February 2006

We recently spent a week in Xiamen, the major city to the south of here, and I’m still trying to get a handle on what we saw and experienced there. Therefore, this post should be taken as a hastily scribbled postcard.

I’ll venture this, though: If you haven’t seen Xiamen in, say, a decade or more, you haven’t seen Xiamen. I’ve visited several times, first in 1993, and then in 1996, 1997 and 2000, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what I saw there this time.

Xiamen has been consistently listed as one of China’s top 4 or 5 “most livable cities” for quite some time, but this time we found it so livable that we began talking about the theorhetical possibility of moving there–or at least having a second home there if we end up “doing business with China” in any significant capacity.

When I first visited Xiamen, the waterfront area where the ferries for Gulang Island are, down south a bit to Xiamen University, this seemed to me where most things were “happening,” and the city’s “Seaside Building” in that waterfront area was pretty much the city’s largest building.

Now, that’s all “old town,” and when you look at Xiamen from the nearby Gulang Island, the Seaside Building seems a quaint “little” tall building, now dwarfed by the much taller bank building beside it and two or three pockets of major skyscrapers and high-rise towers in the background. The city, which is actually an island as well, is circled by a multi-lane “ring” road, some of which is built out over the water, rather than on land, and the rest of the development and infrastructure of the city, well, continue to amaze me.

Like I said, I’m still having trouble processing everything I saw, but if the Xiamen I saw several days ago is some indication of where the rest of China can be expected to develop toward in the coming years, then of China I’d have to say “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

One day during Spring Festival, we walked a short distance from the family home here in Anhai to watch some local opera. The stage is sort of in a back alley, with two levels of seating.

The story was pretty typical, I thought: A King, a Princess, a letter with bad news, a dagger, and so on.

I took some pictures of the stage action (plus some video I’ll try to process when I’m back in the States), but the most interesting action to me was in the audience. Mostly older folks, as you can tell from some of the photos, with a large group back in one corner playing all sorts of table games–really gambling for money, too, my Wife told me.

I opted not to take photos of the folks playing games, just in case they didn’t like it, not wanting to get my Mother-In-Law blacklisted from the tables in case she decides to play when she hits her 70’s or 80’s. But you can get a feel for the crowd in the foreground of these photos.

One day during the recent Spring Festival, we went with some friends to visit the nearby Chao An Temple.

Chao An’s is an interesting story. Or stories, I should say, for I found some variation between what the locals told me and what I read summarized in a Xiamen area guide book.

First, here’s what the locals told me:

During the Song Dynasty–no, earlier than that, someone said; no, definitely later, countered another–a man who became Emperor belonged to what the locals whom I was with know only as the “Mo Ni” Buddhist sect. But for some reason, rather than, say, appointing other members of this Mo Ni sect to Imperial Posts, he decided that the sect had become too powerful and needed to be stamped out, and so it became open season wherever this sect was centered–maybe near Xi’An?, someone suggested–on members of the Mo Ni sect.

They were nearly successful, but a small remnant mangaged to escape, and they came to take refuge at this Chao An Temple near Anhai in Fujian Province. And now, it turns out, this particular temple is the last in the world associated with the Mo Ni sect.

In his book Amoy Magic, however, Dr. Bill Brown, who has been living and teaching at Xiamen University since 1988, offers this account of the “Anhai Manichaean Temple,” one of the “last bastions of Manichaeism, ‘The Religion of Light’–an esoteric combination of Gnositicism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity”. In Dr. Brown’s version of the tale:

Emperor Taizu, who ruled from 1368-1398, banned the Religion of Light because “ming” ( ), the Chinese word for “light,” also happened to be the name of the Ming Dynasty, and…the emperor decreed that only he could use the name. Thus was the world’s very last stronghold of Mani’s light extinguished, though locals continue even today to worship the Manichaeist deity in the Cao’an ‘Thatched Nunnery’ (which some take to be the popular Goddess of Mercy). This temple also boasts the last Manichaeist carving in China–of two angels holding lotus flowers and a cross (a combination of Greek, Persian and Chinese mythology).

It appears that the Persian’s followers made their way into China in the late seventh century, at the same time as their arch rivals, the Moslems and the Nestorian Christians. The Manichaean Temple was built in 1339, after villagers had spent 26 years carving statues of Mani all over the cliffs of Huabiao mountain…. [T]he statues are unlike any others in China.

In any case, there have been some changes here since my Wife’s childhood. She remembers the land surrounding the temple grounds being a “forest” where you could wander through the trees, but now the forest has been razed to create more farmland, and to make some space for parking and a line of tables selling trinkets and snacks along part of the path up to the temple buildings.

Some additional temple buildings have also been going up; it’s not longer just the small temple half carved into a rock where you can burn your incense and koutou to the Buddha.

But it was in this small temple building where my Wife decided to have a go at the “prayer sticks.” You pray, and then toss these sticks to the ground three times seeking an answer to your question. Each stick has a “top” and a “bottom” side–heads or tails, we’ll call it.

If you get a “heads-heads” response, the Buddha is laughing at your for your silly mortal request. If you get a “tails-tails” answer, it’s an emphatic “no.” If you get a “heads-tails” combination response, it means yes, and that’s of course what everyone is hoping for. But you have to pray and toss the sticks three times per request–and the Buddha’s answer is essentially based on a “best out of three” approach–meaning that you have to get the “heads-tails” combination on at least two of your attempts. And if you go three-for-three on a “Yes” answer, well, there’s no question of the Buddha’s intent.

My Wife asked two prayer questions this way at the temple.

The first was whether she should “step out” now from being just a stay-at-home Mom, which she’s done since we were first expecting our first child, and return to work, perhaps in our own self-employed venture.

The Buddha answered “Yes” three times.

I’m not sure why on earth the next question occured to her, but she asked the Buddha whether our oldest daughter should attend kindergarten whole days in the fall (as opposed to half days).

Again, the Buddha gave a three-for-three “Yes” response.

The odds of getting two three-for-three “Yes” answers in a row is, well, you figure it out.

She was on quite a roll, and I kicked myself later for not thinking to ask her if I should bet a seven-point spread favoring the Steelers in the Super Bowl the next day.

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