A Goddess of Mercy becomes a Goddess of Fortune

I wandered into a Buddhist Temple in the famous water town Zhujiajiao in the Qingpu district of Shanghai municipality. People were charged admission to the main temple grounds, a fee of 10Y, but in the annex worshippers got a freebe. Before paying the fee, one could kneel on a padded bench before a glass-encased Laughing Buddha (Maitreya Buddha) covered in gold paint, with a mischievous-looking Haibao peeking around the corner of the case. The little blue mascot for the Shanghai World Expo and the golden Buddha are emblems of the same aspiration among the Chinese: conspicuous wealth and a global showcase of modernization.

After paying the fee, one can enter the first shrine of the Buddha and accompanying bodhisattvas. The color theme here, as in every shrine on the temple grounds, is gold (wealth) and red (luck). The statues and the décor are very consistent in this regard. It look like a relatively orthodox Buddhist shrine, but this changes as one enters the courtyard of the main temple grounds. But the central diety is the figure of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. Along the walls facing her are the Lohan or Arhat, direct disciples of the Buddha. Every statue, of course, are painted in gold and their vestments are red. A chant is played over a loudspeaker, repeating “Guan Yin” in a wistful major-key tune.

I quickly found out that in every shrine of the main temple, she is the central deity, usually accompanied with the Maitreya Buddha above or before her. In each repre-sentation, she is larger or more prominent than the others.

The Goddess of Mercy has turned into a goddess of Fortune, and for a Westerner like me, the place seemed to be an Eastern variation of a Marian cult. The previous Friday evening I had watched the fireworks extravaganza of the opening of the World Expo on TV, and noted the choice of great Western musical masterpieces to accompany the program. Previously, Andrea Boccelli sang (actually lip-synced) the “Nessun Dorma” aria from Puccini’s opera Turandot. The setting of the song is a night in ancient Peking, where the brave prince Calaf has just answered the cold-hearted princess Turandot’s riddles on pain of death, and who has won the right to wed her. He sings “None shall sleep” on the night before he would take her to wife. The stakes of the riddles were high, and the greatest and wealthiest princess in the world killed hundreds of her suitors until prince Calaf fatefully came to court. This goddess of ice is quickly beat at her own game, and must relent to wed the prince and give him the realm, and the wealth of the world along with it. The entire nation is in sleepless anticipation for a miraculous event.

Such wooing is further evidenced with the selection of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna”

from his cantata Carmina Burana for the fireworks display. The piece was probably chosen for its driving rhythms and sublime sound, but the latin poetry of the text is an expression of enslavement to the goddess Fortuna, cursing her and the life she has fashioned for the human creature.

The cult of “good luck” has always been a factor in Chinese society. But in recent decades, this cult has achieved an unprecedented renaissance from every form of religion or pseudo-religion, from Buddhism to Asian Christianity. We are witnessing a society that is surging unstoppably towards the promise of wealth defined by industrial “modernization.” It seems to be the topic of every conversation, the motive for every action toward ones family or beyond. It is part of the global manifestation of modern “low paganism,” and in such a society one cannot even have the status of personhood without one’s value in money.

As I walked around on the balcony of the top floor of the temple, stone friezes depicted the goddess in various poses of blessing and of return upon the back of a dragon at the end of the world. Will the wealth achieved have an apocalyptic end as it was seen in the West’s manifestation of Fortuna? China has the West to thank for its mode of modernization, so why not make due homage to the old and capricious European deity Fortuna, who has suddenly and so obviously begun to favor them at last?