Monday, January 17, 2011

Worship of Chinese Historical Heroic Figures and Cultural Traditions

Deeply entrenched in the traditions and cultures of the Chinese people is practice to remember historical figures and commemorate special events. There is often a fine line between mythology and history. Taoist teachings have an enduring influence in these mystical stories that have wowed many generations. Volumes of folklore stories have been written, with greater ethusiasm, dramatisation and miraculous claims. Many of these have been scripted and performed in opera conveyed in different regional dialects.

Most Chinese peoples including some of the illiterate worshippers are aware that they are not "praying" to a god, demi-god, deity or shen 神 despite the tendency to "idolise" almost every spiritual figure, including the Buddha. However, injecting an element of mysticism adds flavour and colour to enrich their way of life.

Values are incalcated and reinforced by performing rituals for thousands of years. Hence, Chinese including many overseas diaspora have built temples to pay respects to Confucius (scholarship), Guan Yu (bravery, honesty, loyalty), Qu Yuan (righteousness, patriotism) and Zheng He (adventure, diplomacy).  Some like Guan Yu and Zheng He are worshipped by other non-Chinese or mixed ethnicities in Southeast Asia. Their beliefs are inclusive. It does not bother overseas Chinese that Zheng He (Cheng Ho / San Bao) was a Hui Muslim.   And Guan Yu was held in high regard in Vietnamese home shrines even though he was of a different ethnicity.  There are many more regional and local folk heroes held in high esteem and models for laymen to follow.

Hero worshipping is probably the Chinese (and some Asian) way of learning from history. This is probably the reason why ancestral worship is an integral part of Chinese customs and traditions. While  Chinese families do not accord divine status to the deceased ancestors, they are "worshipped".  It serves as a reminder for past sacrifices and contributions. It is therefore common to to find ancestors' tablets enshrined in villages and overseas Chinese clan societies.

Thousands of years ago, before moderating and nurturing effects of Confucianism and Buddhism was absorbed by the Chinese, many were pagans and animists. To date, we still find families incorporating worship of the Kitchen God, Heaven Emperor, Mountain and Guardians, Wealth God, etc.

Surprisingly Mao Zedong is still worshipped by some mainland born Chinese baby boomers, overseas residents notwithstanding.  They would usually place a Mao photo or small figurine on the altar or shrine at the side of a Goddess or Mercy or Buddha.  While Mao had built a personality cult, Chinese people had never been duped into believing he was a heavenly son like the Emperors before him who were denounced by his Communist Party.  Mao might have shown superhuman powers when he unified China but he had also committed many grave policy errors and caused untold sufferings to his people.

Mao's bid to get rid of religion in Chinese society could not succeed because beliefs, customs, religion and cultures form a complex matrix,  so closely and strongly intertwined in Chinese society.  Certainly thousands of years of accumulated customs could not be easily wipe out by decades of Cultural Revolution. Today, the fear of excessive materialism and empty souls have prompted the Chinese government to encourage the revival of "religion".

The future face of Chinese religious psyche as increasing number of Chinese turn to Christianity in tandem with the relaxation on church activities is an interesting issue to explore. While Buddhism and Islam are foreign imports assimilated smoothly into the local culture, they are nevertheless oriental philosophies.

I shall deal with this topic in greater detail in future.

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