“China does not have one unified religion. The closest things we have are Buddhism and Daoism, but they tend to stick in their own temples and mountains. So unless you’re a very firm believer in it–it doesn’t trickle down to the normal population. What does happen is that Chinese gods are very practical. The general philosophy is that it doesn’t matter who you believe in, it doesn’t matter what kind of person you are, if you step in a temple, you offer your money, you pray, the gods will answer. So, the gods aren’t creators or great beings to be worshipped, they are beings with super powers that you trade with. Basically, we have what is called ‘paper money.’ You buy the paper money from the temple, and then you burn the paper, and you offer fruit, food, or whatever, to the gods, and the gods give you the good fortune that you want. So, we don’t pray at nights before we eat or before we sleep, we don’t call to God for help, but if we’re, for example, going to an exam, it’s very typical in Asia to take your sons or your daughters to a temple and pray to the gods before the exam starts to pray to the gods for a successful exam.”
Q. Have you ever done that?
A. My parents have taken me to temples when I was little.
Q. Was that a meaningful experience for you?
A. I never really believed that that would help, but since my parents took me there, I prayed. I’d say, “God, give me a good exam result.”
Q. Is the practice of taking kids to temples before exams very common?
A. Well, the temples get a burst of popularity every time final exams come around.
Q. On what other occasions do people go to the temples?
A. People also go on New Year, to have a good year, before you start a job, after you buy a new house. Also on the Day of the Dead, the day we honor our dead, a lot of people go to the temples. And some people come more than others; my family goes very rarely because we’re not very religious, so we go once every month or two.
Q. You said that you don’t believe that going to the temples actually helps. Do your parents believe in it?
A. They are agnostics. They take the Pascal’s gamble approach. If it works, it works, and we pay the money, it’s good. If it doesn’t work, well, we paid a little money, it’s not actually that much, and it’s an experience for our children, so that’s fine. They’re very busy people, and visiting the temple takes time, so we don’t do it very often.
Q. Can you talk more about what the experience of going there is like?
A. Temples are usually very noisy, very loud and crowded. Unlike Western cathedrals—I’m not very much into religion, but I love cathedrals because of the architecture—which are serene, and you walk into them and feel awed by God, in Chinese temples, it’s loud, they’re sort of a social gathering. Also, temples are markets—they’re markets with great food. Temple food is good. You know how in the New Testament, they describe Jesus as being very angry at the peddlers who were in the Temple, and he flipped their stalls? There’s a section in the New Testament where Jesus goes to the Temple and he gets very angry at the peddlers for defiling a sacred place. But this is the opposite. In the temples, you’re supposed to have that kind of people. If a temple doesn’t have peddlers, it means that it’s not very popular, and if it’s not very popular, then its gods aren’t very good. So a temple that is empty and sort of quiet and serene is a bad thing. Temples are supposed to be very loud, and there’s supposed to be smoke everywhere from the incense. That’s the Chinese temple.
There are these things, I’m not sure what they’re called, but they’re two crescent-shaped pieces of wood that are painted red. They look like slices of oranges. And you’re supposed to throw them on the ground. You’re supposed to throw a pair of them on the ground. And how they land will tell you how’s your luck. And you’ll hear those things clattering against the ground the whole time. Sometimes you’ll buy a little bag full of rice that’s supposed to be blessed, and you keep them as a sort of talisman or amulet for good luck. You can buy one for the kind of thing you wanted good luck from. So, if you want success in exams, you can buy a success in exam one, if you want success in love, you can buy a success in love one. It’s a very business-oriented thing. There are certain temples, even until now, which are very sacred and which treat money as less of an issue, like the Shaolin Temple and the Daoist temples. But your average temple—they all worship multiple gods, and it’s just whatever god’s most popular in the area. Actually, speaking of the Shaolin Temple, which is very famous for its martial artists—they are said to be the most business-oriented temple now. Shaolin martial arts have spread all over the world by virtue of them being very business-oriented. The head monk of Shaolin no longer sits in his room praying, he goes all over the world on private jets for business purposes.
Q. Does that mean converting people?
A. No, they’re not converting people to the religion. They are not encouraged, nor are they motivated to convert people to their religion. But they welcome people to come and practice Shaolin martial arts, and they get paid quite a bit of money for it.
Analysis: This tradition of praying at temples for success in exams displays a way that religion has adapted to fit people’s present-day concerns, pressures, and needs.