Tuesday, March 31, 2015

信仰 What Binds Us

There is something about belief.
There is something about piety.
There is something about reverence.
There is something about faith.

I recently began reading "The Book of Chinese Beliefs," a tome that focuses not on classical philosophy, but on everyday beliefs—and the resultant customs and rituals—of Sinic communities in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and China itself. To describe these phenomena requires more than simply demarcating norms and detailing cultural quirks, as any commercial guide to "Get along in China!" might do. Such a task involves more deeply exploring the world view that lies underneath these features.

As I walked outside the apartment and glanced at the backdrop of buildings, I realized I might really like Hong Kong. The air there is thicker with belief: 神仙—spirits, fairies, and deities—swirl through the sky, making their presence known in daily life. The atmosphere of the city is suffused with the round clouds of Chinese folktales.

There is a greater sense of a common cultural identity, manifesting itself in millions of small interactions on the street each day. Despite Hong Kong's built modernity, people are also religiously observant, geomantically oriented, pious in a way. They believe.

Perhaps this is why I feel distant in Mainland China. If all we care about are material goods and commerce, then life would feel somewhat empty and hollow. I would feel that these are not my people, but simply a group of human beings with whom I am currently in contact. Hong Kong, in contrast, feels more authentically Chinese. Despite the Western trappings, there are still bolts and bloodlines of Chinese piety.

What makes a people? What connects us is a common cosmology. If we do not have the same beliefs—whether it is Confucian thought or Chinese mythology—then what binds us together? We have nothing tying us except a fleeting similarity in language (recall that Mandarin is a constructed language from the 1900s) and perhaps a measure of ancestral DNA. However, shared ancestry matters not only because of blood and bone, but because we jointly worship and revere the ancestral dead—and we jointly celebrate our lineage, and all the responsibilities this entails. Material conditions are not enough to make a people. At the end of the day, it is belief.

While the Norse gods have disappeared and Egyptian deities evaporated from the world, the Chinese pantheon today is still alive and well. One finds meaning, solace, and community there. It does not mean we all get along, or that we are all friends; but it does mean we operate from the same code. (Some call this belief system Chinese folk religion. Perhaps it is not quite the same as the transcendent "world religions" that have the power to cut across societal lines—across nation and race—but that is a discussion for another time. Still, in order to find religion, we must first have religiosity: a belief in higher powers, a belief in the unknown.)

As described in The Book of Chinese Beliefs, one expert geomancer (feng shui practitioner) decried that he did not have any disciples because no young people wished to learn this art, which had been taught by master-to-disciple for generations. His own father had studied in a famous 風水 school in China from a highly-regarded woman philosopher. The arrest of culture is tragic, and this passage conjured in my mind an even greater tragedy: when wholesale culture destruction and discontinuity was visited upon the country by the Cultural Revolution. One kills Chinese culture and Chinese identity by stopping the transmission of belief.

One sees value in old ways, then, if authenticity and belief are important parts of identity. For those who believe, if the Imperial household is indeed a bridge to Heaven (and/or the Spirit World), it is not only worthy of allegiance, but of our devotion. It is not simply an act of loyalty and patriotism to defend and follow the Emperor; it is an act of reverence.

Today, there may not be an Emperor in China, but encounters with deities and the principles of feng shui still hold currency among Sinic populations in many places: Hong Kong, Taiwan, San Francisco, Canada. It is this cosmology that undergirds these places and that holds generations together. It is the everyday practices of family; the social logic, habits and principles; and also the sense, the act, the affirmation of believing.

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