China's Leaders Harness Folk Religion For Their Aims In China, the vast following of a folk goddess of the sea illustrates the remarkable rebirth of local popular religion since the Cultural Revolution. Now, China's communist leaders are supporting worship of Mazu as "cultural heritage" and using it to advance their own political and economic goals.
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China's Leaders Harness Folk Religion For Their Aims

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China's Leaders Harness Folk Religion For Their Aims

China's Leaders Harness Folk Religion For Their Aims

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

As part of our story, NPR's Louisa Lim traveled to Fujian province in the south of China for a special birthday party.

LOUISA LIM: Mazu was a real person. Temple guardian Wei Yazhen tells her story.

WEI YAZHEN: (Through Translator) When Mazu was a little girl, her father and brothers went out fishing and got into trouble at sea. She dreamed she was carrying them to safety. But then her mother woke her up and she dropped her father into the sea. Her father died, but she saved her two brothers.

LIM: In the 12th century, the Chinese emperor ordered an official Mazu temple to be built, and Mazu worship spread nationwide. Nowadays, there are 4,000 Mazu temples in China, 160 million worshippers.

CHENG ZHIGUI: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: One is 23-year-old Cheng Zhigui, who's part of an opera troupe singing on stage in front of the temple. He's dressed in black silk pajamas. His face painted in a dramatic pink-and-white mask. This is a traditional performance known as Putian Opera. Such scenes are repeated all over the island tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIM: The whole village is watching, dressed in their festival finery. But Cheng says he's not singing for mere mortals.

ZHIGUI: (Through Translator) We perform for Mazu. We believe that she's watching us singing opera. The audience can also watch. But if there are no people here, she'll still be watching us.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRECRACKERS)

LIM: Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Here's the chairman of the main Mazu temple, Lin Jinbang.

LIN JINBANG: Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: This ceremony is part political rally, part religious ritual, part cultural event. It's surprising, since until recently, worshipping Mazu was officially classified as superstition and banned - now, all that has changed. Amid a hailstorm of fireworks, even Meizhou Party Secretary Zhuang Yonghui admits to worshipping.

ZHUANG YONGHUI: Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: But aren't you a Communist Party member? Surely, you're not allowed to believe in religion.

YONGHUI: (Through Translator) Mazu is not a religion. It's a popular belief, so there's no contradiction with the Communist Party's stance on not believing in religion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIM: The real drivers for this decision, however, are political and economic. They're embodied in the presence of Cheng Minshou, a beaming Taiwanese who's clutching a small golden statue of Mazu.

CHENG MINSHOU: (Through Translator) I drove 14 hours to be here, to bring a golden statue Mazu from my hometown to participate in this ceremony.

LIM: In addition to this icon, he's also bringing investment to the area, both in terms of business and money for the new temple. And he's not the only one.

MINSHOU: (Through Translator) Taiwanese coming here on pilgrimage have really helped communication between mainland China and Taiwan. We've bought a small island, and we're building a Mazu temple there this year. It will be finished by next year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND FIRECRACKERS)

LIM: So Mazu worship has served to build closer political and economic ties across the Taiwan Strait, strengthening China's eventual aim of reunification.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIM: As people get richer here, money is one way in which Mazu worship is changing the social structure and, as Ms. Zheng explains, the balance of power in the villages.

ZHENG: Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND FIRECRACKERS)

NORRIS: And you can find all of our previous reports on China's faith boom at npr.org.

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