Who are the Chinese Gods and Why Do We Worship Them?

The Chinese folk religion is polytheistic. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

One of my favorite stories to tell about my time in Dubai was the fact that I needed an “infidel card” to purchase liquor in the Emirates. There are, of course, unofficial channels to purchase booze in the country, but it’s not as easy as popping into a store. The infidel card comes in handy when you had drunk the last bottle of wine and suddenly remembered that you were invited to go to a birthday party over the weekend. This is when you need to go to the MMI—the government liquor stores. It’s more convenient, but it’s a lot more expensive.

In the Emirates, Islam guides every aspect of life. This is why alcohol is so severely regulated. In that part of the world, asking someone about their religious belief is completely legitimate and expected. When I got an offer for a librarian position in Dubai, they sent me a form that asked for my personal details, such as my name and address. They also asked for very personal information, such as and my birth date, who my parents are, and my religion.

I used to write “Buddhism” in the religion section because that’s what made sense to me at the time.  I thought it might have been better to write that than “none.” Besides, my family is Buddhists, sort of.

My parents would consider themselves Buddhists, but they are more than that. My family practices rituals that are associated with the Chinese folk religion. The Chinese folk religion is complex—it is polytheistic and borrows from multiple sources, such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.

I am not entirely sure if Chinese folk religion is a “religion” in the strict definition of the term. It doesn’t have a definitive text. It doesn’t have a congregation, each family just does their own thing. My family, for instance, worships Buddha, Guanyin, and our ancestors. My Mama’s side of the family is also a huge fan of Mazu, less so on Baba’s side. 

I was first introduced to the Chinese folk religion when my family moved from Japan to Taiwan. We lived with my Ama, my paternal grandmother. As a six-year-old, I watched Ama change the water in little cups in front of various statues.  Then she’d gave me three sticks of lit incense and showed me how to bow to Buddha, Guanyin and the ancestors in the worship room while she said a prayer.

The worship room at Ama’s house. Photography by Derek Black.

In the worship room, a picture of Buddha hangs above the altar. Below the picture, the golden figure inside a glass case is Guanyin, the goddess of compassion and mercy. On the right side, there is a picture with three bodhisattvas. In the center is Buddha, to his left is Guanyin, and I have no idea who the third one is. To the left is a wood plaque inside the glass case—that’s our ancestors.

The worshipping of ancestors reflects a virtue in the Chinese folk religion: filial piety. It basically means to be loving and respectful to one’s parents and elders and to obey and make sacrifices for them.  It is a Confucius idea—he believed that filial piety is the foundation of a good society. Like many Taiwanese families, ancestor worship is an important ritual in my family,  a way for us to remember our roots and our loved ones who have passed away.

Ancestors are basically gods. Buddha and Guanyin are too. These are the ones that are important to my family. The gods live in our hearts, and they guide our actions. We worship them to be in their good graces, so they would protect us and bring us good fortune.

People worship different gods for different purposes. For business owners, they may have an altar of Kuan Ti, the god of war, facing the front door. This is to ward off ghosts. For a couple wanting a healthy baby, they might pay a visit with Zhu Sheng Niang Niang, the goddess of marriage and fertility. For students preparing for exams, they would worship Wenchang Wang, the god of literature and culture. The thing is, each of these gods come from different sources. For instance,  Kuan Ti and Wenchng Wang are based on historical people. Zhu Sheng Niang Niang came from Taoism. In the end, none of it matters.

In the Taiwanese soul, gods are important, and the more gods the merrier.



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