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Saturday, August 27, 2011

"Religious Revival in Ethnic Areas of China”, held at the Asia Research Institute

Today, I attended day 2 of the workshop "Religious Revival in Ethnic Areas of China", held at the Asia Research Institute, NUS Bukit Timah campus.  A most enjoyable and enriching day learning from eminent scholars in the field.
 
I learnt about challenges facing Muslim Hui women in China; the unique female imam & mosque system; how new global Islam is challenging the unique Chinese system; traditional Hui cap vs global Muslim headscarf; how haj is changing Hui culture; localized Sharia laws creeping into local governance system in Dongxiang & Baoan regions
 
Prof Pan of Minzu Uni spoke about traditional Bimo religion in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan. Previously banned and treated as superstitious shamanism, local govt now promoting revival for tourism, social mobilization, local nationalism to promote devp & construction of a new Chinese harmonious society.  Revival of old festivals to promote tourism; shamans now treated by govt as guardians of Yi culture. Application of festivals & rituals as Unesco Intangible World Heritage
 
I also learnt abt the battles between villagers near Kunming and greedy property developers, and how both sides deployed gods, demons and spiritual symbols in a war in the material world.
 
Heard stories from the remote Nu frontierlands of Southwestern China bordering Myanmar. Of how Lisu tribesmen embraced Protestantism in last decade; how a poor and remote people gain global connectivity with Lisus in Myanmar and Christians worldwide. How tourism and big biz here are controlled by Tibetan Catholics because they drink and use Mandarin in church and schools. Lisu Christians not allowed to drink and dance, hence can't get involved in tourism or entertain officials.  Communists can't be Christians but retired officials often become church elders after leaving party because they are used to leadership and enjoy the trappings.
 
Stories from the beautiful city of Dali in China's Yunnan Province where the Bai people live. The ancient Gwer Sa La Festival, with its roots linked to the foundation of the Nanchao Empire (approx 8th Century AD), celebrates Bai culture and village solidarity, and prays for prosperity, good health and cultivation. Local government exaggerates elements of promiscuous courtship (which in any case embarrasses the conservative locals), complete with flamboyant masked dancers, gala parties, staged rituals and imposed symbols, in an effort to generate tourism income and apply for UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage listing. Whilst traditions have been appropriated by the Govt for its economic aims, the locals benefit from the protection afforded by the cultural labeling of what was essentially an ancient religion.
 
In Tibet, culture and religion have been fused under the label of cultural heritage, thus ensuring the protection of traditions such as animal fur coats, religious debates, Buddhist festivals and selection of Living Buddhas through urn lottery. However, religious practices and other innocent ordinary activities outside of prescribed spaces and events are often seen as political acts. The speaker described how many were wary about attending the Chorten in a particular year, and only eventually did so when the state issued directive encouraging citizens to enjoy themselves during the festival.
 
And Prof Naran Bilik told us about how Chinggis Khan was appropriated by both independent Mongolia, China and even Japan (which claimed that the Khan was a Japanese prince) for their own political aims and ambitions.
 
In China's most populous ethnic minority region, Guangxi, the local govt is busy turning Mojiao, a shamanistic folk belief system, as an officially recognized religion with a codified scripture written in the Zhuang language, complete with supreme deities Baeuq Roxdoh and Mo Loekgyap.  Grand state-sponsored celebrations and newly created rituals are held to present Mojiao as a coherent belief system and help strengthen Zhuang ethnic identity in what has become a highly sinicized society.  Whilst they play along with the state to secure protection and patronage, local villagers continue to worship their gods in more intimate atmosphere.  The speaker also spoke about the cult of Nong Zhigao, 10th century Zhuang folk hero, which is the focus of shamanistic worship in remote districts on the border with Vietnam.
 
老子as生态保护神. That's a new revelation from this workshop. And shamans as ritual specialists

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