Religion in China

When in Inner Mongolia I was able to visit a Buddhist temple that is actually still somewhat close to its roots despite being open for tourists. The Dazhao Temple is a lamaist temple built in 1570, and was the official temple of Manchu Emperor Kangxi. It has beautiful sculptures of Buddha and the goddess Guanyin, as well as various other deities. Every inch of the temple is covered in the most beautiful, bright colors. I didn’t take too many pictures, since it is a place of worship, but you all can go visit the temples yourselves if you make it to China. The art there is amazing.

Monks still live at the temple, unlike many other tourist destinations, and it seems much of the temple is under construction right now. The monks’ living quarters were behind all these contruction matierials.

Next to the temple, there is a preserved, ancient-looking antiques street that was surprisingly untrafficked by other tourists. There, I found a Christian church, although it doesn’t look much like what we have back home.

Here is a view from down the street:

Here is the front of the church, which was plastered with oddly colored passages from the Bible.

The Communist government has never been hospitable to religion, although they claim to allow freedom of religion. In discussions with my Chinese friends, it’s clear that often religion is seen as a foreign affair, and a mysterious one at that.

As our tour guide explained, Inner Mongolia is still a relatively religious place, with many of the citizens still practicing Buddhism. Buddhism remains an important part of the Mongolian culture, and seems to be part of what Inner Mongolians feel sets them apart from the Han. Before the Cultural Revolution, Hohat was almost a religious center, with scores of temples. But during the turbulent times of the 1960s, most were razed. Dazhao was one of the biggest, and was lucky to survive. It was surprising how openly our tour guide criticized the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution, and praised the importance of preserving Mongolian and religious culture, much of which contradicts the directives of the CCP.

Life for modern religious people is not easy either. Religious people cannot be members of the Communist Party, and thus cannot hold office, despite the supposed freedom of religion. In many other positions it seems to be a liability, according to my friends. In addition, all churches must register with the government, or else suffer potentially dire consequences. I think some readers may be interested in this article on Christianity in China.

China is booming, but…

Life in rural areas of China is quite bleak, and Inner Mongolia is a good example. The primary industries there are farming and metal manufacturing. Hohat is a large city, it is relatively unpopulated compared to the booming metropolises of prosperous China.

Even within cities the prosperity can vary wildly within blocks. The below two pictures were taken mere blocks from each other.

Even in the cities of Inner Mongolia donkey-drawn vehicles are not unheard of. Farmers often use donkey-drawn carts to collect brush and move heavy things, and I also saw one selling fruit from the back of his cart.

Once out in the countryside, the poverty of Inner Mongolia is evident. Most buildings you see in the country are empty and abandoned; seemingly all the people have migrated to more prosperous regions. Often even large apartment complexes and farmhouses that look to have been government-built are completely unused or abandoned. It’s common to see complexes of neat, brick-walled homes with small farm plots completely empty.

Most store fronts, even in some smaller cities, are empty. This entire strip of stores in front of our hotel in Baotou was empty.

On our way up to the grasslands, we were privileged enough to have to take a long detour that took us through farmlands and mountain villages that we otherwise would never have seen. All the villages are built with bricks, some are mud brick and others are red brick. Most roofs are made of straw, sheet metal, plastic sheeting or a combination of all ram-shackled together. Many of the villages do have power lines, but don’t have indoor plumbing (toilets are outdoor, open-air squatters). In addition, trash collection does not exist, so villages are littered with trash. Many village buildings are abandoned or barely standing, and the primary source of sustenance is farming. Many people there raise cattle, goats, sheep and other small farm animals, and most seems to be small-scale subsistence farming.

It’s difficult to define poverty after traveling through such desperately poor areas. In America, poverty is drawn with a line, and there is intense discussion of how to “cure” poverty. In China, what we would call poverty is the rule, not an exception to it. People don’t seem to realize that their quality of life is so desperate compared to others in China, and there seems to be little discussion by the rich of how to improve rural life. All of which prompts the question: Is poverty actually defined by the poor’s perception of their own fates? And if so, when are the poor of China going to begin their inevitable revolt?

For more pictures from the entire Inner Mongolia trip, please click here.

Inner Mongolia

Last weekend we went to Inner Mongolia, an autonomous province of China. Inner Mongolia represents an interesting mix of Beijing governance and indigenous culture. The Mongolian people are very proud of their culture, and seem to often have a different political and historical viewpoint from the majority Han Chinese. For example, our tour guide repeatedly referred to “new China” when talking about the historical events leading to the inclusion of Inner Mongolia in China. Usually people in China have the ideology that China is and has always been China, and do not recognize Tibet, Taiwan and Mongolia as once-independent areas. However, the people of Inner Mongolia have a kind of “national” pride in their culture and province that shows independence from the rest of China.

The architecture of Inner Mongolia’s capital, Hohat, is particularly refreshing and beautiful. There is a strong Middle Eastern/Arabic influence in Inner Mongolia, as you can see from the buildings. Although we didn’t get to visit, there is an Arabic section of town in Hohat.

In addition, the Mongolian written language also borrows Arabic letters, which is very beautiful. Most signs in Inner Mongolia seem to be in Chinese characters, but you often see accompanying Mongolian writing.

Another fun thing about Inner Mongolia is that as it is father from the center of all things Olympics, it’s much less cleaned up than Beijing. Accordingly, there is an amusing amount of cultural confusion and Engrish.

For example, one restaurant we went to featured Donald Duck serving duck on a teapot.

Also, Christmas in July at our hotel:

For more pictures from the entire Inner Mongolia trip, please click here.

Engrish of the Week: 4, Mongolia Special Edition

As you may have heard, due to the Olympics authorities in Beijing have been cleaning up a lot of the really bad Engrish. However, their iron grip of logic, grammar and spelling has not quite reached Inner Mongolia.

A sign in the train lavatory:

The sign at the top of the gondola out to the sand dunes:

Perhaps the best Engrish I’ve ever seen:

Ok, technically this isn’t Engrish, since the Chinese and English match up. But it’s creepy as hell in both languages, so I’m posting it anyway.

798 Art District

This weekend, we went to the 798 Art District in Beijing. Originally a factory, the warehouse were turned into gallery space several years ago, and now boast dozens of great galleries. It was truly a breath of fresh air to see Chinese modern art. The media in the district are varied, and include painting, calligraphy, sculpture of all kinds, mixed media, and anything else you can think of. In this respect, the art looks much like American art.

But what was truly interesting about the art was the topics the Chinese artists find pertinent to comment on. There were several bicycle-inspired pieces, cynical comments on modern love, new takes on traditional Chinese landscape painting, feminist art and frank discourses on sex. There was a surprising amount of anti-Mao sentiment in the art pieces. One of the most interesting pieces was a series of photographs documenting birth-control propaganda in rural areas, titled A Billion to One. Here is an example of his work. The sign reads, “Encourage late marriage and late birth, have a better birth.” Many of the photos juxtapose bleak rural life with unrealistically happy images of single-child families on propaganda signs. You just don’t get to see such a wide array of viewpoints on politics, sex, the changing China, and everything else with such honesty in most places here, so the art was truly, truly exciting.

If you come to China, it’s definitely worth a trip. At least at this point, it’s not completely overrun by tourists and those that prey on them with cheesy trinkets. Make sure to save time to spend the day, and pack a lunch. Sodas here cost 20 RMB at most of the restaurants, compared to 3 RMB everywhere else in the universe.

Olympic cleanup

I’m sure there are numerous reports in the west about the Olympic cleanup/crackdown going on in Beijing right now. The truth is, most of the most drastic measures were taken in the last several months, and the August push is just icing on the cake. This Olympics is the most expensive in history, to the tune of about $48 billion. Of course, this includes big ticket items, like the new airport terminal, the stadium, new subway and bus lines… etc. But it also includes strange details, like an Olympic mascot made of flowers, and the below man hole cover.

As long as I’ve been here, the normal beggars and street peddlers have been nowhere to be found. I heard as many as 1.5 million people were deported from Beijing, making it seem a little more Disney.

Officials have reportedly banned spitting, smoking in many areas and dog meat in restaurants as a way of pleasing foreigners.

In the last week, two expat clubs, Propaganda and Vic’s were closed. While not officially a part of the Olympic sweep, no club owner in their right mind would shut down at a time when they would have the most business ever.

Monday the city instituted its restrictions on cars in Beijing. Even and odd license plates will drive on alternate days. As a result, one of the main subway stations was closed because too many patrons posed a safety hazard. Several other stops were also restricted.

One of the funnier things I’ve noticed is that advertising has completely gotten a makeover in the past week. Subway ads are now all Olympic-related, so instead of staring at a random shampoo ad on the subway, you can watch dancing Olympic mascots or Olympic trial reels.

Even Beijing Normal University has hundreds of security guards posted now. In fact there are six posted at the campus gate nearest my dorm. Rather inconveniently, most of the fruit peddlers seem to be kept off campus now.

I know that all of this sounds crazy back home, but in China it is completely taken in stride. Very few of the people seem to feel the government is overstepping its bounds. Even I find these crackdowns strangely normal now, which will probably last as long as they don’t directly affect me.

The saddest thing is that Olympic tourists will never see the real China. Yesterday as I was riding the train, I looked down into the ancient hovels that many low-income Beijingers live in. If the government had it their way, this brick and debris-built homes would be bulldozed tomorrow, and their residents would move out of the city. Gone would be the fruit peddlers, the dimsum carts and the rest of the poor. What the Beijing Olympic Committee seems to not understand is that these people are Beijingers too; you can’t amputate a limb and end up with something beautiful and whole.

I am so proud

Last night I went to a movie with friends after eating dinner. As it is quite hot here and I tend to drink a lot of water, by the time we got to the movie theater, I really had to “go.”

Accordingly, I used a squatty potty for the first time ever, and without incident. Aren’t you proud?