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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.

One night not long ago, my Wife was looking through a stack of magazines here at the family home in Anhai for some bedtime reading and happened upon this particular publication:

The cover photos–alluring forbidden women in bedroom attire mixed with police detentions, guns, and SWAT team photos–and the main stories in the rag are sort of “True Crime…with Chinese Characteristics.”

The typical story: a public official or businessman has a mistress on the side, and in order to keep her sufficiently in fur and diamonds (or risk losing her to a bigger fish, one assumes), he turns to a life of crime–bribery, embezzlement, graft, theft, overcharging foreigners for airlines tickets, or whatever. In some cases, he turns to kidnapping or murder to cover his trail. But in the end, he is caught and sentenced to jail or death.

Some of the stories are actually as “boring” as a shipment of DVDs arriving in Xiamen and–gasp!!–its procurers trying to sneak it through customs without paying the appropriate taxes. But even these ho-hum type stories are accompanied by photos of models in lingerie or the like with “come hither” expressions on their faces, and it’s obvious that most of these have been lifted from Japanese magazines or advertisements–in one, you can even see that they didn’t completely crop the advertising copy for some line of cosmetics.

A few of the police pictures look brutal–some of the folks being arrested look a bit roughed up–but I’m not sure that some of these weren’t also lifted from movies or the like. A police officer in one of the pictures looks suspiciously like a minor character actor I’ve seen in some Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige films.

Here is some biographic information about my Wife’s siblings, presented here primarily to offer more insights into what’s going on in China via snippets of their lives.

**My Wife’s Younger Brother**

Besides being hounded by everyone to hurry up and get married, my 29-year-old Brother-in-Law works in nearby Qingyang in a Provincial Typhoon Monitoring and Response Agency. In particular, if typhoons are headed toward Fujian Province or have struck, part of his job is to direct which resources (mostly military) are directed to which areas. I’m not clear on the particulars of how he does this, though he says his job is really just “to sit in front of a computer” waiting for something to happen.

He does have great IT skills, though, and so has become mostly responsible for his office’s Local Area Network setup as well.

Typhoons do strike around here, but only during a small part of the year.

This means he has some extra time on his hands at work, which he has used to start a small business selling clothing–we’ll call it factory overruns–on taobao.com, an eBay-like site where anyone in China with something to sell in small quantities seems to be heading.

The other interesting aspect of his job: employees gain access to and exit their work facility through fingerprint recognition. Gattica-like, they have to place their hand on a monitor which opens the door for them, but–more importantly, he confides–to monitor whether anyone is late to work or takes off before quitting time.

**My Wife’s Younger Sister**

My Wife’s Younger Sister and her Husband work for the Chinese Postal Service by day, but, being the gung-ho entrepreneurs that they are, also operate a small business on the side selling cellular phones and phone cards, which they do pretty well with. They originally started off running a private Internet cafe when broadband access came to Jinjiang a few years ago, with my Wife’s Younger Brother using his computer and IT skills to get it running, but when the government tightened the restrictions on running these, they decided to leave that business.

They currently live with his parents in an apartment in Qingyang, but in a couple years will be moving into a “villa” on the grounds of a large development complex going up in Qingyang.

It seems that her husband’s father invested in some land some years back for 200,000 RMB. Last year, the government came along and let him know that (1) his land was part of a larger plot that had been approved for this complex to go up, and (2) that he would be paid 800,000 RMB for it, “whether he liked it or not.” (This was, of course, actually a tremendous appreciation.)

They in turn decided to put this money back into property in the same complex, along with some other funds they’d all four saved, and so they’ll live in a large four-story “villa” in this modern complex _and_ own a storefront in a prime spot in the complex’s shopping district.

His parents hope that they can all leave their government jobs then, primarily so that as private business people, my Wife’s Younger Sister and her Husband can have another child. A son. Or two.

**My Wife’s Elder Sister**

My Wife’s Elder Sister, as I’ve mentioned before here, recently divorced. The fellow she was married to, my Mother-In-Law objected to him in the first place for reasons I’ll not get into, but the folks said that ultimately the choice was hers (the Elder Sister’s).

This fellow had a small factory that produced “parts” on contract for a shoe manufacturer, but as the shoe manufacturing processes matured, it became less and less necessary for the large factories to outsource these small parts, and his contracts dried up.

He worked hard for awhile trying to find a new niche, but grew frustrated, and eventually was spending all his time at bars and massage parlors. Finally, Elder Sister had enough and showed him the door.

And it was her door to show him, as she has a solid government job as a statistician at the local hospital, and the apartment was hers–purchased with a “government employee discount” when the building went up.

Her apartment is on the other side of town from the family home, and some relatives have begun suggesting to her that she move back to the family home, since my Mother-In-Law is now widowed, one daughter has moved to Qingyang and the other to Seattle, and the Younger Brother often stays in Qingyang for a few days at a time in a government dorm rather than commute back and forth every day, leaving Mother-In-Law here sometimes alone in a 3.5 story house. Plus, when he’s not in school, Elder Sister’s seven-year-old son stays here with my Mother-In-Law while she works, sometimes overnight.

She’s reticent to move back, though I can see pro’s and con’s on both sides of the issue. On the one side, family members might feel less lonely if they lived under the same roof instead of different homes across town. On the other hand, moving back home (though she would keep ownership of her apartment) might feel _too_ much like a step backward, and she’s always had a fierce independent streak.

Independent divorced working professional mothers.

I daresay this is the first generation in China that has seen much of this as a cultural phenomenon.

L to R, My Wife’s Elder Sister, My Wife, My Wife’s Younger Sister, My Wife’s Younger Brother

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