It is an interesting fact that the oldest of Chinese religions have a different concept of the universe and our place in it. This confused all early visitors from other cultures. Marco Polo was completely at sea when he wrote: “these people are Idolaters, and as regards their gods, each has a tablet fixed high up on the wall of his chamber, on which is inscribed a name which represents the Most High and Heavenly God; and before this they pay daily worship, offering incense from a thurible, raising their hands aloft, and gnashing their teeth three times, praying him to grant them health of mind and body; but of him they ask nought else.”
With no gods to grant daily gifts, how does one deal with the randomness of real life? The Chinese dealt with it by accepting luck as major force in living, and developing techniques to deal with luck. The practice of Fengshui is one such. The other is the offering of money which is everywhere in China. Anything which could bring you luck is worth bribing with a little money.
The offering of money becomes a game. The photo above is taken in Shanghai’s Jing’an Su where you have to throw your money into a high pot to get luck. If your money is rejected, then you don’t get lucky. It is interesting that this happens in a Buddhist temple: this Indian export comes with a baroque set of gods who can also be prayed to in the way that other cultures are familiar with. Nevertheless, this is China, and people are not going to tempt luck by not making offerings of money. If you fall off a cliff tomorrow you are surely going to regret not changing your luck by donating a little money.
In the Confucius Temple of Beijing, every statue is awash in money. I do not understand the ritual meaning of these goats and pigs, or roosters and ducks which are scattered around the temple. Since they are animals which are eaten, could they be offerings? In any case, they are drowning in the money which people leave. There is also the money-eating dragon, Pisou, whose mouth is stuffed with coins and notes. I suppose these temples have earnings similar to those which some Indian temples have from offerings.
You don’t need to be in a temple to see this aspect of the culture. In the tombs of the Ming emperors there is a recent statue of Yongle, the third emperor, and the one who brought the capital back to Beijing. The emperor can also bring you luck, it seems, because there is money thrown in front of him. I saw a goldfish bowl in front of a restaurant which was full of coins, and goldfish are not even divine animals. Perhaps the fact that they were imperial favourites is enough to make them channels of luck.
Perhaps one should not be surprised. In India people donate money to temples. In the West people throw coins into the Trevi fountain, and put locks on bridges.