Money money money

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.

moneyball

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.

moneykingYou 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.

The tombs of the Ming emperors

yongle

The third Ming emperor, Yongle, brought the capital back to Beijing and began to rebuild the Wall. Thirteen of the sixteen Ming emperors, including Yongle, were entombed nearby. The site of these tombs is beautiful: mountains behind, water in front, “according to the principles of Fengshui” as our guide explained. We visited Chang Ling, the tomb of Yongle. Even on a weekend the place is fairly calm.

The emperor, his wife, and sixteen concubines are buried beneath the mound at the back of the complex. This is covered with trees, and has not been excavated. A visit takes in the buildings which lead from the gate up to the mound: the gate, the Hall of Eminent Favours, and the Soul Tower. The central road running through this belongs to the spirits, and is not supposed to be used by living humans.

We passed through the enormous gate (photo above) into the spectacular Hall of Eminent Favours. This is an all-wood construction, apparently containing no metal at all. The most impressive element of its architecture are the enormous wooden pillars: apparently built from the trunks of Himalayan deodar trees (cedar, nanmu in Mandarin) imported from Nepal. At the center of this hall a statue of Yongle has recently been installed, and the floor before it is strewn with money from favour seekers. The hall also contains an exhibit of imperial jade, including intricately carved pieces of soft jade.

soultowerYou can exit from the back into the second courtyard, and continue on to the Soul Tower (photo alongside). From this massive tower, which is the most peaceful part of the complex, you can see the tombs of other emperors. When leaving you are supposed to pass through the central gate in front of the Soul Tower in order to leave the world of the dead behind you. Most people do this, but a significant fraction break the convention of not looking back. It is hard to resist the impulse to turn back to take another photo of the complex before leaving.

We usually do not take guides, relying on audio guides, books and reading. Unfortunately, guide books to China, and even blogs, tend to concentrate on the practical, and leave out a detailed description of sights (I understand that the Blue Guide is an exception, but we did not get it before coming here). So, for this weekend he had with us a guide who did a good job of explaining the significance of various details we would have missed otherwise.

He explained to us that traditionally the Chinese associate tombs with bad luck, which is why the crowds are thin. Also, that one does not take photos of each other within the tomb complex. When we saw Chinese families doing this, he explained that they need guides.