China's Buddhist Pilgrimage Sites Draw Huge Crowds At New Year


2017-02-02
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china-incense-feb022017.jpg A young woman burns incense at Putuo Shan, Zhejiang, February 2017.
Photo sent by an RFA listener

Hundreds of thousands of people are flocking daily to major Buddhist shrines and mountains to make offerings for the start of the Year of the Rooster in China, where the atheist ruling Chinese Communist Party has barred its members from following any religion.

In central China, crowds flocked to burn incense at the Zhou Shan and Putuo Shan pilgrimage sites, as well as Guiyuan Temple in Wuhan, eyewitnesses told RFA.

"I went to make offerings at the Guanyin shrine in Putuo Shan, and I went from Puji Temple to Fayu Temple, which is a four-day incense-burning pilgrimage," a Buddhist surnamed Cai told RFA.

"They are seeing hundreds of thousands of people there daily, with tens of thousands of vehicles; the car parks were totally full," Cai said. "This is the best place in China to make incense offerings."

He said that while it's fine for the Communist Party to ban its members from religious practice, that doesn't seem to be working for the rest of the population.

"Chinese people can't get by without some form of religious belief," Cai said. "They have started believing in other things now [apart from socialism] ... They want something they can rely on, psychologically."

Cai said religious pilgrimage is big business in today's China, with tickets to get into the shrines in Zhejiang selling at 200 yuan (U.S.$30) apiece.

Long queues snake back from the shrines during the busy festive period, he added, while business owners ratchet up prices to cash in on the booming trade.

"All the [nearby] hotels are full, and they cost 900 yuan (U.S.$130) a night for a tiny room of just 11 meters square in the small hostels," Cai said. "In the bigger hotels, it's one or two thousand yuan (up to U.S.$250) a night."

In February 2016, the party issued new guidelines banning its members from following any religion even after they retire from official life, a directive which came after an extensive survey of the religious practices of its members.

'Subversive influence'


President Xi Jinping has cited religion in particular as a means by which "hostile foreign forces" seek to exert a subversive influence in China, and his administration was worried to find that many party members are religious believers, experts told RFA.

The survey involved inquisition-style meetings to gather information and records on believers, religious studies experts said.

Observers say many of the Communist Party's 80 million members have little or no faith in its political ideology, and joined because they wanted to be part of the ruling class.

Cai said former President Jiang Zemin once made a New Year pilgrimage to Putuo Shan, which is nestled among a huge archipelago in a coastal setting, and features a huge, standing statue of Guanyin, goddess of compassion.

"Back then, they closed off the entire area, and Puji Temple opened its great gates to let him in, as if he was the Emperor," Cai said.

"Those gates hadn't been opened for a century, since the last emperors, but they opened them for Jiang Zemin."

In Wuhan, crowds were equally dense at Guiyuan Temple, according to a local resident surnamed Zhang.

"People don't put their faith in the government; they put it in the Buddha," Zhang said. "Their psyches have been twisted by all the [bad] things the government has done over the years."

"Everyone is a bit mixed up now."

He agreed that many of the ruling elite also have religious beliefs.

"A lot of the children of government officials pay tribute to President Xi with one hand, and to the Buddha with the other," Zhang said.

Praying for wealth


Buddha and Guanyin are not the only figures receiving offerings, however, according to Cai. The first days of a new year are traditionally a time to make offerings to the God of Wealth, too.

"Mostly, when people go to Putuo Shan, they are looking for spiritual peace, but when they go to Guiyuan Temple, they go to make offerings to the God of Wealth," he said.

"Guiyuan Temple also sees crowds of 100,000 in a single day, and has done so for the past few years," Cai said.

Netizens commented wryly on photos of the crowds burning incense for the God of Wealth.

"Seeing these photos, anyone who cares about our nation should be filled with despair," one commented.

Another retorted: "Everything in this country is geared towards money, so if they don't care about it, what are their families supposed to eat, wind?"

"The whole of Chinese society has been perverted by money, and the God of Wealth is the only god of the Chinese people," the user wrote.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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