October 22, 2007

I'm a Believer!

There is a Chinese saying about superstitions that's something like "It's better to act like you believe, even if you're not sure." Meaning it's better safe than sorry.

Visiting the old canal town Wuzhen outside of Shanghai yesterday, I saw this being played out on tourists (and their wallets). It was unlike any other Chinese temple experience that I've had. I was struck by a feeling of being on a Fordist assembly line. The efficiency of the process was impressive, and left me wondering if this is a common means of producing spirituality (and its monetary expression) in China.

I've sketched a diagram:

1. Starting at Orientation on the front steps of the temple, the tour group is told the history of the temple, its importance and its ongoing restoration process. The visitor is also told the terms of the visit: no pictures, respect, and quiet.

2. At Reception, the visitor's tour ticket checked upon entering the temple, and s/he is given a badge. Each group has its own character to distinguish it from the many others on the line.

3. Crossing the forecourt, the group enters a hall with a central daoist alter and deities representing the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. Here, an Explanation of the deities' significance, and the means of worship is explained. All major aspects of one's life can be linked to one's sign, and all the manner of problems can be brought to the deities. Offerings are made, protections prayed for. The group is given the good news that the temple is their to help visitors better understand their zodiac signs and their destinies.

4. Half of the visitors queue up to receive a complimentary card explaining the significance of her sign. The other half cuts the queue. Nonetheless, few if any of the visitors can comprehend the archaic expressions. This isn't a problem, because the temple comes equipped to handle this problem.

5. Passing into the rear courtyard, the visitors are lined up in a room off to the side. In each of four corners, men dressed in "traditional" scholar robes sit and explain the deeper meaning of one's problems and how they are linked to one's year of birth. The fortune teller then instructs the visitor how much incense to burn and what to ask for. Since I am not yet married and without children at 34, I needed to appease my ancestors and seek peace for my family. The massive incense sticks, sold right outside cost USD10-20 -- a mark-up of at least 500%. In other temples that I've visited in Hong Kong and Taiwan, fortune tellers and incense sellers did not enjoy such a monopoly arrangement, and aren't set up right on the temple grounds.

I skipped out, but I'm still praying for my ancestors' forgiveness.

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