Religion in China - Part 1

A proper treatment of this subject should really be left to someone who specializes in sociology of religion.  But it is not my intention here to lay down the definitive analysis of religion in China.  Instead, this is just a series of collections of accidental encounters with materials that are related to religion in China.  The readers can weave them into a coherent framework.  In my experience, religion in China seems always intertwined with politics.

Part 1 is based upon some chance newspaper readings on this particular day.  It turns out that they were different stories about the same set of circumstances.  In the following, I have re-arranged the material in chronological fashion.

Here is the background situation as reported in Wenxue City, which came from Yinchuan Evening News (银川晚报).

Since last autumn, there has been more water than usual in the headwaters of the Yellow River.  In Dongsheng village, Wangyuan town, Yongning county, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, there has been some serious problems with riverbank collapses.  This meant that the village production brigades were losing farmland to the river.

The brigade members were deeply worried about the erosion and reflected the situation to the relevant government departments.  There was no response from the government.

The Xinhua reporter went to the Yongning county government office.  A cadre  casually said that the eroded land were riverbanks that were within the anti-flood levees and therefore should not have been farmed anyway.  In previous years, there was less water in the Yellow River system and the peasants began in the unused land.  If they can grow harvest, they could do so because the land would be unused otherwise.  If the land should be flooded, then those peasants are responsibly for the losses.

When the Xinhua reporter went to the scene, he observed that the erosion was continuing.  However, the reporter also checked the bank books of the peasants and found out that most of them have been receiving national food subsidies for those riverbank acres that the government cadre said should not be farmed.

The peasants also told the reporter that more than 100 mu's of their village land were lost to erosion.  According to peasant Zhang Huaizhen, her family of four are responsible for farming 12 mu's of their own land, but three of those were taken away by the river.

If the government is not helping the peasants, then the peasants must help themselves.  But how does a village production brigade of 42 families stop the river from encroaching on hundreds of mu's of land with no physical means?  In the photograph on the right, the people are trying to move some dead tree trunks to stop the earth from falling into the water.  This was a battle in which the people did not have the numbers or equipment to fight against Nature.

So the peasants cannot stop the soil erosion and the government won't help.  What recourse is left?  So some superstitious peasants collected a sum total of 2,000 RMB to pay for some monks to hold a religious ceremony to ask the River God to spare their land (水下留田).  The following photograph shows the list of items that were required for the ceremony.

Where did the River God come from?  The following translated story is a well-known one that is designed to combat superstition.

The Story of Ximen Bao

Ximen Bao lived in the fifth century BC.  Since he was a capable person, the king sent him to become county mayor in Yedi.  When Ximen Bao showed up for his job, he invited some esteemed local elders and asked them what are the biggest problems for the people.  The elders told them that the biggest problem was the need to find a wife for the River God each year.  For this reason, everybody in Yedi lived in poverty.

It turned out that Yedi is situated next to the Yellow River.  There was a local legend that a River God lives in the Yellow River.  If he does not have a wife each year, then the Yellow River will flood and everybody in Yedi will drown.  For the longest time, then, the government and the witches managed this process and imposed additional taxes which they divided amongst themselves.

The elders then told Ximen Bao that at a certain time each year, an old witch would tour the county.  When she sees a pretty young girl from a poor family, she would say: "This one should become the wife of the River God."  Then the government will take the girl away by force.  They let her live alone, they give her new clothes and they feed her well.  When the wedding day comes, the people will dress the girl up, they make her sit on a mattress and then they put the mattress in the river.  At first, the girl floats on the river.  But eventually she and the mattress sink into the river.  The witches then hold a ceremony to indicate that the River God has found a satisfactory wife.  Ximen Bao did not say anything after he heard that, and the elders did not hold much hope for their new county mayor.

Soon the day came when the River God was going to get married again.  When Ximen Bao heard the news, he took his soldiers with him and waited by the river.  Soon, the rich people in the city, the government officials, designated girl and a 70-something-year-old witch came.

Ximen Bao said: "Bring me the wife of the River God.  I want to see if she is pretty."  Someone brought the girl over and she stood in front of Ximen Bao.  After taking a look at her, Ximen Bao said: "This girl is not pretty.  She is not good enough to be the wife of the River God.  But the River God must be waiting for his wife today.  So we must ask the matchmaker to make a trip to inform the River God that we will bring a pretty girl on another day."  After saying that and before anyone realized what was happening, he ordered the soldiers to pick up the witch and throw her into the river.  After a while, Ximen Bao said: "How come the witch has been gone for so long without a reply?  Send a disciple of hers to tell her to hurry up!"  So he ordered the soldiers to throw one of the witch's disciples into the river.  In total, three disciples were tossed into the river in this manner.

The rich people and the government functionaries standing by the river were stunned.  But when they look at Ximen Bao, he seemed quite respectful and devout as if he was really waiting for a reply from the River God.  After a while, Ximen Bao said: "It looks like the River God is being very hospitable and he has kept these emissaries with him.  We must dispatch another person to ask them to hurry up."  After he said that, he began to eye the rich people and government functionaries who had been operating this racket.  Those people got scared and got down on their knees to beg for mercy because they were afraid that Ximen Bao would toss them into the river to see the River God.

Ximen Bao then raised his voice so that everybody could hear him: "It was a scam about the River God getting a wife.  If anyone wants to do this again, I will throw that person into the river to see the River God."  From then on, the farce about the River God and his wife disappeared from Yedi.  Ximen Bao then used his own capability to administer the place wonderfully.

The following two translated commentaries tied the emergence of the religious ceremony to the political conditions.

(Hainan Daily)

(in translation)

The religious ceremony to the River God is an extreme method that thoroughly expressed the disappointment of the peasants in the government departments.  In a certain sense, it creates a sensational reaction that will bring attention from various social sectors.

Therefore, the author is reminded of the various gimmicks to plea for help -- people in hardship often think about selling their kidneys to save their mothes, or sell their children to pay debts, or marry somebody to pay for tuition, and so on in order to get social attention and turn around their existing situations.  The Ningxia peasants who prayed to the River God may not hold this idea in their heads subjectively, but their actions have objectively achieved this type of effect.

... It is the duty of the government departments to actively and energetically fulfill their responsibilities to solve problems for the people.  But in quite a few places, many problems that involve the vital interests of the people are drawn out and cannot be resolved unless there is some social attention.  This is the root reason of the phenomenon by which "gimmicks" can push the government departments to do their duties.

The reason why "gimmicks" can push the government is based in part on the objective condition that the government cannot fulfill all requests due to limited resources.  But more importantly, there is a certain attitude of inertia, indifference and inaction in government administration and that causes people to resort to "creativity" and "gimmicks" to count on media attention and hype to garner public opinion support.

But no matter how great the creative ideas are, this is not the proper way to get government assistance.  After all, there are limits to social resources and effects and when too many "gimmicks" lead to mental fatigue, then futility becomes the obvious result.

(Yenzhao Metropolis Daily)

(in translation)

Holding a religious ceremony for the River God is obviously not a scientific method and it does not help to solve the problem.  Faced with the inaction of the local government, the peasants could have tried other channels, including appealing to public opinion and monitoring organizations such as the People's Congress in order to force the government to take action.  But, in their real lives, they chose to ask the River God for help.  This is not just about superstitution, but it obviously exposed the lack of ways for the masses to defend and exercise their rights as well as the powerlessness of the extra-governmental monitoring organizations.