Lao Tze Pew (Trans-Sib 2)

Taoist ex-votos as indicators of Chinese popular concerns.

One of the sights of Beijing is the curious Dongyue Taoist temple, just outside the ruins of the Ming wall. Around a large courtyard are twenty or so chapels, representing “departments” of the pantheon. Unlike Dante’s afterlife, which like feudal society had very low administrative overheads – a handful of judges, clerks, and executioners – this folk Taoist cosmology was build on the analogy of the massive Chinese imperial bureaucracy. So you have a full array of offices for health, wandering ghosts, inflicting painful death, reincarnation, and so on, each presided over by two divine judges, with realistic and sometimes grisly statues exhibiting the relevant human destinies.

The mandate of the judges seems to extend to intervention in this life as well as the next. So believers hang red prayer tablets on the railings in front of each department. Because these are anonymous, standardised, and presumably cost something, the relative number of ex-votos provides an unusual insight into the current values and concerns of ordinary Chinese.

The reddest railings were, as you would expect, those for justified prosperity and health. The more metaphysical departments – reincarnation, wandering ghosts, hell – were neglected. Only three were in a sense political. The environment scored a few prayers; a harbinger of a greener sensibility, one hopes. The department for redistributing unjustly acquired wealth was ignored – there seems little envy of nouveaux riches. But the department for punishing corrupt officials was awash in red. It’s not enrichment as such, but insider enrichment that worries the people. The Chinese leadership hasn’t got a free pass.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web