Taoist temple sees fewer pilgrims as Christianity spreads

By Li Qian Source:Global Times Published: 2017/2/5 20:18:39

A worshipper burns incense at a Taoist temple. Photo: IC

A worshipper burns incense at a Taoist temple. Photo: IC

On the eve of Spring Festival, Dang Daqing arranged a bouquet of plastic flowers in front of a glowing portrait showing Jesus with his arms outstretched.

Dang, 53, is a typical farmer in a village called Tianhai, in Heze, East China's Shandong Province. A born and bred son of the homeland of Confucius, he has been attending a Protestant house church for the last nine years. He now heads the church and its congregation of roughly 20 regular attendees. Every Sunday he leads them in prayers at a fellow convert's home. He occasionally goes to town to attend services at a larger house church and then shares what he learns there with his fellow villagers.

But the father of Dang's wife, who practices Taoism, always puts up candles and burns incense before icons of Taoist gods during Spring Festival and other important days.

The  86-year-old, living in a nearby village, has been a devout Taoist his whole life.

He is a leading figure in his village when it comes to preserving the influence of Taoism, though much of his efforts have proved to be in vain.

Almost every year after Spring Festival, he spares no time in organizing a folk drama performance in the village, as a tribute to the Taoist joss house he helped build.

He has had serious conflicts with his daughter Wang Xiuyu and son-in-law Dang Daqing, since they converted to Christianity.

The old man was startled and irritated to learn about their conversion. He calls what his daughter worships a "demon." The biggest crime, he believes, is that Christians don't cry aloud when their elderly relatives die. In the area people are supposed to cry exaggeratedly at their elder's funerals. The louder the wail, the more filial piety they show, locals believe. Wang fears that when he dies, his daughter won't even shed a tear at his funeral, something he can't accept.

Dang and his wife have led an unhappy life. The woman suffers from long-standing and serious spinal problems, and their youngest son was killed in a traffic accident at age 6. The family, which subsists on their meager farming income, was still grieving when they were approached by a distant Christian relative.

At that time, going to church wasn't common in their village. But the couple found that attending meetings with the Christian brothers and sisters brought them some solace, and their belief in an afterlife helped them through their hard times, especially when it came to their son's death. His wife said her back also hurt less after finding God.

Christianity has rapidly expanded in rural China over the past decade. Official figures put the number of Christians attending government-sanctioned churches at more than 20 million, however, unofficial estimates of the number of practitioners who attend underground house churches range up to over 100 million.

 Though initially exotic to locals, Christianity in the past decade has spread quickly without meeting much resistance in the village. The villagers call the practice of Christianity "xuehao," or "learning to be good," as the church simply asks people to believe in God and behave well, including filial piety and caring for those in need.

A deputy director of the township said he estimates there are more than 2,000 Christians among the area's 40,000 residents.

He promised there is full religious freedom, and that they don't bother interfering with their beliefs as long as the believers are not involved in hostile acts.

Apparently, local Christians are not admired by all their neighbors, least of all Wang's father.

The small temple he helped build, enshrining a number of "djinns" from Taoist saints and regional goddesses, doesn't receive as many as worshippers in recent years compared to when it was built in 2001. Taoism originated in China more than 1,800 years ago, but the number of Taoists has been steadily shrinking.

The temple has been rebuilt four times, according to Wang, since it has been ravaged by war and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). It is said the temple has stood in the same spot for hundreds of years. Wang organized the latest reconstruction of the temple. Construction of the three plain-looking brick buildings with a yard, along with eight 50-centimeter tall icons, was funded by donations which were mostly collected door-to-door by Wang. He has collected more than 100,000 yuan ($14,566) for the construction and maintenance of the structure on the edge of the village.

Wang believes the temple has been good for the village. Nearly 100 students from the village have gone to university in the past decades, and many of the 20 people who have managed the temple have had grandsons, which the locals consider a sign of good luck as boys are still preferred over girls in this area.

But as Wang gets older, he is increasingly worried that the small temple will not last long without him. As villagers of his generation pass away, it has become difficult to raise money for the temple's upkeep from the younger generation. The roof of one of the three temple buildings has been leaking since summer, and he has no man or ability to fix it.

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