proves otherwise; thanks to the evolution of the technological industry, you can now receive complex astrolabes that can not only tell you your traditional astrological sign but also your moon sign and your ascending sign, and so on ad nauseum, which each have their own meanings and are supposed to influence you in different arenas of your life. What's more, the attraction of astrology is immune to scientific scrutiny and it’s not unusual to find PhD science graduates indulging in the guilty pleasures of astrology and feng shui. Clearly, the Promethean wisdom of science is not sufficient to quench our thirst for other-worldly meaning.

Max Weber, in his 1918 lecture "Science as Vocation" quotes Tolstoy’s concise explanation of why science cannot satisfy our spiritual appetite: "Science is meaningless because it gives no answers to our questions, the only questions of import to us: "What shall we do and how shall we live?"" Of course, as one who took up science as a vocation, Weber is not one to agree too quickly with the statement that "science is meaningless," but he does agree that the presupposition of a complete, wholesome theological metanarrative projects a stable theological subject, while the lack of such creates an alienated, self-centered individual, unsure of what to make out of the world or what to make out of himself. Weber further concludes that "natural science gives us an answer to the question of what we must do if we wish to master life technically. It leaves quite aside, or assumes for its purposes, whether we should and do wish to master life technically and whether it ultimately makes sense to do so."

Noting this sense of spiritual lack and the impotency of science, many people in the contemporary world have returned to their churches and their temples, in order to find spiritual peace. It is easy to imagine, however, that this is by no means an easier route. What has been undone by science cannot be remedied so easily. A couple of months ago, eRenlai presented a focus entitled "My God?" that explored the discovery, loss and rediscovery of faith. Interviewees included followers of Buddhism, Catholicism and Christianity. A Buddhist interviewee mentioned how difficult it was to completely commit to her faith, as in the modern world people are often jaded and guarded against religion. Even after several years of Buddhist practice, her Master doubts whether she has even reached the minimum requirement of becoming a true Buddhist.

The problem of committing to religious beliefs that are unscientific does not only exist in Buddhism. In order to avoid awkward encounters with scientific knowledge, such as the theory of evolution, the majority of Christian teachings nowadays mostly take a symbolist approach to the Scriptures. Those who embrace the fundamentalist approach and deny every scientific statement that opposes the propositions of the Bible are extremely scarce and are often viewed as misfits in contemporary society. However, though the symbolist approach is accepted in modern society, it is not a satisfying method, in that the authority to interpret sacred texts is then granted to humans and it gives the whole process a political spin. Who gets to decide the specific meaning of each text, and does that make the interpretation infallible? How do we know whether such an interoperation is not simply a guise for manipulation by vested interests? It is these doubts that constitute the core canon of literature on religious doubt such as A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man or The Way of All Flesh. It is thus easy to see how difficult it is to maintain a steadfast religious conviction in modern society, despite the fact that science itself offers nothing better.

So what do we do now? For those who wish to remain religious, Max Weber suggests an "intellectual sacrifice," similar to a fideistic leap of faith, though this is no easy task, as demonstrated by the example of our Buddhist interviewee. For the non-believer, he has to search for the answer himself, to determine who is his God and who is his devil. Science works only insofar as it becomes a tool for the modern man to clarify his ideas. Either path he chooses, concludes Weber, the most important thing is to maintain his integrity. If one is faced with doubts about one's beliefs, one should have the courage to face these doubts head on, and not simply rush to the nearest exit.


Friday, 27 September 2013 17:45

Thinking outside the box: Inventing words and Chinese variants in Taiwan


When reading in Chinese, particularly literature and academic essays on literature or on certain blogs, you'll notice that the author uses combinations of words that don't exist in any dictionary as compounds - this practice, known as 「造詞」(zaoci), is frustrating when one is first trying to get to grips with academic writing or blogs, but eventually you start to appreciate the wit and creative charm behind it. If you've ever read The Meaning of Liff you'll get an idea of what this achieves and the possible comic effects.

This can be done for several reasons.

The first is to translate a foreign concept (or what was once only a foreign concept) into Chinese, many of these are simple but amusingly to the point, examples include 無政府主義 (no-government-ism) as a rendering of 'anarchism', 天主教 (master-of-the-heavens-religion) for Catholicism, or 利己主義者 (interest-self-ism) as a fancy way to say 'egotist' or for someone who subscribes to a self-interested ideology. A lot of these subsequently end up in the dictionary. More recent and artistic examples of this kind of word include both 「多音交響」(duo1yin1jiao1xiang3) "many-tones-symphony" and 「眾聲喧嘩」 (zhong4sheng1xuan1hua2) "many-sounds-clamouring" which attempt to render Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of "heteroglossia" into Chinese. These are usually found in academic articles and the source language equivalent is normally still placed in brackets behind the word to indicate that this is an experimental attempt. These words are also often translated differently in mainland China and Taiwan. 

Another form of zaoci, however, is simply to create a new word by blending aspects of existing words. This form is more interesting and harder to identify, but can sometimes catch on and enter common usage. The technique is generally taking two words (normally consisting of two characters each) and taking one character from the first and one from the second to make a new word. These examples are quite hard to find, as they are essentially invented by the individual on the spot. Here's a short list of some of the more artful ones that I've discovered so far, feel free to add more in the comments box.

1. 「索愛」(suo3ai4) which blends 「索討」(suo3tao3), "to ask for", with 「愛情」(ai4qing4), "love," to mean someone who acts in a cutesy manner to try and get what they want - a near synonym for the mainland Chinese term 「賣萌」(mai4meng2) and the term 「撒嬌」 (sa1jiao1).

2. 「魘醒」(yan3xing2) which is an abbreviation for 「從夢魘中醒來」, "waking up from a nightmare".

3. 「熹亮」(xi1liang4) which combines 「熹微」, "the faint sunlight just after dawn" with 「光亮」(guang1liang4), "bright", to get a synonym of 「微亮」(faint light).

4. 「憤罣」(fen4gua4) which combines 「憤怒」 (fen4nu4), rage, and 「罣礙」(gua4ai4), worry, to mean a rage born of worry.

5. 「離聚」(li2ju4) which combines 「離散」(li2san4), "disperse", and 「相聚」(xiang4ju4), assembly, to mean when an assembly disperses.  

 Using variants is another way to make your writing more aesthetically pleasing (and also dictionary/foreigner proof). A variant is essentially another way of writing a certain character in Chinese which makes no significant change to its meaning. Some have been lost to standardization, but many are still commonly used - both versions in different settings and registers of writing. A common example is 「角色」 vs 「 腳角」. Another is the 「台」 in 「台灣」and 「舞台」 vs 「臺灣」 and 「舞臺」. Sometimes the variants are interchangeable in every combination like 「台」; at other times the variant can only be used when the word forms a verb or a noun, for example, my colleague Jiahe talks about the difference between 「鋪」 and 「舖」 below: 

 

Another colleague, loathe to appear on camera, gave me this explanation of the difference between 「掛礙」 and 「罣礙」, which the Ministry of Education online dictionary states to be the same, meaning that here, 「掛」 and 「罣」 are variants of each other:

我最早學到這個詞的寫法是「罣礙」,它意思應該是阻塞不通,也就是心中被某個煩惱淤塞了。但但後來發現「掛礙」這個寫法比「罣礙」更常見,應該是「掛」有牽掛、懸念的意思,且掛比較好寫,所以人們比較容易寫成「掛礙」。在教育部辭典上可以查到兩者皆通用。是因為語言本來就是一種約定成俗吧。

(Translation: I originally learned to write this word as 「罣礙」, the 「罣」meaning "stuffed up or congested", I interpreted this as one's heart being congested or stuffed up with some worry. However, later I discovered that 「掛礙」was a more common way of writing this word, with the 「掛」 meaning "worry" or "concern". Moreover 「掛」is easier to write, so people are more likely to write the word as 「掛礙」。The two forms of the word can be used interchangably according to the online dictionary of the Ministry of Education. This is because language is essentially just down to convention.)  

 In this second interview, I had the mainlander of the office, Yingying, discuss the variant pairs 「分/份」 and 「姐/姊」:

 

My interest in this subject really started when I changed to using the Cangjie input system - which is an entry system based on visual components of each character (if you're using a computer in Taiwan, these can be found on the bottom left corner of your PC's keys, or bottom right of your Mac's keys) : 

日 (sun radical) + 月 (moon radical) = 明 (bright) for example

Although it's slightly more complicated to learn, it's helpful in getting characters to stick in your head - but as a side effect of this entry system - sometimes strange looking characters pop up when you get a stroke in the wrong sequence, like the long list that appears when you type a sound in pinyin as shown below:

yta

In writing my thesis the title of the play I was discussing includes the character 「間」written 日弓日, but if you put an extra 弓 on the end, then you get 「闁」, a rare archaic variant of the character 「褒」 - meaning to praise. A mistroke in writing 「且」 written 月一 (and) gets you a variant of 「冉」 which is as follows: 「冄」 written 月一一. This is essentially the same as when you're typing in Zhuyin or pinyin and you have to sort through a list of weird characters, but in Changjie you generally only get one character with each combination you type, except on the rare occasions that two characters share the same canjie code, as above. Regardless if you're interested or not in the different ways to input Chinese characters, this really got me interested in why different people chose to use different variants in different situations. Have you found any interesting characters, variants or new invented words, if so feel free to let loose on the comments section! 

 

 


Friday, 26 April 2013 18:56

Peace, Love, Unity, Respect and Struggle: The Taiwanese Theatre of Party

In the following video Chen Xiaoqi, a theatre student at National Taiwan University of Arts, discusses the concept of rave parties both as a form of theatre and as a form of protest and how the interactive and decentred nature of parties affects the social aspect of the art of DJing. 


Friday, 19 April 2013 14:47

The Soundfarmers: Electronic Music Composes Anti-Nuclear Statement


In Dec 2012, A DJ collective called "Soundfarmers" from Taipei released an electronic music compilation "I Love Nuclear," which has been reviewed in Paul Farrelly's eRenlai article A Sonic Meltdown: A Review on "I Love Nuclear!?"

Listen to the concept behind the album. For more information, check out their website or buy the album on the Green Citizens' Action Alliance webstore.


Thursday, 16 May 2013 00:00

Amateurs in Tokyo - Reasonable Riots

Study, graduate, work, start a family,
I've tried my hardest, but I've always been down and out. Whose rules am I supposed to be playing by? What course have I been put on?
Let's break the rules! Take the piss, to get back a bit of logic!

by Zijie Yang, translated by Conor Stuart and Julia Chien from the original Chinese, photos by Park Swan


Monday, 31 October 2011 14:41

Microblogs with Macro Reach: Spirituality Online In China

Sina Weibo is big in China right now. Essentially a microblogging service, it has elements of Facebook and Twitter, both of which (along with YouTube) are banned on the Mainland. With over 400 million users1, Sina Weibo is definitely a hit, and is likely to remain so as long as it does not become a vehicle for dissent and upset or threaten the government. Like all social media, Sina Weibo is overflowing with minutiae. Triumphs and tragedies, love and loathing, it is there for all to see. I enjoyed reading one of my Chinese namesakes wax lyrical about his newly rounded eyes (via eyelid cosmetic surgery). Body modification aside, the communication possibilities that Sina Weibo has generated are proving attractive to many in China, including those in the religious and spiritual spheres.

As I have written before, religion is a constantly evolving and fascinating phenomenon2, even in China where regulations continue to be more restrictive than in other countries in the region3. Here I will profile some of the various characters taking advantage of the enormous opportunity to promote their personalities, organisations and messages through Sina Weibo.

Taiwan’s Dharma Drum Mountain (法鼓山) is a large Buddhist organisation that uses its Sina Weibo account4 to share quotations of spiritual inspiration and considered reflection - “What is self?” and “Success is a beautiful result, failure is a beautiful experience” are two recent thought provoking and decidedly non-menacing examples.

Xing Yun (星云) is a monk who fled China decades ago and has built a massive international Buddhist organisation based at Foguangshan (佛光山) in southern Taiwan. On Sina Weibo he has garnered an impressive 327,593 followers5. Like Dharma Drum Mountain, Xing Yun reaches out to his followers with a stream of short and poignant pieces of Buddhist wisdom. For many years Xing Yun and the late founder of Dharma Drum Mountain, Sheng-yen (聖嚴), would have dreamed about having such direct access to Buddhists in the land of their birth. Sina Weibo now gives them unprecedented reach. However, it is in the less orthodox bloggers that we can find even more innovative examples.

Terry Hu (胡茵夢) is a Taiwanese movie star turned author6. Her works are spiritual in nature, and include a translation of the biography of the 20th century Indian philosopher Krishnamurti. Currently promoting her autobiography, Hu is tapping into her network of Sina Weibo followers to drum up publicity by holding competitions. Those who forward details of her book onto three friends have the opportunity to win more books and the writers of the five most outstanding comments will also win a book. Several hundred bloggers have participated in this marketing ploy.

Another Taiwanese author writing and translating in the ‘body, mind, spirit’ genre (身心靈) is Tiffany Chang (張德芬)7 . Prior to her career as a spiritual figure, Chang was a news anchor on Taiwan’s TTV channel. Aside from writing her own books (Meeting the Unknown Self) and translating popular foreign authors, such as Eckhart Tolle (A New Earth), Chang has produced a short series of videos where she reviews books8 and has assisted Taipei’s Huan-ting zen in Taiwan and China. Demonstrating considerable web savvy, Chang operates a China-based body, mind, spirit website called ‘Inner Space’9. She uses her Sina Weibo account to distribute news of updates on Inner Space to her followers, who number just under 100,000.

Perhaps the most interesting religious figure using Sina Weibo is the young Buddhist monk, Shi Daoxin (釋道心)10. Having accumulated over 189,000 followers, he uses Sina Weibo in a way that some might more associate with a self-absorbed and self-promoting youth. I have never seen a monk demonstrate such fashion sense; Shi Daoxin has a knack for matching his robes with his (often gaudily coloured) glasses. Even if you don’t understand Chinese, scroll down his blog and you will see a fantastic variety of photos.

Shi Daoxin pouting. Shi Daoxin posing wistfully outside a temple. Shi Daoxin rendered as a cartoon. Shi Daoxin meditating. Shi Daoxin meditating next to a naked babe.

The photo of Shi Daoxin meditating behind a penitent-looking female nude is particularly interesting. Apparently the winner of the Virginia Photo Exhibition in the USA, this photo is titled “Mind without obscuration” (心無罣礙) and is re-blogged with a quote from the Heart Sutra: “form is emptiness” (色即是空).

Besides his own manifold images, Shi Daoxin also uses Sina Weibo to disseminate Buddhist teachings, including videos from more established teachers, such as Xing Yun. He has also circulated several of his music videos, including one karaoke-friendly ditty where he sings a Buddhist song while wandering around a temple garden and market. The suitably devout chorus is “Amitabha Buddha, please protect me” (阿彌陀佛,呵護著我). Shi Daoxin has achieved some degree of celebrity, having participated in the TV dating show “The Whole City is Madly in Love” (全城熱戀) and was interviewed on China’s top daytime TV talk show “A Date with Luyu” (魯豫有約).

If there is one thing that this brief survey shows, it is that each of these bloggers is attempting to make religious ideas relevant to life in contemporary China. Methods vary greatly—orthodox or radical, commercial or benevolent—but the bloggers are linked by the common goal of seeking to share a spiritual message with the widest possible audience. Doing so via Sina Weibo does not necessarily dilute the potency of their messages. Writing on religious innovation in contemporary China, the Cambridge anthropologist Adam Yuet Chau recently wrote that

Modern technologies and other non-traditional elements can often be effortlessly incorporated into the framework of traditional idioms and practices, which in turn reveals the dynamic innovability of the traditions themselves11.

Sina Weibo is an ideal example of this innovability. Even the more ‘traditional’ bloggers discussed here, such as Dharma Drum Mountain and Xing Yun, have made a concerted effort over many decades to revitalise Buddhism so it is more relevant to life in the contemporary world. Microblogs are just another stage in the evolution of this process. Not surprisingly, Shi Daoxin also claims to be a disseminator of modern Buddhist culture and art, albeit in his own unique way. For the time being, Shi Daoxin et al will continue to be able to encourage, inspire, question and interact with their followers through Sina Weibo. And when Sina Weibo loses its lustre or is blocked, then I’m sure they will be among the early adopters of the next web platform, whatever it may be.

(Photo courtesy of www.weibo.com/shidaoxin)

 


 

1. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/8851585/China-fights-to-silence-the-social-network.html

2.http://bit.ly/rC0vpY

3. http://bit.ly/uVZTtH

4. http://weibo.com/ddmbascc

5. http://weibo.com/1861268640

6. http://weibo.com/1243683297

7. http://weibo.com/1759168351

8. http://www.youtube.com/user/BOOKLIFE1313

9. http://www.innerspace.com.cn/f/index

10. http://weibo.com/shidaoxin

11. Adam Yuet Chau. Religion in Contemporary China: Revitalization and Innovation, Taylor and Francis, 2011, page 20.

 

 


Thursday, 21 April 2011 16:09

The Cultural Inheritance Behind Illegal Architecture

Amongst the participants of the opening of the Illegal Architecture exhibition held in Ximen in March of this year, was mainland Chinese architect and artist Wang Shu. Perhaps aptly, given the topic of the exhibition, there was a construction crew digging up the road right beside the exhibition's marquee. Despite the repressive authoritarian thrum of council diggers and drills, Wang Shu took time out from competing with the noise to answer a few questions from the eRenlai team about illegal architecture and its role as a voice of civil society in Taipei:

Alternative (for readers in China)

Interview by Ida Wang, Nicholas Coulson and Conor Stuart, Video Editing and Subtitles by Conor Stuart.


Wang Shu's installation on the roof of the exhibition centre, The award winning "The Decay of A Dome"

 


Monday, 13 December 2010 22:33

New Religions in China

An Italian translation of this article appeared in the December 2010 edition of popoli and is a continuation of some ideas raised in eRenlai's October 2010 Focus on religious innovation in East Asia.

To recap, the term 'new religious movement' was originally coined as a less loaded alternative to 'cult'.  It represents an attempt to classify new religious groups that are either a brand new conception of reality, a reinterpretation of an existing belief system or transplanted beliefs in a foreign land. Such groups are continuously evolving all over the world, and China is no exception.


Sunday, 31 October 2010 00:00

The Un-Bollywood

“We are fed up”.

So says one of the Nats, a community of street performers in eastern India, featured in the documentary King of India.  As itinerant performers existing on the margins of society, the Nats pass through the markets, street corners and fairs of metropolitan India, eeking out a living by putting on shows. Another day, another dirty slab of concrete, another set of headstands and tightrope walking.  Possessing the dual charms of athleticism and cuteness, the child performers grind out their show several times a day, hoping to bring in enough rupees to keep their family afloat. The kids’ energetic dance and acrobat routines are driven by rhythms pounded out an old drum and tin plate rattling against the ground.  Squint your eyes, muffle your ears and maybe you might mistake it for a big ticket Bollywood number.  Or maybe not.  The dust and desperation of these children is the Un-Bollywood.  The throbbing beats and gyrating hips filtered through the dusty melange of Kolkata’s backstreets offers us a different story altogether.

 

The King of India is just one of several films about India and South Asia that were screening at the 7th Taiwan International Documentary Festival in Taichung.  These depictions of struggle are far removed from the all-singing, all-dancing entertainment juggernaut that is Bollywood.  In addition to King of India, I also saw Dreaming Taj Mahal and three of the Journeys with Kabir tetralogy.

 

Dreaming Taj Mahal tells the story of a Pakistani driver, Haidar, whose lifelong dream is to visit India’s Taj Mahal. Frustrated by small-minded village life, government propaganda and the semipermeable membrane of the Indo/Pak border, Haidar never gives up his dream of visiting the Taj.  He lives in a world where fear of the Other conspires to trap him.  The restrictive duality based on Hindu and Muslim differences that shapes Indo/Pak relations is nothing new though, Kabir had already dealt with similar issues in an altogether different era.

 

Kabir was a poet who lived 500 years ago in India and the Journeys with Kabir films look at his contested legacy.  Kabir sought a more inclusive society through religious tolerance.  His poems have long existed in an oral tradition and are kept alive in many different ways.  The director, Shabnam Virmani, stated “the more people I meet, the more Kabirs I meet”. Almost everyone seems to have a different interpretation of Kabir’s poems, from the universal view of the protagonist, Dalit (untouchable) folk musician Prahlad Tipanya, to the more dogmatic and exclusivist position of some of the pundits and experts met on the roads and rails of India. The Journeys with Kabir filmsoffer a probing look into the forces that shape contemporary India, from communalism to globalisation, with an ever-present folk soundtrack.  For fans of Indian folk music, the Kabir movies are worth watching for the extensive concert footage alone.

 

These stories are given time to unfold and are uncluttered, especially Journeys with Kabir.  The characters have space to talk, to let their feelings flow.  The ambient (and not so ambient) sounds of India reverberate throughout – car horns, train station announcements, heated finger-waving discussions.  The India shown here is the flipside of years of economic development.  Those in the village and those who have moved from the village to the city in search of a better life aren’t shown to be sharing in the spoils of India’s growth.  They survive in a world where the politics of caste continue to shape one’s destiny.

 

As opposed to the glitzy glamour Bollywood, these movies are better seen in the context of subaltern studies.  Writers in the subaltern studies group have long attempted to give a voice to those who are neglected by most historical accounts, an approach that can be equally applied to film.

 

For several decades writers from the subaltern studies group have been generating a view of history that locates the place of minority, repressed or low class people within the context of post-colonial societies.  The work of these writers can help explain how the lower castes remain on the fringes of Indian history.  Evolving from the work of Antonio Gramsci, subaltern refers to non-elite or subordinated groups.  A large number of groups have this status in India as they are marginalised by their caste or other socio-economic factors.  According to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak[1], the existence of the subaltern is an unavoidable product of the discourse generated by elites.  This discourse in India has been primarily concerned with the democratic progress towards modernity and is found in the media and history books.  The subaltern is thus “marginalized not because of any conscious intentions but because they represent moments or points at which the archive that the historian mines develops a degree of intractability with respect to the aims of professional history”[2].

 

The characters in these movies all occupy the role of the subaltern.  Be it the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, the struggle for equality for the lower castes or the ferocious forces of globalisation that threaten to leave large portions of the Indian population behind as the country modernises, these events are so large that the voices of the marginalised can be easily drowned out.  Watching the Indian selection from the 7th Taiwan International Documentary Festival won’t necessarily be an entertaining couple of hours, but it will be eye opening.  The frustrations of the characters in these movies say so much more about the unfortunate reality of so many in India than your average Bollywood extravaganza could ever hope to.

You can watch the Journeys with Kabir tetralogy at http://www.cultureunplugged.com/

 


[1] Gyatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography” in Ranajit Guha (editor), Subaltern Studies IV, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.

[2] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Minority Histories, Subaltern Pasts” in Saurabh Dube (editor), Postcolonial Passages: Contemporary History-writing on India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2004.

 


Friday, 24 September 2010 19:31

Brainwashing! Suicide! Drugs! Abuse! Or, how to understand religious innovation in the modern world

To the casual observer, the first four words in the headline might come to mind when thinking of new religious movements (NRMs), or to use the pejorative term generally used by the media, cults. It seems that such groups are easy fodder for editors, given the mainstream media’s lack of expertise in the field and willingness to generate eye-catching headlines to boost circulation.

Indeed, it is the controversial groups that dominate the public sphere. Be they ‘classics’ of the field such as the People’s Temple at Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate or the Branch Davidians, or somewhat ‘mysterious’ groups from East Asia such as the Moonies, Aum Shinrikyo or Falun Gong. These are the groups that the average person will most likely have come across in newspapers and magazines and on current affairs shows.

Religion remains an ever-evolving phenomenon. Of course, what is now old was new once upon a time. As a high school student in 1993, I remember watching TV reports of the Branch Davidian siege at Waco and thinking of the group’s leader, David Koresh, “What if he is right? What if he actually is the messiah?”. Who can actually prove this? If, like Koresh, Jesus Christ arrived in the time of satellite TV (and now the internet), would he have met a similar fate?  The Waco stand-off was a profoundly unfortunate and complicated event. While this is not the place to examine that further, the event gave law-makers, the media, the public and other religious groups much to think about.  Perhaps one of this biggest issues to come out of Waco was the importance of successfully engaging with religious groups.

Even after thousands of years, the spiritually legitimacy of figures such as Christ, Buddha and Mohammed remain hotly contested. No one needs to be reminded of just how passionate people can be in defending their faith, against attacks real or perceived. Religious conflict is an ongoing and unfortunate fact of life for many people around the world and it occurs on every different scale - from nations to neighbourhoods.

When it comes to NRMs, be they old religions in a new setting or with a new organisational structure (Tibetan Buddhism outside of Tibet, Indian gurus in the West) or a whole new conception of reality (Scientology), one common thread is public misunderstanding. Not that the public necessarily wants to misunderstand, it's just that sometimes a broader perspective can be hard to come by.  And this misunderstanding is amplified when tragedies occur. Not only does sexual misconduct and financial deception remain a problem in all religions – new and old, East and West – it continues to do so in many other facets of society. Schools, places of employment, social clubs, even (gasp!) families can be dangerous to one’s well being. Anti-social behaviour is by no means limited to religious groups.

And it is this unyieldingly unsatisfying world that drives people to seek solace in faith, something that many around the world now have a choice in. These groups – NRMs, traditional religions, self help courses, the New Age movement and so on – all help people find some meaning in their life, give them some way of negotiating the highs and lows that come to all of us every day. When a scandal occurs in a religion – and they do – the adherents of that particular religion are likely to be as shocked, if not more so, than the general public is. Individuals and families can be left devastated by the actions of unscrupulous religious leaders.

This edition of eRenlai is not to tell you which faith is the holiest and most efficacious or threatening and secretative.  Nor is it an advertisement for NRMs. Rather, it is a chance to look at some of the new forms of spirituality that have evolved in Asia in recent times. By looking at some of the innovations in religion over recent decades, hopefully we can better understand the methods that people are employing to make sense of life on this planet. Better still, next time a religious group becomes a tabloid controversy, hopefully we can look beyond the headlines and try to appreciate the underlying forces at work.

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All photos by P. Farrelly


Friday, 24 September 2010 19:24

A New Age for China

The Lama Temple (雍和宮) on Yonghegong Street in Beijing’s inner north is one of the most impressive temples in Beijing.  Built over 300 years ago during the Qing Dynasty, it now serves the dual purposes of being both an active Buddhist temple and a popular tourist destination.  Camera-toting tourists mingle with incense-offering devotees, marvelling at the impressive and sprawling compound, before heading over to the nearby Confucius Temple (孔廟) for some more happy snaps in a slightly more serene atmosphere.

Anyone approaching the Lama Temple from the nearby subway station will be struck by the number of stores selling impressively large packets of incense, not to mention the hawkers prowling around the subway exit, ever ready to pounce on potential worshippers and try to offload a packet of incense or two.

Indeed, Yonghegong Street and the surrounding hutongs (alleys) are not only filled with incense vendors, but a whole range of stores selling statues, prayer beads, Tibetan religious curios and items of worship (My favourite was a solar powered prayer wheel).  There are also a few vegetarian restaurants in the area.  Add to this a large number of Daoist fortune tellers and geomancers and the neighbourhood has a strongly Chinese religious appearance.

I was then quite surprised to come across 智慧之光 or ‘Wisdom Light – the New Age Shop’, a mere 100 or so metres south of the Lama Temple and nestled next to a vendor of Taiwanese tea.  To anyone who has perused the advertisements in a Western New Age magazine or attended some sort of New Age ‘gathering’, this location might make perfect sense – “Fengshui and astrology – *tick*.  Tibetan artefacts – *tick*.  New Age trinkets and tchotchkes – *tick*”.  But I was not walking down the main street of a hippie town on the East Coast of Australia or one of Canada’s Gulf Islands.  I was in Beijing.  A place that in recent decades has seen little of the type of religious experimentation and social conditions that spawned the West’s now nebulous and pervasive New Age movement.

While it is tricky trying to define the New Age movement (NAM) as a religion, it is certainly influenced by religious thought.  The NAM is a loose collection of ideas and philosophies – often contradictory – with the general intention being to engender personal or societal change.  Lorne L. Dawson wrote that the NAM often utilises “processes of self-discovery that have either been invented or recovered from numerous traditional and usually pre-modern or marginalized groups of the world”[1].  How such a group would fit into the rigidly defined Chinese religious landscape (with  state-sanctioned religious groups limited to Buddhist, Daoist, Islamic, Protestant and Catholic) is not clear.  It would not be inconceivable for a New Age group elsewhere to include aspects of two or more of these five groups, not to mention influences from Chinese and Tibetan religiosity.  This ‘recycling’ of spirituality – the NAM in the West takes a Chinese idea and reconfigures it to be suitable for Western audiences and now attempts to market this back in China – is fascinating.  In discussing the potential of the NAM in Asia, Lee writes that individuals seeking to give meaning to their sense of being may “turn to enchanted traditions as a form of resistance to state attempts in enforcing the processes of disenchantment”[2].  Such a state of affairs could be possible in China, where the Communist party continues to reign supreme and oversee a rapid modernisation of society.  Of course, with China being the vast place that it is, not all areas are modernising at the same rate and not everyone has the same opportunity to engage in some form of spiritual practice.

The nascent NAM in China most likely began through contacts with Hong Kong and Taiwan, often through businessman assigned to Chinese posts.  The NAM really began to develop in Taiwan after Martial Law was lifted in 1987[3].  Significantly, all the printed material in ‘Wisdom Light’ was published in traditional Chinese (the script used in Hong Kong and Taiwan) rather than simplified Chinese (as used in mainland China).  Photocopies of books were also available for sale.  I was told that the books were primarily printed in Taiwan.  Returning to the store one day, I spied some new flyers advertising Reiki courses in Hong Kong, left earlier in the day by a Reiki representative.

Singing-bowls-for-saleBesides literature, the store offered an eclectic range of products and services - bell chimes, angels, pyramids, crystal singing bowls, herbs, Native American dreamcatchers, DVDs, CDs and aura photography. The shop’s staff were not too sure about their boss’ New Age background or credentials, but did know that he owned another business.  Compared to the other shops on Yonghegong St, ‘Wisdom Light’ was not too busy.  However, perhaps the boss has recognized a niche market.  As long as China’s middle classes continue to grow and relative religious freedom remains, the New Age has the potential to be quite profitable.  China’s moneyed class just needs to be convinced to buy the crystal singing bowl from ‘Wisdom Light’ instead of a copper one from the Tibetan merchant across the road, even though it might be several times more expensive. At this stage, ‘Wisdom Light’ only sells products, not having yet expanded to offer courses.

One could ask, is the NAM suitable for China?  The experience in Taiwan and Hong Kong, similar cultures to that of China, suggests so.  In Taiwan one can purchase a wide range of New Age books at the most mainstream of outlets.  But if we shift the focus back to Yonghegong Street, then perhaps we might reconsider the NAM’s short term prospects in China.

China’s thawing religious landscape offers hints. Ten years ago Yonghegong Street might well have looked considerably different.  It was only in 2002 that the Beijing Religious Regulations were amended to allow fortune tellers and palm readers to be considered as ‘cultural heritage’, rather than feudal superstition[4].  While these businesses are now ubiquitous, it was not that long ago, certainly during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, that they would have been more difficult to find.  Now packaged as ‘cultural heritage’, palmistry and the like might not seem so alien to the average Chinese citizen.  And it is making this cultural connection that foreign religious groups in China must do.  As long as something is seen as alien, its relevance will be questioned and acceptance will be slow, if at all.  Christian and Catholic missionaries in China have long recognized this.  The NAM is no different.  To take hold in China, the new ideas that the NAM encompasses and how entrepreneurs promulagate them will have to be adapted to Chinese society.  Translating some of the available texts into simplified Chinese might be a good start.

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[1] Lorne L. Dawson.  Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements.  Oxford University Press. Toronto. 1998. Page 191.

[2] Lee, Raymond L. M., The reenchantment of the self, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 18:3, 351-367, 2003.

[3] Chen, Shu-Chuan and Beckford, James A., Parallel glocalization: the New Age in Taiwan, page 3 (available online)

[4] Chan, Kim-Kwok and Carlson, Eric R., Religious Freedom in China, Institute for the Study of American Religion, Santa Barbara, 2005, 15.

 


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