Villagers cash in on reincarnation interest, govt turns a blind eye

By Southern Weekly – The Beijing News Source:Global Times Published: 2015-7-13 18:43:01

Dozens of residents of a Hunan Province township say that they have been reincarnated, and claim to remember scenes from their "past lives." This phenomenon has encouraged tourism and some say the local government hasn't labeled this practice as "superstition" or stamped it out for this reason.

Two Dong girls in traditional costumes Photo: CFP

He Bing has believed for decades that his daughter, He Zina, is the reincarnation of his sister.

His sister drowned 29 years ago. Three years later, his daughter was born. When she was 1 year old, she pointed to a sickle that belonged to her aunt and said "This is mine," he told the Southern Weekly.

After He Zina turned 2, she started to remember more and more things about her "past life," including how she died while swimming in a river, He Bing claimed. He, a resident of Pingyang township, Hunan Province, told the Beijing News that his daughter could remember how her body was placed on the river bank after she had been pulled out of the river. 

He Zina is 26 years old now and has children of her own. When asked, she said she doesn't really believe that she is the reincarnation of her relative.

But whether she believes in the myth or not doesn't really matter. The villagers have started making money out of these claims and they have encouraged tourism. The government, though it hasn't recognized this phenomenon, also hasn't called it superstition or dismissed it right away. Some have said that the government also wants to use these claims for development purposes. 

Remembering the past

He Zina's mother thinks her daughter doesn't remember much about her "past life" because of a local soup made of red carp she used to make for her daughter. The locals think this fish can make "reincarnated" people forget about their "past lives."

Even though He Zina says she doesn't have any memory of past lives, many of the other villagers claim to have such memories.

Pingyang township has less than 8,000 residents and most of them are of the Dong ethnicity. These people are scattered across several villages in the township, and like most villages in China, the rural communities are mostly made up of old people and children, as the young migrate to big cities for work.

In these villages, most people know each other. When asked, almost every villager can tell a story about someone they know who remembers being a pig in his last life, or a child who is the reincarnation of his grandfather.

Shi Shuangren, a 52-year-old woman, told the Beijing News she started remembering her past life at 2, after she fell down some stairs.

She was called Yao Jia'an in her "last life." She was born in 1936, and died of a fever when she was 24. She says that three years after that, in 1953, she was reincarnated as Shi Shuangren.

Some seniors remember that there was a Yao Jia'an living in the area, who died in 1950 after she washed her feet in a fish pond and was apparently poisoned.

Even Yao's children, Wu Qing and Wu Hong, believe that Shi was their mother in her past life.

"She told me some things about my mother, and was very accurate," he told the Beijing News.

When Shi was 11, she sought out Wu Qing and Wu Hong and told them she believed that she is their mother's reincarnated soul. Wu Qing said Shi ran into a middle school classmate of their mother's and called out her name, despite never having met her before.

Wu Hong is 2 years older than Shi, and Wu Qing is 10 months older, but they both call her "mom" and help her out in her daily life. A couple years ago Wu Qing even installed new windows for Shi.

There have been investigations conducted into the reincarnations, but no empirical evidence for their existence has been found.

Wang Han, a graduate student at Guangxi Normal University, found a possible explanation for this phenomenon in Dong culture. For example, the locals love building bridges, which symbolizes connecting the worlds of the dead and the living, according to the Southern Weekly. In the context of these beliefs, its understandable that these stories about links between the living and the dead have become popular.

Tourists as well as researchers have come to the township. He Bing said before stories of reincarnation became popular, because the township is remote, only a few visitors came. There was not even one hotel in the area.

But since the stories started spreading, backpackers started arriving. Now He has almost become a full-time tour guide. When people come, they contact him and he sets up appointments with "reincarnated" people. He even takes the tourists to a hotel his friend recently opened.

Supernatural suspicion

But as the local tourism industry has grown, so has the number of people expressing their doubts about the stories of reincarnation.

For one thing, those who were "reincarnated" almost all had unnatural deaths in their "last lives." Their reincarnations are first "recognized" by family members when they are young, and the stories usually spread through the words of the "reincarnated" person's family members.

A villager, Yang Gangdi, believes his 5-year-old son Yang Yu was his father in his last life. When Yang Yu was 2 years old, he woke up in the middle of the night and said to Yang Gangdi's mother, "The roof is leaking. Have Gangdi fix it," according to the Beijing News.

Yang Gangdi's father died after falling off the roof while repairing it. Because of this dream talk, he began to believe in reincarnation.

Yang Yu isn't different from other children his age. He likes toy cars and cartoons. When a Beijing News reporter visited and asked him to talk about his past life, Yang Yu hid and didn't speak.

Some have questioned Yang Gangdi's story. They asked him whether people outside the family are ever present when Yang Yu said things that would show he possesses memories of a past life. But Yang Gangdi said only his mother was present at the time.

Tourists have asked him whether his mother made up the stories of Yang Yu saying these things because she missed her husband so much, and Yang Gangdi couldn't answer.

Furthermore, some of these who were "reincarnated" and are willing to speak to others about it are rather poor. There is an unwritten rule in these villages that when one visits a "reincarnated" soul, one should bring a gift or money in red envelopes.

Shi Shuangren currently lives by herself. Her only child is working in Guangdong Province and her husband passed away years ago.

She loves retelling the story of her "reincarnation." She told the Southern Weekly she gets more than 200 visitors a year, and they almost all bring her gifts or money. Some of the paintings hung on her walls were gifts from visitors. A man in her village has the phone numbers of more than 10 entrepreneurs. Last year, an entrepreneur from Taiwan came to visit and gave him more than 2,000 yuan ($322.13), 10 times more than a normal donation.

The villagers have turned this into a business. A mother of a "reincarnated" villager told the Southern Weekly that a neighbor asked her whether he could bring tourists to visit her in the future, and "if tourists pay me 500 yuan, he'll take 200 yuan, if they give 300 yuan, he'll take 100 yuan."

Little interference 

The concept of reincarnation has existed for a long time in Pingyang. But it started spreading on the Internet in 2008, when the director of the government-run cultural center of Pingyang township, Yang Shengyu, started a personal blog.

The first blog post he wrote was about the local reincarnations, pointing out that it's a puzzling ethnic and cultural phenomenon.

He recorded nine stories of alleged reincarnations, and each entry was detailed and featured the real names of the people involved.

After these blogs went viral, a few people came from nearby cities to see whether they could find any of their own relatives who had been "reincarnated." Then as media reports grew, more tourists came.

The government didn't label this practice as superstition or try to stamp it out. Some said the government is using this "resource" to develop tourism. 

Hu Yilong, an official at the publicity department of Tongdao county, which administers Pingyang township, told the Sothern Weekly that right now the government's attitude is "neutral, neither confirming nor denying."

The government never used reincarnations to promote tourism, nor - despite rumors to the contrary - did it set up museums or research institutes for these people.

But on the other hand, the government didn't rush to call this phenomenon a superstition, and this attitude is rare. The Communist Party of China espouses a materialist philosophy and sees matters without scientific explanations as superstitions, and usually would declare them as such.

Wei Xiaoan, the director of the Planning and Finance Department of the China National Tourism Administration, traveled across China after his retirement and gave advice on how to develop local tourism.

In 2010, he was invited to speak by the Tongdao government, and he said reincarnations were a tourism resource at a conference with the officials.

He showed a Southern Weekly reporter his speech. It included advice such as "don't call it superstition if you don't understand it, there's room for discussion," "establish a museum and collect files on these people" and "even though the government can't openly advertise, it can be done on a grass-roots level."

Hu Yilong welcomes the media reports, but doesn't agree with voices questioning the truth of reincarnations.

In 2013, a newspaper in Jiangsu Province claimed the reincarnation stories were actually a collective lie perpetuated by the Tongdao government and residents.

"We were going to sue them for publishing this fake news," Hu told the Beijing News.

Even though some villagers are making money out of the "reincarnated" people, many still can't accept this.

"Some families worry about whether their newborns are reincarnated," a villager told the Beijing News. "Even though we are used to this phenomenon, we don't want our children to be reincarnated."

Southern Weekly - The Beijing News

Newspaper headline: Born again business

Posted in: In-Depth

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