Chaotic scenes of crowds pushing and shoving occurred for a short while on Saturday outside the largest temple in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, when thousands of people fought for free "blessed" porridge handed out by the temple on the traditional Laba Festival, which falls on the eighth day of the twelfth month in the lunar calendar.
Experts said that superstition and misunderstandings regarding Buddhist culture were to blame for the outbursts.
The Lingyin Temple has since 2009 given out Laba congee, a porridge made from rice, nuts and various dried fruits. The people have eaten it during Laba Festival to celebrate the enlightenment day of the Shakyamuni Buddha.
Many residents had been waiting since 5 am, but the chaotic scenes occurred for 15 minutes at midday, a volunteer at the temple told the Global Times, adding that security guards came to handle the unruly porridge-seekers and no one was injured.
"By the afternoon, everything was in order," a witness at the site told the Global Times Sunday, adding that serenity was maintained. "The volunteers there even gave each of us several bowls of porridge because the end of the offer was approaching."
The temple on Saturday distributed 162,000 bowls of porridge, and the number surpassed 400,000 since distribution began on Thursday.
"I have had porridge made by Lingyin for two years in a row because I think it's blessed and will bring my family good luck," a local resident surnamed Wu, who sprained his ankle during the rush for porridge, told the Global Times.
According to the volunteer, the temple's abbot said he was happy to see traditional festivals and Buddhist culture being valued so much and he hoped people would not get hurt when receiving the free food.
"The porridge was sufficient and the blessed atmosphere was only ruined for a while by some greedy people," said an anonymous 45-year-old local resident, also a Buddhist.
The local Today Morning Express reported that a large number of the people in the queue were elderly and were planning to take the porridge home to their families to ensure good blessings for them.
Zhang Yiwu, deputy director of the Cultural Resources Research Center of Peking University, said superstition was partly to blame. "It is good to celebrate traditional festivals, but some people blindly wanted to receive a treat from Buddha and even 'fought' for porridge that almost everyone could afford anyway. This was contradictory to the Buddhist spirit of peace and harmony."
The porridge giveaway, a tradition which can be dated back to the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), is said to have initially involved monks giving to the poor. Some believe the porridge confers Buddha's blessings.