Taking ‘Wandering Gods’ to the movies – a colourful folk tradition observed by many in southeastern China brings Spring Festival alive

Taking ‘Wandering Gods’ to the movies – a colourful folk tradition observed by many in southeastern China brings Spring Festival alive
  • Effigies of local gods watching movies and fireworks are just some of the enchanting features of the religious beliefs of locals in southeastern China
  • Youshen customs remain popular in Fujian province and are recognised as an intangible cultural heritage in China

At a cinema earlier this month in China’s southeastern Fujian province, seats in the front row were not occupied by the usual audience. Instead, they were filled by a couple of large brightly-coloured paper effigies of local gods holding boxes of popcorn and drinks in their hands.

This display is part of a series of local traditional activities called youshen, which literally means “Wandering Gods”, but in reality it is more commonly referred to in Chinese custom as “Patrolling Gods”. Youshen is an annual event that is usually held in the two weeks following the Lunar New Year.

The customs remain popular in Fujian and are recognised as an intangible cultural heritage by the Chinese government.

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It’s common during youshen celebration period to see local people carrying effigies of deities on their shoulders as they walk around the communities, with gongs and drums beating and firework displays.

Residents show their respect for the gods, hoping they will bless them with peace, favourable farming weather and good fortune.

A local man, surnamed Gao, who works at the Fujian’s capital city Fuzhou said that in the past, they invited the gods to watch traditional operas. However, since it’s hard to find opera venues nowadays, he said someone had the idea to take the gods to the movies instead, news portal Jiupai News reports.

Gao said this year, the god’s effigies watched Hidden Blade, a two-hour spy film starring Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai.

“This film was chosen by the gods themselves from several popular films currently showing in cinemas,” Gao said.

To find out what the gods want to watch, Gao and his colleagues used jiaobei, a traditional divination tool that has two crescent-shaped wood chips thrown on the ground three times to see what they reveal.

Social media observers in China have found the customs of youshen charming and fascinating.

“What a cute way of keeping pace with the times by Fujian people,” said one person on Weibo.

“I’ve watched the same film as the gods. So I will be lucky this year,” joked another person.

A third person commented: “It’s good to see that the local people keep their traditions and culture alive and well.”

In China, officially an atheistic country, Fujian people are distinct for their devout belief in various gods, from China’s Mazu, Chen Jinggu, Heaven Emperor of Taoism, to Jesus in Christianity.

Chen Jinggu is one of three female gods worshipped in China since ancient times, along with Guanyin and Mazu. Guanyin, a Bodhisattva in Buddhism, is more popular today than the other two, while Chen Jinggu is known as the protection god for women and children in the southeastern provinces of Zhejiang and Fujian, and Mazu is the god of the sea, mostly followed by fishermen in Fujian and Guangdong provinces.

This devotion was shown when the education authority in Shishi in southern Fujian announced last month that the school term would start on January 30, the same day as the birthday of the Heaven Emperor, according to the lunar calendar.

Many parents called the authority to complain that they did not have time to take their children to school because they would be busy holding activities to pay homage to the deity, and their children would be joining in the ritual. Under public pressure, the authority postponed the school term by a day.

A popular anecdote told by locals reveals the deep significance the local gods have in the province. The story involves a fisherman taken to court for not repaying the money he owed. At first, he would not admit he had borrowed the money, and there was not enough evidence to support the loan’s existence. As a last resort, the judge asked the fisherman to repeat his claims before a local deity: “Do you dare to swear in front of Mazu that you have not borrowed the money?” The judge asked the man.

The fisherman immediately confessed to borrowing the money.

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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