Posted by Joel Martinsen on Monday, October 8, 2007 at 4:00 PM
A large Buddhist temple has been built in the village of Dazhai, Shanxi Province. The village, a renowned patriotic tourist destination, at first glance does not look like the most likely place for a temple. But this is just the latest incarnation of the famous "Dazhai Spirit."
Dazhai first came to national prominence as a result of Mao's proclamation: "Learn from Dazhai in Agriculture." Under the leadership of Chen Yonggui, the people of Dazhai cleared land for agriculture and built impressive terraces on the hillsides, inspiring the flood of visiting cadres with their spirit of self-reliance.
In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, the Dazhai model was consigned to the dustbin with the rest of the exuberance of the time. Its successes were considered nothing more than propaganda efforts achieved with considerable help from the PLA and funny arithmetic. Chen Yonggui stayed away from the village until his remains were returned there after he died in 1986.
After being marginalized for the remainder of the 1980s, Dazhai once again received national attention in the mid-90s, when former "Iron Lady" brigade leader Guo Fenglian returned to Dazhai as party secretary. Articles in the domestic press portrayed the remarkable progress the village had achieved in business and industry; foreign media highlighted the irony of this progress occurring in the Mecca of collectivist agriculture. Dazhai became a brand name, and it had to fight other, less famous villages of the same name for the right to apply the Dazhai brand to its own products.
Now religion has followed capitalism into Dazhai with the construction of Pule Temple on Tiger Head Hill.
An extensive cover feature in the 16 September issue of South Wind View magazine (南风窗) takes a look at Dazhai's past and present. There's a brief overview of the village's history, profiles of the individuals most closely identified with the Dazhai experiment, and an interview with party secretary Guo Fenglian herself (excerpts translated below).
Li Xiangping, a professor of the Center for Research for Religion and Peace at Shanghai University, contributes an interesting investigation into how religion, both private and institutional, interacts with the traditional idea of the "Dazhai Spirit," and how the idea of faith has changed since the heady days of Maoism in the 60s. Here's an exchange with a monk at the Pule Temple:
A translation of Li's piece on Dazhai's Pule Temple follows:
Dazhai Builds a Templeby Li Xiangping / NFC
The secular debate over the closely-guarded secret of the Buddhist Pule Temple is a microcosm of the national faith question that involves politics, economics, and ideology. The question is not who built the temple, but rather how the development of this temple is regulated and run, and how it can contribute to the prosperity of the people of Dazhai and their diverse faiths.
Construction on Buddhist temples has sprung up all over. But when the people of Dazhai build a Buddhist temple, is it still Dazhai? Is it still a patriotic tourist spot, a national model of agricultural tourism?
Many tourists who come to Tiger Head Hill in search of the Dazhai Spirit are unable to accept the combination "Dazhai + Pule Temple." They hope to see the spirit of bitter struggle, of man conquering nature, not prayers for Guanyin's protection and the embrace of Buddhism. An even harsher criticism is that the temple's arrival in Dazhai heralds a crisis of faith and even the village's ruin. Morever, Pule Temple was constructed at the behest of Jia Xiaojun, the son of village party secretary Guo Fenglian. Guo, however, repeats that Pule Temple is just an extension of Dazhai's tourist industry: tourists can see bitter struggles at the foot of the mountain and can enjoy the myths of history on the mountaintop.
Ever since Mao Zedong said "Dazhai is a banner over the Chinese countryside" in 1964, Chinese have surged to Dazhai. The chairman commanded: "The whole country must learn from Dazhai!" Dazhai was a model, a shrine to China's ideals; here, they could be taken to their unmost and promoted in all sectors and in all parts of the country. The foolish old man could move the mountain and recreate China through self-dependence and hard struggle—this was the original form of the Dazhai Spirit. However, when this spirit was transferred out of man's battle with nature and put to the task of recreating hearts and minds, it underwent a transformation. The basic goals of struggle and self-reliance were no longer intended to fill stomachs, but rather to address the problem of revolutionizing people's thinking.
"Only though self-reliance can the people's minds be revolutionized." Chen Yonggui's peasant understanding dovetailed with the mentality of the Cultural Revolution: in changing the sky, altering the land, and transforming production, the transformation of people was critical; in wrestling with heaven, earth, and catastrophe, wrestling with people was key. This was the essence of the spiritual model of Dazhai. When, standing under the great willows, the village leaders fought against selfishness and repudiated revisionism, who in China was unaware? How many Chinese people copied as as revolutionary faith in their own hearts the short slogan "self-reliance"?
As the bodhisattva in the temple is brought out through the worship of pilgrims, so to was Dazhai created by the Cultural Revolution. This peculiar fate brought to completion the nation's study of Dazhai. So the essence of the Dazhai Spirit is politics played out in agriculture, a utopia built by the natural economy, and an agricultural society and utopian faith recognized by the Chinese people and endlessly duplicated through self-reliance.
Within this model, faith is identified with politics and symbolizes the incomparable prestige of moral authority. Built through the accumulation of successive levels—the state, the collective, the agricultural economy, and personal belief—the Dazhai model of faith had become an indigenous belief system that did not permit free choice. Hence, the Dazhai Spirit is seen as utterly incompatible with the Buddhist faith; as netizens have complained in the name of the people of Dazhai, "Why are other places permitted to build temples but Dazhai is not?"
Perhaps for this reason, when I entered Dazhai with the hope of understanding Pule Temple, the guide was fully on guard, worried that I too would find fault with Dazhai. But I could not help but wonder, is there still no way for Chinese people to truly understand Dazhai and its Spirit? Does building a temple in Dazhai mean the decline of the Dazhai Spirit and a crisis of faith?
Blessing a badge
Many temples have been erected by Dazhai's neighbors. From Tiger Head Hill, you can see the Tianqi Temple of neighboring Wujiaping. Xiyang County has a major temple and Buddhists are no longer rare. Even among the people of Dazhai there are more than 20 Buddhists. The village also has some Christians who go to Xiyang County to worship. Even more commonplace is the God of Wealth, whom most of the people of Dazhai believe in. They have his image pasted on their doorways, and in their shops they have offerings to the old God. Mao Zedong and their ancestors are venerated at home.
There is a pervasive belief in Mao Zedong among the people of Dazhai. A "poor fellow" who had fought with Chen Yonggui against the Langwozhang Gulley told me that he didn't believe in any other gods. He only believed in Mao Zedong. Every year when he venerates his ancestors, he will bow before a statue of Chairman Mao and offer incense. A middle-aged man who looked like a village cadre was even more direct: "Without Chairman Mao, there'd be no Dazhai today. Chairman Mao is the God of Wealth for the people of Dazhai." A woman who ran a hotel in Dazhai said, "Chairman Mao is our account-book." When I asked whether the construction of Pule Temple would influence the faith of the people of Dazhai in Chairman Mao, practically everyone shook their heads. They believe that there is no conflict between worshiping Guanyin and belief in Chairman Mao.
It astonished me that the simple folk of Dazhai had their own unique understanding of faith. They separated their faith in Guanyin from their belief in Chairman Mao; they looked to the God of Wealth and Chairman Mao in business, and to the bodhisattva for other things.
The people of Dazhai explained their faith in this way: "Dazhai believed in the God of Wealth, ancestors, and Chairman Mao. After Pule Temple was built, they added Guanyin. They're both good things. People who find a contradiction here are stuck in the old mentality."
Today, in Dazhai's tourist shops, one can see traces of the worship of Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong alongside Cultural Revolution memorabilia; "The sun is reddest and Chairman Mao is most beloved" ring in one's ears. Behind the statues of Mao Zedong are mainly pictures of Guanyin. Many of the Mao statues have "Great One, Protect Me" (伟人户身) written on them and seem like they've made Mao Zedong's image into an amulet. More curiously, written on the boxes for those Mao statues is the line, "A blessed divine manifestation" (开光显灵). A shopkeeper told me, "After Pule Temple was built, Chairman Mao's statues no longer needed to be taken to other places to be blessed. Pule Temple itself could bless the Mao statues."
A monk at Pule Temple gave me an earnest explanation. He said, "There's no fundamental conflict between worshiping Mao Zedong and belief in Sakyamuni. Chairman Mao is Buddha, and Buddha is Chairman Mao. Mao Zedong was a leader; Sakyamuni is the embrace of the universe, the everlasting spirit."
Evidently, the belief system of the people of Dazhai is divided into several levels. Belief in Mao Zedong and faith in Guanyin occupy independent positions and do not interfere with each other. In the era of Mao when faith was a political tool, ideals became metaphors for power. There was no other choice for faith in Dazhai, and it was the same for the majority of the Chinese people. However, the Dazhai belief system, permeated with layer upon layer of political campaigns, ideology, and folk traditions, still displayed the folk color of Dazhai faith: the faith in Guanyin that has come to the surface today.
The mythology of Pule Temple says that in ancient times, a tiger from Kunlun Mountain and a white dragon from the eastern ocean fought ceaselessly on Tiger Head Hill, to the point that the people could no longer live their lives. Then the bodhisattva Guanyin aided the people by restricting the dragon and tiger within their own borders. From then on, terraces were built on the dragon's back and the tiger's side. The people of Dazhai lived and worked in safety.
But during the Cultural Revolution, the sweeping successes in the war against nature led by Uncle Yonggui suppressed this faith in Guanyin. The belief of Uncle Yonggui and the people of Dazhai in Chairman Mao very easily became the center of Dazhai's faith. This faith in moral authority was a process of compulsory sanctification; there was no other choice to be had.
But in its private form, traditional belief did not die. Even though it had no way to express itself within the confines of red ideology and the accumulated levels that made up the belief system of Dazhai, it remained present. Veneration of ancestors, Expelling Poverty (送穷节), Welcoming the Grain God, Buddha's Birthday, Good Fortune, Prosperity, and Long Life (福禄寿), Bringing in Wealth and Riches (招财进宝), the Five Happinesses, the Bright Shining Lucky Star (吉星高照)....the folk Buddhism of Xiyang is quite deep and has many followers.
The faith of the Chinese people differs in form from person to person. It is fragmented and comes in all shapes and sizes. Everyone chooses his form of belief according to his station, position, and occupation. At the same time, this broad, multi-layered belief system has a center, symbolizing the era's need for power, wealth, and ideals...especially after a particular faith has been forcefully sanctified by power, other faiths can no longer be sacred and are forced to secularize. But when that sanctified faith fails, the other, extremely secularized indigenous faiths can once again become sacred.
The faith of Dazhai was dug up with a spade by Uncle Yonggui. How can it continue? There is nothing left worth digging up. But the form of Dazhai's faith was no sealed drum. Before Chen Yonggui passed away, he selected three stones halfway up Tiger Head Hill for his grave. "Don't bury me in Langwozhang. That's a bad place." And his poor fellows had secretly conferred with a fengshui master over the plot.
In reality, there were always many Buddhists among the people of Dazhai. Before Guo Fenglian's son Jia Xiaojun converted, he accompanied his mother to Guoqing Temple in Tiantai, Zhejiang Province, for Buddhist rites. This allowed Jia to experience Buddhism directly. Five years later, Jia's business was growing every day, and his Buddhist faith was growing as well. He wanted to build a large temple in Dazhai. So the descendent of the Iron Lady became the founder and protector of Pule Temple.
The economy builds the stage on which religion performs
Jia Xiaojun is equipped with the resources of three separate individuals: he is a member of the political elite, the business elite, and the religious elite. Thus his investments can be understood as utilizing a combination of political, business, and religious resources. However, the religious and sociological implications of his investments are not limited to this.
Although Tiger Head Hill is collectively owned by Dazhai, Pule Temple is privately financed and is an expression of personal faith. Times have changed: earning money is now a personal affair, and faith has followed. Hence personal faith and private investment, such as using the temple to make money or donating money to build a temple, have fostered a distinctive exchange between the Buddhist faith and economic capital. This is form of faith particular to Dazhai and contemporary China.
Though such a form has encountered criticism in the secular world, it deserves attention for dispelling the compulsory sanctification of the power-faith relationship of the Cultural Revolution by using economic choice as a means to construct a spiritual space that offers personal choice. Individuals can choose whether or not to believe. This demonstrates that the people of Dazhai have left behind the Cultural Revolution tradition of compulsory sanctification. Pule Temple is a symbol of change; it is a metaphor for the transformation that is taking place, or has already taken place, in the faith of Dazhai.
The construction of Pule Temple belongs to a logic in which religion constructs the stage on which the economy performs. When faced with the "red idol" of Dazhai, profit-driven diversity shattered the former mandatory sacred order. In response to the external demands of economic capital, it built up another form of belief: the free expression of personal religious belief through interested choice.
The power of the economy has transformed China. It has also transformed the faith model of the people of Dazhai and China and is integrated with social power. The transformation this model has effected on Chinese faith deserves continued investigation and follow-up research from the academy, but it is quite likely that, aided by the support religion gives to the economy, there will be a transition to an operating model in which the economy builds the stage on which religion performs.
So the question is not who builds the temple, but rather how the development of this temple is regulated and run, and how it can benefit the prosperity of the people of Dazhai and their diverse faith. Most worrisome is the possiblity that by virtue of being privately-funded, Pule Temple will gradually turn into a private temple, the "Guo Family Temple" of Dazhai.
It's not faith that's in crisis
Chinese private belief is typified by "spiritual smuggling" (精神走私), and it manages to endure within the context of sacred tension. This is a spiritual vitality unique to China, one that allows for compulsory belief as well as private, stealthy belief, each in its own way. Hence the order of public power permits this spiritual smuggling form of faith, and the spokespersons for this power take no end of pleasure in it. Their only concern is for the institutional religion that forms spontaneously out of the beliefs of countless individuals.
When the people of Dazhai build a temple, it is essentially because of the interaction of this spiritual smuggling with private investment. Such an act does not interfere with public power, and hence is not alarming. Calling this "an offense to Chairman Mao and to Chen Yonggui" is an overreaction. Naturally, there is no read into this a spiritual crisis for the people of Dazhai. The greatest danger in Chinese society is not this type of private faith; the people of Dazhai themselves have no sense of crisis.
The most vehement and most typical criticisms are probably words written online directed at Guo Fenglian. Such criticism takes direct aim at Guo's status as a communist: party members should be materialists and they should believe in Marxism, so she should not be at the forefront of promoting superstition by supporting her son's financing of the temple.
However appropriate this criticism may seem, it is in fact incorrect. Basic knowledge of religious studies says that building a temple is not equivalent to promoting superstition, and in fact, Pule Temple was built with all the proper legal paperwork in hand. Guo Fenglian's son has the freedom to believe whatever he wants, and Guo has no right to interfere. More critically, this type of criticism once again sets up a dichotomy between "disbelief in Marx and Lenin" and "belief in Guanyin." Not only does it confuse religion, superstition, religious faith, and power politics, it also sees the question of Chinese faith as the most critical problem facing contemporary China.
In truth, the faith changes of the people of Dazhai are symbolic of the special makeup of faith in China. Political faith does not have a simple antagonistic relationship with the accumulation of folk, religious, and personal faith. When political faith ruled, private, scattered faith naturally had no choice or expression, but now that political faith no longer rules men's hearts, private faith has sprouted, providing choice and free expression.
At this point in time, if the Chinese people are still limited within the existing confines of faith, if they are nostalgic for the former compulsory sacred order, then they may see this personal choice in private faith as a danger; they might see diversity of belief as the ultimate source of China's present problems.
But this is not the case. Private faith causes no major problems and has helped the cause of public order. It has ever been thus. If personal faith can be separated from political faith and national faith, particularly during times of irreversible social changes, then the three can coexist happily. Hence, faith is not in crisis in China; rather, it is the former sacred order of faith under public authority, an order that makes no distinction between public and private faith, that is in danger.
This writer recently read a dissertation that contained the following example, which coincidentally takes place during the sacred age when the country was learning from Dazhai. To learn from Dazhai and create terraces, a mountain village in the northeast blasted apart the Green Dragon and White Tiger stones, revered by the villagers as belonging to the god of the mountain. This cut off the traditional avenue the villagers used to express their personal faith, causing the villagers enormous spiritual harm. Many young people died under mysterious circumstances. In the reform era, the villagers unanimously requested that they be allowed to resume worship of the mountain god, to venerate the Green Dragon and White Tiger stones once again. But the village head and the party secretary could not do anything because of their position, so it fell to the old people of the village to reconstruct their traditional faith and stabilize the land.
This is a typical example of popular organizations bringing about folk religion and stabilizing society. At the same time, it proves the social implications of folk and private faith. Without faith, there will be structural danger. If people jointly choose a belief, whether it is popular or private, it will build up a sacred order. A woman from Dazhai told me that to seek a son, she hid an amulet against evil at her house. She explained that Chairman Mao had not said anything against protection from evil.
Society's faith deficit
Economic development and forms of power determine the rise and fall of religion and faith. This is one distinguishing aspect of religion and faith in China today. Religion built by symbolic and economic capital has a complicated structure that pulls in the state, the market, and the individual. However, society is left out; there are no popular organizations, faith communities, or social groups.
So institutional religion and private faith must attach themselves to the marketplace, or to state power, to the point that religion does not resemble religion, and faith does not look like faith. Politics, economics, and sometimes even power get too tangled up. Hence religion and faith are unable to follow a secularized road; on the other hand, politics, economics, and power get sanctified once again.
Such is the case with Dazhai's Pule Temple. If it is a shared expression of the faith of the people of Dazhai, collectively financed and constructed by popular organizations, then there would be substantially fewer problems. The key issue here is that private capital has taken land from the collective and has made use of public authority. Without the support of the community, Pule Temple will be unable to enter popular society; rather, it can only teeter on the boundary between public authority and economic capital. This is the reason for the large volume of criticism and disagreement that has greeted it. The subtle connections of this situation to the nationally-sanctified ideologically-based faith wrought by power over the last half-century are worthy of careful exploration.
Such a phenomenon could be called "Large Buddhism, Small Faith" (大佛教, 小信仰). Large Buddhism refers to the diverse operations of the state, business, and private individuals. Small faith is the unlimited enlargement of personal faith with the assistance of public authority and public resources. Thus, crudely sticking an enlarged faith as an "intermediate logic" between large Buddhism and small faith will bring profit to private individuals while depriving society of a voice.
It is the practice of this "small faith" that seems most in crisis. If it encounters the intermediate logic that provokes an indefinite expansion of private faith, then what was once a personal, free faith undergoes a change in form and substance. As a result, while Chinese people may be able to choose from among countless forms of personal faith, their interpersonal differences become greater the more choices they have. Everyone is an arhat, everyone is their own Hinayana; there is no way for society to construct a common understanding of the sacred.
In reality the Chinese people do not lack for faith. What they lack is a workable model for building a common understanding and evaluation of the sacred on the foundation of free faith. Individuals have faith, but they also must find ways to share their faith, to build legal faith communities, and to organize accepted belief systems. Chinese people do not lack personal faith; rather, it is "social faith" that is lacking, a model of social faith that exists apart from the state and the marketplace.
The theories of sociology of religion tell us that things are like this not because of some problem with faith, nor because of problems with religion, but because their structural logic is changing. Religious traps may appear if "small faith" is strengthened and enlarged with a lack of social background. Unreasonable supply and disposal of sacred resources, an excessive intermediate logic between private faith and institutional religion, and various economic interests and shareholder operations naturally combine to create China's unique "unequal faith," a situation that may ultimately deteriorate to faith that is neither accepted nor credible.
In such a case, the faith of the Chinese people will continue to be irrational shamanistic beliefs that have no effect on society. It will never become a faith that is accepted by society, or a faith within a religion.
Li Xiangping often writes for SWV about the role of religion in Chinese society. His blog carries drafts of these and other articles; one interesting recent piece looks at the interaction of bureaucratic superstition with the democratic process.
Here are some excerpts of that interview in which Guo talks of her role in the changes that are taking place in the village:
South Wind View: Phoenix TV ran a report on Dazhai's Pule Temple a short time ago. You were reportedly not very pleased with it.
Some people do not understand us, and there have been reports that have distorted facts. I've been a party member for 43 years. I've been with the party for so long, why would I be displeased with the party? I'm a woman; I work my hardest to do things. When poor people from outside come to me I've never sent them away empty-handed. Dazhai supports those it can; those that Dazhai cannot support, I provide for out of my own pocket. Other places in the county have asked me to carry out policy with them, and I go to put my fame to use. Where did my fame come from? I didn't do it myself. It was given by the party, by the people. Shouldn't I give something back to the people now? In some places it's hard to get a loan, so I go with them to the bank to talk to the president. Dazhai does not belong to Shanxi, or to Xiyang. It belongs to the CPC Central Committee, to the People's Government, to the people of China. Dazhai's stature was granted by Chairman Mao. If I can't take care of the people's affairs, I can't hold up my head when I see the CPC Central Committee.
False reports from elsewhere impact us negatively, and place pressure on cadres and the masses. It's annoying to see prejudiced and unfair criticisms. Society shouldn't see things superficially; they always see Dazhai as something from the past, and want us to keep living in that environment. That's too much to ask. However, we've endured for decades, so we're not afraid of a bit of criticism. The people of Dazhai are magnanimous.
SWV: Lots of people wonder: does Dazhai still have the Dazhai spirit?
A few provincial secretaries and governors in Shanxi were concerned with Dazhai as well. Municipal committees and city governments also supported us.
A few months after Tian Jiyun left, Zhu Rongji came. He wept at the sight of Dazhai. He saw the row after row of terraced fields and said, this is a rural Great Wall of China. Tiger Head Hill was formerly bald, but we planted trees there and built row upon row of homes. Zhu Rongji said, it's not been easy for you over these years. How hard you've worked! He said that Dazhai would become a base for patriotic education. He had our governor assist in developing tourism so that everyone could come and study the Dazhai Spirit.
It's very disappointing when today's youth say they cannot see the Dazhai Spirit. If there were no Dazhai Spirit, then this land here would simply not exist. It's just that Dazhai Spirit exists in a different form today. Its essence is the same. If Dazhai did not develop its economy, then it could not have gone anywhere. Why didn't Dazhai develop at all between the 1980s and the early 1990s? Because, while the party's policy was to open up, Dazhai did not take advantage of the opportunity. When I came back at the end of 1991, the provincial party secretary and the governor came to talk to me. They said, Fenglian, you're going to have it tough now that you're back. You must work to spread the Dazhai Spirit. But we can't define the Dazhai Spirit as continuing to crawl in the earth, face toward the ground and back toward the sky.
SWV: What problems do you have now? Or what worries you?
Additionally, I have this worry: the party's policies are the best in history for the countryside; how can I utilize the party in this generation to raise up the living standard of the common people? Even though Dazhai's population isn't too big, it is quite influential, so how can Dazhai build a new socialist countryside?
SWV: But there are many people who worry that when Guo Fenglian leaves Dazhai again, Dazhai will fall back into decay.
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