Chinese in Southeast Asia - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Chinese religious culture is syncretic, and Chinese "popular" religion is comprised of elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. The practice of Chinese religious culture involves performing the rituals of ancestor worship and participation in the cycle of public festival events: both are coordinated by the rhythms of the lunar calendar. Some Chinese are also active in the support of such world religions as Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism (Sri Lankan and Thai), and Christianity.

Chinese religious culture is polytheistic and involves worship and placation of a variety of hierarchically arranged supernatural beings. The most basic division is that between heaven and earth. At the top of the heavenly hierarchy are spiritual beings who transcend human life, like the Lord of Heaven; next are the spirits of human beings who have, through their spiritual cultivation and perfection, transcended the human cycle of death and rebirth to become Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, or Immortals; next are the venerated spirits of human heroes. Earth, by contrast, is associated on the one hand with gods of the earth, who are territorial protectors, and on the other with the "prison of earth," or hell, which is governed by an appointed bureaucracy modeled on the courts of the district magistrates of prerepublican China. Ghosts are thought to be potentially malevolent beings who may cause human suffering when provoked.

Religious Practitioners. Buddhist monks and Taoist priests contribute to Chinese religious culture by performing funeral rituals and the rites associated with public festivals. Buddhism functions as a world religion as well as serving the needs of religious culture. Buddhist monasteries offer education and retreats for lay Buddhists. Buddhist monks and Taoist priests ideally base their authority on spiritual self-cultivation and on mastery of the traditional texts chanted in ritual performance. Spirit mediums by contrast are ordinary persons whose special abilities belong to the spirits who possess them. Spirit mediums engage in ritual performances and folk healing, and they are frequently consulted for aid when Chinese encounter medical or personal problems that do not resolve themselves and thus are thought to have a spiritual cause. Christian missionaries were active during the colonial period in establishing schools and promoting conversion to a variety of Christian religions; Christianity also has a presence among the Chinese of Southeast Asia. While women may become Buddhist nuns or spirit mediums, Chinese women do not tend to become religious practitioners, in part because they are considered ritually impure as the result of menstruation and childbirth.

Ceremonies. Participants in Chinese religious culture perform the rites of ancestor worship, offering food, drink, and incense on a family altar on the first and fifteenth days of the lunar month. Offerings are also made at this time to the Lord of Heaven, a select number of gods on the family altar, and the gods of the earth. In addition, major ancestral offerings are made during the Qing Ming festival on the fifth day of the fourth lunar month, on the fourteenth or fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, and on the twenty-second day of the twelfth lunar month. Festivals are celebrated to honor or placate a range of deities, and community members worship in the temple during the festive period and enjoy the Chinese opera or stage show performed in the deity's honor. Religious practitioners are frequently involved in the celebration of festivals; Buddhist monks or Taoist priests may be engaged to perform elaborate rituals, in particular during the Hungry Ghosts festival; spirit mediums perform dramatic rituals such as firewalking or "washing" in hot oil in the festivals that honor their patron deities.

Arts. Chinese art forms are frequently linked with the affirmation of cultural identity in the Southeast Asian context. They include traditional music, Chinese opera and puppet theater (most commonly performed at temple festivals), Chinese dance, painting, calligraphy, and literature, including works written in Chinese and English as well as in a variety of Southeast Asian languages. Overseas Chinese also engage in a variety of crafts, including gold- and silversmithing, furniture making, and the design and manufacture of batik textiles.

Medicine. Modern medicine is used side by side with Chinese medicine. Overseas Chinese consult acupuncturists, bonesetters, herbalists, and Chinese traditional doctors as well as modern medical practitioners. Certain illnesses and mental disturbances (including anxiety) are ascribed to "collisions" with members of the spirit world or to the action of black magic. When such causation is suspected, the ill person is frequently taken to visit a spirit medium, who diagnoses the cause and offers a magical cure.

Death and Afterlife. Funeral rituals draw kin together with members of the groups in which the deceased participated to perform the ceremonies that transform the deceased into an ancestor, represented on the family altar with a spirit tablet. Funerals may express the social status of the deceased both through the scale of ritual performance and the scale of events such as the funeral cortege that transports the coffin to the grave or crematorium. Rituals of salvation may be performed by Taoist priests or Buddhist monks or nuns. The Taoist ceremonies performed forty-nine days after the death dramatically depict the soul's journey through the courts of hell, where it is given a potion of forgetfulness and sent on to a new rebirth. This ceremony offers the soul paper models of goods that the soul is thought to need in its new life (a house, money, servants, a car), and these are burned at the conclusion of the ritual.

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