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Religioussymbolism in Chinese American literature

Chinesereligious life can be described in very many terms from beingcreative to being adaptable. Its history does not account for theexperiences of other Chinese that live outside the Republic of China.Chinese Americans are Americans with full or partial origin of China.They are comprised of the immigrants and other generations that havecome up as a result of being born in America (Chai 300). In theUnited States, they formed territories which were comprised ofcommunities that represented their culture commonly known as Chinatowns. These groups represented the various aspects of diversitywhich further complicate the religion of the Chinese Americanpopulation. To understand their religion it is important to have alook at their history in the wider context. Chinese families sent agroup of young men to go to California between the year 1848 and1882. Most of them were from Guangdong and were hoping to return totheir home rich having worked at the gold mines that had just beendiscovered (Wegars and Sue 45). In America, they had to put up withdiscrimination from Caucasian miners and the local government whichforced them to pay tax twice (Abelman 200).

ManyChinese moved to the US in search of gold. Life was however not easy,the legislation laws were tough as they were not even allowed tobring in women, most were bachelors. In 1882 Chinese miners wereprohibited from entering America which greatly reduced theirpopulation in the 20thCentury (Min et al. 86). China towns disappeared and the remainingpopulation moved to settle in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Here,families grew to produce people that were speaking in English knownas Chinese Americans. Initially, Americans believed that the Chinesewere hardworking and diligent, but this changed as soon as theymigrated to the US in search of gold, they faced exclusion. Thestruggle to change their way of life to fit the American culture wasquite a challenge (Song 101).

ChineseAmericans are similar to Americans, they have different religiousbeliefs. Some believe in Christianity, others in Judaism and Islam.The initial settlers made efforts to fit in on religious aspects bybeing creative. The referred to their places of religious practicesas church instead of what was commonly known as a temple. The Taoisttemple in California was changed to the Taoist church. However,blending in with the Americans way of life was difficult. They haddifferent culture and spoke in a different language. This made thelocals look at them as dangerous people and resistant to conformity(Stewart and Chih-K’ang 32).

TheCivil rights movement challenged the assimilation concept arguingthat it was not easy for people of other diverse backgrounds totransform and be full Americans. This changed and they embraced thatAmerican population was made of people of different culture andlanguage but were all Americans in different aspects (Portes et al.28). China towns have been revived since and their numbers continueto spread in different regions.

ChineseAmericans accommodate people from all kind of religions be theyChristians, Buddhists, and Daoists. China towns were a symbol ofwhere religious practices were concentrated. They built temples inthese towns for worship and dedicated them to their gods. These godswere believed to have supernatural powers and each had a role to play(Schieffelin 28). There were gods responsible for watching over thetravellers, fishermen and men of the sea. Others were goddesses whilethe other was a warrior also known as Emperor Guangong. Howeverdespite all these, people from the west viewed them as irreligiousyet they had a very rich background that attracted many (Pua 84).

Fengsuidoctrines symbolize the way of life they should lead. They believe insuperstitions and follow the doctrines in order not to offend thegods and receive guidelines on how they should organize their homes.They have the freedom to worship whoever they want and they do thisin places or through objects that represent the presence of theirdeity (Romanowski 79). In some cases, they do make images or idols ofthe gods, or use ancestors or heroes as a way of giving reverence tothe gods. They organize ceremonies of offering sacrifices to the godsto appease them so that they continue protecting them and showeringthem with good things. They respect the religious beliefs of otherpeople as much as they respect theirs and rarely become fanatics ormake attempts to convert others. They have rituals that they observein the temples. In America however, they observe the rituals insanctuaries at their places of work or at altars built in their homes(Rogge 64). Important dates in their religious calendar are observedthrough performing of rituals. Moral teachings are expected tofacilitate harmonious living of communities with the gods. They areimpacted on them through stories and principles of ethics taught inthe temples.

Thedragon is the main symbol of Chinese Americans. It is believed torepresent good things and kindness. It impacts wisdom to the people,fertility, procreation and long life. It is the most powerful beingwhich brings upon success, luck, and achievement of many goals inlife. It represents a new life and gives people strength, spiritualand physical wellness. Floods, rainfall and strong winds can becontrolled by the dragon. Farmers receive rain from the dragonwhenever they need it and it has the ability to change its size. Itis still prominent up to date and is associated with outstanding goodthings (Ng 195).

GwanGung was a hero who later became a god of the Chinese. He was highlyrespected according to their beliefs. He was perceived to be symbolof wisdom, loyalty, righteousness and bound together the people. Hewas adopted by Chinese Americans to symbolize religious unity, as anidentity of the people that were willing to stand strong for thepractices and refused to be dominated by other religions.

ChineseAmericans believe that people from the western culture are believedto be devils that need to be taken away from their land. They havestrong faith in their gods, who are so powerful as to be able to castaway these devils from the West. The gods strengthen and encourageyoung poor people not to give in to the religion of intruders fromthe west in their home region. To them spirituality is an aspect thatis significant in daily life. It is what leads people into acting ina passionate, humble and violent manner in different circumstances(Chun 90).

Mazuwas officially recognized as Empress in Heaven (Tianhou). She wasknown as the goddess of the sea. She watched over the Chineseimmigrants as they made their way to America in search of gold (Chow54). Her protection over them as they crisscrossed strange bordersmade sure they arrived safely, after which they built a temple in herhonor to show gratitude. Mazu’s initial role prepared her foranswering prayers, protecting the community and prosperity for all.

Festivalsin the temple were done during Mazu’s birthday. There were a lot ofcelebrations as well other religious rituals. Dances and performanceswere performed to make the goddess happy. It took a whole week toconduct these celebrations. People from other communities were alsowelcome to per take in the vegetarian meal (Chen 204). Many peoplecame hoping to go home with good luck. Chinese Americans organizedfor an inspection parade about three months before her birthday. Theparade attracted people from diverse religious backgrounds. They wereactively involved as volunteers and doors were opened for them tovisit the temple any time they wished. Allowing visitors to visitMatsu temple and participate in the ceremony was a way of encouragingcultural exchange (Douglas 83).

Mazuwas a goddess of the Chinese who resided in Matsu temple. She touredthe state to assess the situation and promised to protect the people.The purpose of the tour was to foster and encourage unity amongmembers of the community. It was also a symbol of culture whichbrought together Chinese and non-Chinese religions. Mazu symbolizedthe Chinese culture to the civil population though they did notwitness the rituals most of which took place in the temple. However,they were aware that they happened (Jeung 45). In 1897, a temple wasbuilt which became the home of a god known as Bei Di. This godprovided rain for the farmers whenever they needed it shielded themfrom drought and protected them from the catastrophic effects offloods. Festivities in honor of this god referred to as Boi Kaiparade were highly anticipated. The symbolic significance of theparade was withheld from the people. This allowed the community fromdifferent ethnic backgrounds and culture to participate. ChineseAmericans failed to reveal the traditional meaning of this ritual toallow other people to embrace it in the United States (Lorentzen 74).

Thediscovery of the identity of the Chinese who migrated to America wasmade possible by goddess Mazu. Matsu temple won various awards for acouple of times for participating in the Chinese New Year parade.This suggested that she was a symbol of the Chinese culture back athome and represented the same even in America (Faries 24). It was aconstant reminder for the immigrants and new generations of theircultural heritage. This kept them in check and ensured that they didnot abandon their native ways for more civilized life (Abel 174).Despite the fact that only immigrants showed devotion to Mazu, it wasclear that her symbolic role was going to remain relevant for the newgeneration of Chinese Americans. Mazu not only represented theheritage of the Chinese culture, she was a link of unity between theChinese and non-Chinese communities and helped immigrants createtheir own identity in the United States. She was the reason why theimmigrants build China towns so that they could practice what theybelieved in and interact well with other groups knowing that there isa familiar goddess watching over them and guiding them even in newterritories (Hall 106). However, there was another aspect of thefestival that involved rituals and only the Chinese took part inthis. They brought whole pigs that were roasted and other foods toperform the rituals. After all these activities were complete, theywould then congregate and share a meal (Charter et al.85).

Duringthe New Year parade, Mazu had two assistants who would walk rightbefore her exploding firecrackers. Americans did not pay muchattention they assumed it was part of the culture. However, therewas deeper meaning to this in religion. Firecrackers were used tochase away the demons just before Mazu inspected the parade. Thereare two Mazus who are closely related. The original one came fromChina and is known as Beigang Mazu, while that originating fromChinese Americans is called American Mazu. She was a symbol of unityfor the different Chinese ethnic communities in the United States(Carnes 64). After moving to the US there are several generations ofChinese Americans that have emerged. However, the original immigrantsworship in the temple and respect the religious rituals involved.This has created a gap between the generations. Fresh immigrants whodo not speak English are the ones who will continue to maintain thetemples as generational Chinese Americans lack devotion (Miller 18).

Chinatowns of modern day are composed of diverse communities in culture,language and nation. The Chinese are able to survive without learningEnglish and can continue with their way of life carried from China tothe U.S. This has made the religion of Chinese Americans quitecomplex in their regions of occupation (Gormly 38). This is contraryto what was there before, they lived as bachelors and there was nodiversity in their religion. Values were passed on to the youngergenerations through religion and family set ups. This encouragedbeliefs and virtues which could be passed on to other people. Theyalso believed that people should live together as a unit and respectthe older people as well as show respect for authority. This wasquite similar to what other Asian groups believed in (Disabino 64).

Chinesewere concentrated in China towns where they sought refuge and keptthemselves away from racial discrimination. There were also regionswhere their culture was practiced in depth. They did not believe instrict following of their cultural beliefs and religion especially inAmerica. Diversity was welcome and they were liberal in accommodatingother people. Chinese Americans did not just stick to their nativereligion some became Christians, others Muslims and othersBuddhists. It was a large umbrella that was made of smaller groupsthat believed in different ways of life (Chen et al. 48). The Chinesegods also emphasized on the need to bridge the gap between those whofollowed the Chinese religion and those who did not. The higherpercentage of their population does not associate themselves with agiven religion. This is because most of them changed once the came into America and some simply don’t know which religion identifieswith them. About 54% of the immigrants chose to retain the religionthat they practiced back in China. Chinese Americans comprise a largepercentage of the Asian Americans. It is therefore correct toconclude and say that most of them had no religious affiliation(Hatch 240).

Chineseimmigrants who made their way to the coast of California adopted anew business. They collected sea foods, had them dried, well packageand transported it to China to feed their home populations. Thiscommunity in Mendocino came together and joined hands in buildingrestaurants, homes and shops in a bid to make money that they wouldreturn with to China or send to their families suffering frompoverty. Soon after they settled, a temple was built in honor ofGuandi (Kwan Tai) who was regarded as the god of the military. He wasalso responsible for making people wealthy and successful in businessdealings (Howard 125). Temples were places where the Chinese came toadore the gods and ask that their requests be granted. They alsoserved as places where children would be taught about thecontribution of the Chinese in history of America. In the temple ofthe military god, an altar located right in front of the entrance wasdedicated to Guandi. The place looked small but from thearrangements and decorations made, it felt cozy. A painting of theirgods Guandi and Liu Bei and Zhang Fei lay on the wall. This wasplaced there in the main shrine to constantly remind the Chinese ofthe gods who protected and blessed them with good luck (Hendine 81).


Globalizationhas resulted in changes in the religion of Chinese Americans.Advances in technology, communication and transportation have fueledthe changes experienced in culture and religion. To keep up withthese advancements, stronger relationships have been created amongthe local and global Chinese communities to help them forge forward.A shift has been experienced to initial exclusion to embracing of themulticultural Chinese religion which operates across national andethnic boundaries.


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