China is often written off as a secular country with little interest in matters spiritual, but the reality is a little more complex. Dongguan might not seem like a devout place, but scratch beneath the surface and you will find religions of every hue…
A Hindu, a Christian, a Sikh, a Jew, and a Muslim walk into a Dongguan bar. If that sounds like the set-up to a bad joke, it needn’t be. It could happen any day of the week. On the surface Dongguan, indeed China, doesn’t seem like a spiritual place, the realms of God not its concern. We hear pithy maxims to that end the whole time. ‘The Chinese don’t believe in God’, ‘China has no religion’, ‘China is a secular nation’, but the reality is far more complex. In an official sense, China has been secular since 1949, but its spiritual history has long been an intriguing mix of Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, and that is before we even get onto Chinese folk religion, which is invoked by up to 500 million Chinese people. Religion is alive and well amongst China’s Han, non-Han, and expatriate community, even if it is not always framed that way.
The language used is no longer moderate either, and they publish anti-theist tombs with incendiary titles such as God is not Great, and The God Delusion. The desire to provoke is obvious, and it is surely only a matter of time before an ardent atheist publishes God is an Utter Bastard.
Such observations are not like to give solace to the world’s atheist community, who have become increasingly vociferous over the last decade. Where once atheists ignored religion, looking down on it as the mere superstition of those unable to think for themselves, for the last decade, at least, they have become more active in countering what they believe is illogical nonsense. An almost militant atheism has developed, which sees it as its duty to passionately call out what it sees as the fallacy of religion. The language used is no longer moderate either, and they publish anti-theist tombs with incendiary titles such as God is not Great, and The God Delusion. The desire to provoke is obvious, and it is surely only a matter of time before an ardent atheist publishes God is an Utter Bastard. Regardless of domineering atheist intellectuals, people of religious backgrounds remain determined to keep the faith.
I meet Veda at one of Dongguan’s Diwali parties. Though Diwali, the Hindu Festival light, is one of the great dates in the world’s religious calendar, the party was not so much a spiritual affair as an excuse to eat tons of homemade curry, drink copious amounts of whisky, play charades, and dance badly to Bollywood music, in essence: a pretty damn good party. A few days later Veda shows me the small altar he has in his Dongcheng apartment. There is a row of flickering candles; a small statue of Ganesh, the pink, elephant-headed Hindu god with four arms, who is known as a remover of obstacles; behind all this, there is a painting of Sai Baba, the 19th century spiritualist who to his devotees, such as Veda and his wife Vasuki, is viewed as a saint. Vasuki is eager to explain the significance and the altar, “It brings energy into the house. It is very important to have a place that brings positive energy,” she says. Adding, “We do not have a Hindu temple here in Dongguan, but if there was a very special occasion then we would go to the Buddhist temple.”
“We don’t mind Sai to learn about Christianity as we have the confidence that she will take only the good parts. Honestly speaking we don’t mind what religion she chooses.”
Veda, 42, has a bushy moustache, even by Indian standards, has been in China for 12 years, though it is clear that the country is not always the easiest place for him and his family to practice their Hindu faith. Accordingly, they have had to make lots of small adjustments to the way they live, “Religion is important but it does not control our life. When we were in India, we were very strict, but once we crossed the sea to come to here, we had to adapt,” he says. Adding, “In China, it is not easy to live like a vegetarian, you have to take meat. Of course we don’t like the taste of beef, but there is no other option sometimes. Initially we felt very guilty, but we have got used to it.”
For those with young families, living abroad poses the question of how to make sure children do not become too distant from their native cultures. Many parents are inherently relaxed about this, though for others it is a great source of worry. Veda and his wife have two daughters, Sai, 9 and a toddler who is just two. “Sai’s school only really talk about Christianity, but we do not have any objection because we believe that the bases of all religions are that you should be friendly with other people and respect other people,” says Veda. Adding, “We don’t mind Sai to learn about Christianity as we have the confidence that she will take only the good parts. Honestly speaking we don’t mind what religion she chooses.” This seems a fair minded approach, and I take the opportunity to ask Sai what her religion is. Looking at me like I am slightly mad, she elects to read from the children’s’ version of National Geographic instead, “What did zero say to eight?”
I don’t know,” I say.
And that was the last I consulted Sai on religious matters.
For TV, a 42 year old Malaysian, keeping his faith is Dongguan is a little easier; he has his own church. The Home of Rainbow Church, just outside Dongtai Garden, Dongcheng is fully registered with the local government and sees up to 200 people come to worship each week, though it claims a wider congregation of nearly 1,000. TV has the kindly quality that you often find amongst Christians of a certain hue, whereby it seems he could not offend anyone if he tried. Chuckling as he speaks, he reminds me of an Asian Ned Flanders. Over a couple bowls of Cantonese sweet soup, a few minutes from his church, he tells me about his spiritual journey, “I became a Christian when I was 19 years old. I thought a lot about what we do after life; I started to search around different religions. I read Buddhist material. I read a little bit about the Muslims. Then I went to Church, after a while I realized there is a God. It is up to you if you want to believe it or accept it.”
TV thinks a lot of Chinese people are going through a spiritual malaise. On being asked what Jesus would think if he came back to China now, he says, “I have never considered that. I think he would be sad to see so many people that have lost their salvation.” If China is religiously bereft, TV is certainly trying to change things, running bible studies groups at least twice a week and serving as a lay preacher in the church, of which he is very proud, “The good thing about us being registered is that we can do things publically. If you are not registered people may come and ask what you are doing, and you may have to stop. Nowadays we can talk about whatever we want, more or less,” he says. Adding, “We do not want to be involved in politics, but if we see something unjust we say so-even if it is against the policy. But so far I don’t see much interference.”
“We do not want to be involved in politics, but if we see something unjust we say so-even if it is against the policy. But so far I don’t see much interference.”
Like many others of a religious persuasion, he has to think carefully of just how much religion to teach to his two children, “We tell them a lot about Christianity. But we let them think. We encourage them to think. Just telling them will not work. They have to understand I encourage them to ask question,” he says. Despite his church being officially recognized, there are always some issues to deal with, no matter how small. “There are difficulties here; as a foreigner here, I am not really supposed to preach. We do not agree with foreigners and Chinese being separated to pray and want to get everyone together.” Ultimately it is his devotion to his faith, and the effect he believes it has on others that pulls him through, and he talks about the changes the church has made to people’s lives, “The change people have when they join us is tremendous. People admit they were not living good lives before, you can see the change.”
Whatever your theological bent, it is difficult to see TV anything other than a kindly man, doing his best to spread positivity to his community. On parting, he disarms me slightly, “Can I offer you a prayer?”
“Ok, sure. Why not?” I say, slightly flabbergasted.
“Heaven father, we thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak to Carlos. I do not understand him well. Just as I do not understand you very well, but I am wishing your mercy to my friend. I am asking your abundant love to my friend, and I am wishing this conversation can be a blessing to men. Amen” Amen, indeed.
Softly spoken, wearing a tightly pulled, rich red turban, not to mention the beard that all devout Sikh men wear, Harjeet Singh, 40, stands out somehow. In his hometown, Kashipur, Uttrakhand, on the foothills of the Himalayas, Harjeet is but one of thousands of Sikh men in the city. In Dongguan, things are different, “I think I am the only Sikh in Dongguan. I met one a few years back, but he is back in Delhi now. There is one in Zhuhai.” Over a meal of Aloo Chat, Chicken Jalfrezi, and Shish Kebabs, washed down with a couple of cold beers we talk about his religion, Sikhism, how he prefers Hong Kong to Dongguan, and how he manages to keep his faith, “I think I am in the middle of things in terms of how devout I am. I care a lot about the culture. We follow the festivals. My dad wasn’t so strict, but still religious. When we were in India we would go to the temple to worship once or twice a week,” he says. Adding, “Dongguan is tough. It was easier in Hong Kong. There was a Sikh Temple, over 100 years old, so we could go there. We would gather together on a Sunday and have a free lunch. Everyone sits down together in the Langar. There are no caste differences.”
As ever, having a young daughter poses a challenge and Harjeet is eager to get the balance right, “We want our daughter to learn about other religions; we just don’t want it to be too much. I don’t tell her so much about her religion, but for sure some,” he says.
“When I put my daughter to bed, she prays for a few minutes. I don’t push her on it too much. That was the way my dad did it with me,” he says.
As, perhaps the, only Sikh family in the city and having no temple to speak of Harjeet takes a few minutes each morning to pray with a miniature version of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, “When I put my daughter to bed, she prays for a few minutes. I don’t push her on it too much. That was the way my dad did it with me,” he says. Adding, “We teach our daughter about the Gurus and the stories; in India she would learn from her grandma, or at friends or schools, so we make a little bit of extra effort here.”
Elyo Angel is a journalist’s dream, refusing to mince his words, and speaks in the direct no-nonsense style that is common to many Israeli’s. On a windy November night, we sit on his balcony in Dongguan, drinking coffee and chain smoking cigarettes, as he explains to me his relationship with Judaism and how he is proud of Israel, a country he moved to from his native Turkey when he was nine years old. He strikes me as religious person, but he disagrees, explaining that he is not strict enough to be called religious, “I am not religious. I drive on Shabbat. I eat pork. How can I be religious? Religious is going by the book. I do not do anything that makes me religious. We just light the candles on Shabbat. Even the mezuzah, I should keep it on every door. I just have one on the main door,” he says.
Every Friday, either he, or his wife, performs Kiddush, a Jewish ceremony that involves lighting candles and saying a small prayer over wine, but again Elyo is quick to point out that this is more about the passing on of tradition than anything particularly holy, “Look, if I am doing Kiddush on Friday night. It is not because I want to do the Kiddush. It is not important for me to have it, or my wife. It is to give tradition to my children. To say we are different, that we are Jewish. Do not forget this. Never.” he says.
“The Chinese say we are the cleverest people in the world. And they are right! How many Jews are there in the world? Maybe 30 million. How many Nobel prizes did just Israel get?”
As with many secular-ish Jews, for him is religion is mostly about preserving a sense of tradition, rather than any personal and deep relationship with God. He has four children, two of which live in Dongguan and the extent to which they maintain the religion and are aware of their Judaism is something he grapples with, “This is the most difficult question. I want them to keep the tradition. I am proud to be Jewish. I will be proud if they do not forget they’re Jewish. It is important for me, because I believe that the Jewish people are the highest of the humans, really,” he says.
The question of marrying out or out of the religion is a question that worries many older Jewish parents who are keen to see traditions continue. Traditional as he is, Elyo tries to keep as much of an open mind as he can, “This is difficult. My daughter now, she is 17 years old. She has a boyfriend. Not Jewish. For me maybe it is a problem, but maybe it is less difficult because she is a girl. Her children are automatically Jewish. For my son, it is more difficult. His children will not be Jewish,” he says. Adding, “If she tells me she is going to marry someone who is not Jewish. It is difficult, but I would not tell her she could not. If it was Muslim, I believe I would not allow her. But for Christian, I would be more open.” Though his son is only seven, he briefly laments how it might be difficult for him to find a Jewish girl in Dongguan, “Maybe if he is in Europe it will be easy, but how can he find a Jewish girl in Dongguan? Perhaps I need to move to Europe to give him a chance. Living in Dongguan, I need to give up a little. To be happy that he is a good person, I cannot make him become Jewish, but I can try.”
There is a trope, particularly prevalent among Chinese, that the Jewish ‘race’ is the most intelligent, and Elyo discusses this animatedly, “The Chinese say we are the cleverest people in the world. And they are right! How many Jews are there in the world? Maybe 30 million. How many Nobel prizes did just Israel get? 32. The Muslims have four, in literature I think. But I love Muslims; I have many Muslim friends.”
In some ways, he thinks people who follow a religion make more effort when they are in a foreign country, “Now we have Hanukah coming. We light the first night of the candles. We are trying so the children do not forget. And also that we do not forget that we are Jewish. It is important for us to forget. A foreign country makes you more close to your religion because you are more aware you are different.” Nevertheless he understands the importance of fitting in with local customs and culture, “My father used to say, ‘when you are in Paris, act like you are French. When you are in London act like you are English.’ I am learning Chinese. You need to know the culture.”
As part of my spiritual odyssey, I spend two consecutive Fridays praying at a Dongguan Mosque in Wanjiang. As I do so I can almost feel the Jewish blood of my late grandmother boiling. The Mosque has Muslims from all over China and beyond, Han Muslims, Xinjiang Muslims, guys from Pakistan, guys from Africa. Omar, 43, from Qinghai is short and stout and wears a taqiyah, a traditional Muslim cap, which he sets off with a moustache. He came to Dongguan in 2002 to open a Lánzhōu lāmiàn shop, and in many ways is a figurehead for Muslims in Dongguan, even becoming Dongguan’s torch carrying representative for the opening of the 2010 Asian Games, held in Guangzhou. In the Wanjiang Mosque I sit down with him and the local Mullah, and he talks to me about his faith in a friendly yet serious tone. He thinks, today at least, practicing Islam in Dongguan easy, “It’s not difficult at all because the government helps us a lot. For example, when I first got here, I wanted to open a noodle shop and I didn’t know where to get the license. So I went to The Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau of Dongguan. They helped me finish the steps, so my license was obtained pretty fast and for free,” he says.
“It’s like in a country, there are many laws and rules, and everybody should follow them. But there are these people they don’t follow. But they are still the citizens of the country. The same with Muslims.”
Though when he first arrived, he explains things were difficult and it was more difficult to worship, “At that time there were very few Muslims in Dongguan. The Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau of Dongguan was just founded. For four years, I had the mosque in my house. Then in 2007, we got this Mosque. It is about 1000 square meters, and the government gave us 10,000 RMB for renovation. I have also been a member of the CPPCC member for eight years.”
Omar is very devout and strictly observant of Islam’s rules, “I follow the rules strictly and I think the ones that don’t follow are bad Muslims. God asks us not to drink and not to eat pork; he has his own reasons,” he says. Adding, “It’s like in a country, there are many laws and rules, and everybody should follow them. But there are these people they don’t follow. But they are still the citizens of the country. The same with Muslims. There are many rules, but some of them don’t follow.”
Veda, TV, Harjeet, Elyo, and Omar–the five apostles of Dongguan—each with a different religion, that he takes it to different degrees, but there is one thing they all share: a determination to preserve part of their culture, a snippet of spirituality, in a corner of Dongguan–this seemingly small city that rests in the Pearl River Delta, southern China.