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The Gods Who Failed Us
A Chinese Women's Account of Her Encounter with the West as a A Young Girl
“All things under the sky are to be united after a long period of separation, and separated after a long period of union.” — Chinese adage
Inmy childhood memory, Chinese history class left deep marks. My history teacher, Mrs. Tang, was a sweet-voiced, cheerful woman in her 40s. She kept her sweeping, black and silky hair hanging to her waist, very unusual among the standard short-cut women of her age group wore in the 80s. This was right after the Cultural Revolution. Women’s instinct of beautifying themselves was still pretty much squashed.
Mrs. Tang spent several months walking us through the gloriously long and vastly rich and complex Chinese history, starting from the dynasty of Xia beginning as early as 2070 BC. Swaying her long, black hair, eyes sparking, she numerated all the splendid achievements and progress each dynasty made towards shaping Chinese culture. She told us that we Chinese, the descendants of Yan Ti (the Flame Emperor) and Huang Ti (Yellow Emperor), which was how we liked to call ourselves, should be proud of this history and origin we shared.
But when the history class reached the early 19th century, as if changed to a different person, Mrs. Tang was solemn and cheerless. The sparks left her eyes and her voice was weighted down by a sense of indignation and sorrow. She told us how China first encountered the “others: the Westerners”.
For thousands of years before the 18th century, China had been largely insulated from the western world by the Pacific Ocean on the east and the Himalayas on the west. At the end of the 18th century, there was a huge demand of Chinese tea, silk and porcelain in Europe and yet there was almost no demand of European goods in China. To solve this trade imbalance, the British found a way to grow opium cheaply in India, and sold to China with a great profit margin. Thus they created a steady demand of opium among the addicts, enabling them to get the goods they demanded without paying the fair price. When the Qing dynasty resisted the opium trade, British warships reached the eastern shore of China in 1840, and broke open the seal of China with their guns and cannons in the first Opium War. Once the door was swung open, enticed by the smell of profit, the Americans, French, Germans, and Italians (as well as Japanese) all joined in to get a piece of the pie. Overpowered by the far more advanced foreign militaries, the government of the Qing dynasty was forced to sign a series of unjust treaties, subjecting the country’s resources to the exploitation and the land to colonization of the western countries.
Mrs. Tang told the story of how hundreds of thousands of once strong men and women were lured by opium and reduced to cripples; how the coastal cities from Qingdao, Shanghai to Guangzhou, were cut up like kills after a hunt and sold to various western countries as colonies, in which the Chinese were oppressed and enslaved; and how historical artifacts and priceless treasures were stolen or robbed from the ancient palaces and temples and transported to the west.
As if frozen by the grief and anger of crushing humiliation, her hair was not swaying at all. An unbearable heaviness charged the air. The same heaviness arose whenever the topic of this period of our history appeared in conversations among people, as if the ghosts who suffered and died from that war have not yet rested peacefully. Hovering on our back, they hissed,
“This was what happened to us when we became weak and defenseless, being butchered like sheep. We shall never let this happen again!”
Chinese history itself is full of bloody violence. Every dynasty was erected on mountains of corpses from brutal wars. The neighboring tribes around the central government constantly fought, merging with and dividing from China. And yet, after 5000 years of tumultuous churning, the spirit of Chinese culture took on a resilient life of her own and became a constant and coherent thread weaving through the changing tides of time, through peace and turmoil, sustaining a web of inter-connectivity among different ethnic groups. Unbound by the borders of countries, this Spirit was also shared with other Southeast countries, such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia.
The traumatic encounter with the West stands out in the minds of modern Chinese, not because of the magnitude of tragedy or economic loss, but because of its fatal blow to this Spirit. In this first encountering, western countries treated China primarily as a vast and rich reservoir of resources to feed their insatiable greed. They did not have the eyes to see and appreciate what her Spirit was before they subdued and raped her with the machines of their technology. They also forced the Chinese people to look at themselves through the lens of the western perspective. From this perspective, it was the first time the Chinese saw themselves as backwards, crude, primitive and inferior. To people for whom the pride of their collective identity was the bedrock of their sense of self, the pain of this humiliation was intolerable.
This humiliation seemed particularly hard on men around me. The role of protecting their family and tribe was ingrained in manhood ever since tribal society millennia ago. My dad, uncles and their male friends loved conversing and ruminating over politics and history over meals during family gatherings, while women hovered around, cooking, cleaning and chatting about household matters.
The men loved to talk about how strong China was during Tang dynasty, how sophisticated our civilization was when Europe was still crawling in a dark age. “Back then, we could have overtaken them easily if we wanted to.” Sometimes the men would make these remarks to solace the wounded collective ego. But the glaring facts of history hung like a giant question mark — Why did we decline so much? What rendered us so weak? What should we do so this won’t happen to us again?
Among all the stories Mrs. Tang told in her history class, I was most taken by the story of the Boxer Rebellions occurring around 1900. The Boxers were peasants, often poor, but strong-willed and physically powerful. They organized to rebel against the oppression of foreign invaders and the spread of Christianity by the missionaries. This rebellion originated in Shandong province, home to many well-known lineages of martial artists who have lived there for generations. The westerners named them the Boxers. The peasants called themselves Yi He Quan, the fists to conduct the law of nature and promote harmony. (Yi He Quan is usually translated as the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fist. In my opinion, Yi more refers to the law of nature.)
Their leaders were athletic young men trained in martial arts, and Taoist and Buddhist spiritual practices claimed to endow them with supernatural abilities such as withstanding bullets and bayonets. Soon this uprising spread across northern China, attacking foreigners and destroying foreign properties. As they started to gain substantial momentum and followers, seven western countries plus Japan formed as alliance and besieged them.
In the mind of the young girl I was, I saw a scene like this: In front of the ancestral altar of the village, the Yi He warriors prepared themselves in an intense ritual of spirit possession before the fight began, putting themselves into a trance through a whole night of chanting, meditation and prostration. Their parents, wives and children prayed for them fervently towards the deities in whom they have entrusted their faith, in the same way as their ancestors have done. As the morning came, with eyes shot red, long hair put up in high buns on the top of the heads, faces painted as the martial deities they worshipped, the peasants charged the enemies, swirling their swords and staffs, chanting and singing the incantations they believed would protect them against the enemies’ weapons.
The western soldiers were first taken back by the absurdity of this scene. “Are these people crazy?” For a moment, they even feared that maybe these peasants with shabby clothes and straw sandals really possessed some magic power. Tentatively they fired their weapons. The bullets hit a torso, an arm, or a leg. Flesh exploded in front of them. The crazy-looking, spirit-possessed Chinese peasants fell down in the pools of blood, writhing and twisting in pain before dying. “Ha-ha, a bunch of stupid peasants!” With regained confidence, the soldiers marched straight towards the remaining peasants, stained with the blood of their friends and deranged with the tragedy in front of them. The soldiers waited till the peasants charged closer and closer, and shot them right before the peasants could sink their revenging swords into their enemies’ bodies.
After squelching the Yi He rebellion, the eight-nation alliance further advanced into the capitol of Beijing. They broke into the royal family’s Summer Palace deserted by the fleeing Qing government, helped themselves to the treasures inside, and burnt down the complex of exquisitely constructed buildings and gardens. Several months later, they forced the Qing government to sign the Boxer Protocol, which ordered the execution of government officials who had supported the Yi He warriors. The Protocol allowed foreign troops to be stationed in Beijing, and demanded 450 million taels of silver as indemnity (the government whole year’s tax income) to the eight-nation alliance. Weakened by the Boxer Protocol, the Qing government crumbled in a mere 10 years, marking the end of a 4000-year-long feudal social system.
As tragic as this story was, it pointed to something extraordinary, in contrast to everything I knew at that time. These people had faith! A faith that connected them to an intangible realm. A faith that could override the body’s biologically programmed fear of death and drive them to march defenseless towards the killing machines. Being indoctrinated in a strict atheist environment, this story grasped my fascination. I had a million questions. “Why? What made the Yi He warriors believe they could withstand bullets? How does the spirit possession ritual work? What is Taoism and Buddhism?” I asked Mrs. Tang.
“Those are superstitious practices from the past!” Mrs. Tang snapped her iron-firm answer back. “They are not only useless but also poisonous to one’s mind! You don’t need to know them at all. You should focus on studying science. Our country needs science and technology. That is the only way to make us stronger and protect ourselves against Western Imperialism.”
If anything, Mrs. Tang’s fierce rejection of these “superstitious practices” only aroused more intense curiosity in me, maybe because I sensed that there was much more to what appeared on the surface. That was in the early 80s, right after the curtain of the Cultural Revolution finally closed. Communism has been the only legitimate “faith” allowed since China re-asserted her independence in 1949 and freed herself from all foreign invasions. Before that, the fire of wars had burnt incessantly for 100 years since the first Opium War.
During the Cultural Revolution, the government banned all religious and shamanistic practices including traditional medicine, tossing them in the most taboo corner of the society, guarded with heavy bars with a glaring “Do Not Enter” sign broadcasting its solemn warnings. They chased away monks, nuns and practitioners, and prosecuted those who insisted on practicing. Aroused by the Party, people demolished the temples, smashed the statues of deities and sacred objects, and condemned the teachings of the three pillars of Chinese tradition, Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, which had served to initiate a child into the society in the past.
Led by the communist party, China lunged into a future promised by science and technology. First, they needed to detach themselves from a long and deep enmeshment with a past that was falling apart. The intensity of this self-destruction and self-denial only reflected how strongly attached they had been.
Even though Taoism, Buddhism and to some extent Confucianism all have the concept of god, or神 (shen), it is very different from the Christian God as a fixed, specific entity above the human realm to judge human affairs. There was no such concept in Chinese culture. God in Chinese referred to a set of attributes that epitomized the ideals that humans strive to embody. These attributes could be personified through a specific person; but no one or nothing IS the God. God is the transcendent nature of the universe that permeates and animates life. It is what infinite forms of beings yearn for but can never fully reach.
The line between human and gods was much more flexible in Chinese culture. Many sages and philosophers including Confucius and Lao Tzu, whose life’s work shaped the development of Chinese culture, ascended to the status of god after they died and became symbols of the school of teachings originated from them. A general who lived around 200 A.D., named Guan Yu, was particularly admired for his remarkable courage, impeccable moral values, and outstanding warrior-hood. He became a popular deity with many temples scattered around the countryside.
Not only was the line between human and gods flexible, the line between the human and non-human worlds was, too. The word god can also refer to the conscious aspect of the natural world or even a functional component of human life. For example, a “local” god usually presided over a particular mountain, a river, or a piece of land. A kitchen god oversaw every household kitchen and took in the scent and fumes of cooking as people’s offering. These gods arose from life, nature and substances that people are in physical contact with every day. Even though they also possess authoritative power over humans, compared to the Christian God, the relationship between the people and the Chinese gods was much less hierarchical, more down-to-earth, or even characterized by tender affection and humor. If both the Christian God and Chinese gods take on the role of imparting moral judgment and maintaining social order as the authoritative father, then the Chinese gods also had the role of holding the people in their maternal embrace of nurturing and affection.
This relationship was torn apart in the deafening gunfire spread across China after the westerners arrived. No god ever worshipped or prayed, no sages or immortals ever lived on the Chinese land, no matter how powerful, compassionate or wise, succeeded in protecting the people from the onslaught, the raping and looting. What faith would survive after a child witnessed his father’s body being shattered by bullets? What belief would endure after a man failed to protect the women of his family from being raped? What gods could still live contently in the temples and receive prayers and offering from their people, while the very land underneath their feet was being sold to the “others” who came with this foreign God asserting himself as the singular source of the divine?
From the perspective of the human realm, the gods, immortals and sages of the old China had failed the faith the people put in them. However, maybe in the transcendent realm, there is no such thing as failure. The transcendent entities are not attached to any particular forms. Old forms decompose into soil to give birth to the new. Maybe these ancient gods had carried the Chinese people for far too long in their maternal embrace and it was time for a reset and renew? Could it be that the westerner’s gun was a trigger, though terribly traumatic and tragically crude, nevertheless a trigger to separate the children from their mother’s embrace so that they could embark on a new journey of their own?
After China finally regained independence in 1949, she again insulated herself from the west and retreated into the darkest night. She sank into violent convulsions of pain and delusions resulting from the grave injuries of a century of war. One of the most violent spouts of such convulsion was the Cultural Revolution.
For millennia, Taoist priests, Buddhist monks and Confucian philosophers interpreted, defined and carried the contracts binding the transcendent with the human realms. This contract was written with customs, norms and rituals people performed, in the intimate ways one generation passed the lineage down to the next. This contract had been set at the core of the society, advising the rulers to govern, and ordinary people to regulate their personal conduct, social relationships and household affairs.
During the Cultural Revolution, this contract was shredded into pieces and cast out from both the government and most of the households. At the turn of the twenty-first century, China was groping on a dark, confusing and perilous journey to plunge deeper into the abyss without the guiding light from the transcendent. Like humans tend to do, they swung from one extreme side of the pendulum, absorbed and obsessed with the subtle and the non-material realm of reality, back to the other, awaking into a concrete, objectified world of materiality. What will they find on this journey? Weighed down by the largest population on earth, how will this pendulum influence the unfolding of life on earth? Will the Chinese come out from the other end with their transcendent side re-emergent? Will there be a whole new contract?
There was no way for the little girl of me to comprehend all these forces back then. And yet, these giant forces were torquing, pressing, pulling and twisting people’s psyche and emotions. In the innocent child’s openness, I could feel, sense and perceive it. I did not have words to express what I felt, nor did I have any concept to make sense of my experiences. The young shoot of my intellectual mind, shaped by the language and the culture around me, had very little access to the non-verbal realm of my awareness.
Caught between two different realms of awareness that were completely shut off to each other, my emotional and physical bodies suffered immensely. I felt that I was born into an alien and harsh world where I did not belong. My childhood was strewn with sicknesses, a few times bringing me close to death, and the emotional trauma resulting from the unstable situation of my core family. However, unknown to my young self who was struggling to hold her place in the world, these experiences laid down a solid foundation from which I launched on a journey to search and craft my own contract with my transcendent self. Every fiber of myself, known or unknown, was yearning for that.