The propaganda poster seen in a Shanxi terraced corn field in July 2017. The first paragraph states that on October 8, 1975, Mao Zedong stated to his Yugoslavian guests at a meeting that "the people are God." He further asked the officials if they believed in God, and eventually he stated that God is the people. No matter who ruffles God's feathers, he then gets relentlessly strict - he's bound to collapse! The people are God, the people are heroes, and it is the people who are the creators of history. (Photo by Chardonnay Needler)

MUSINGS FROM THE MIDDLE KINGDOM: Atheist propaganda doesn’t mean religion’s been squashed

Some people call me a “Chinaboo”; I prefer the term “sinophile.” I’ve been to China twice: from mid-July to mid-August in 2017 and then July of 2018.

This year I went to Dalian to teach English, but I ended up spending more time being taught about the religious and cultural complexities of modern China than teaching.

Chinese philosophy stretches thousands of years. When Confucius was contemplating the possibility of humanity’s innate ethical codes, Europe was dominated by the comparably brutish Celts who governed by swords without considering sageness.

But even with its 5000-year-old history, China now has a surprising amount of ideologies and philosophies that come from Germany. Ideas such as Marxism and Nietzscheism are infused in quotes or sayings on the red-and-gold propaganda banners, which are plastered anywhere – from the inside of boats to on rickety, chipped fences outside of the jade-green corn fields.

“God is dead” – that famous quote from the German Friedrich Nietzsche – may have served as an inspiration for one of Mao Zedong’s many anti-religious speeches, excerpts of which I saw in a corn field July of 2017 in Shanxi province.

“The people are God,” stated a poster on the somewhat beaten-down path on the way to the best view of the terraced fields. Scanning the rest of the shiny red surface gave a summarization of one of Mao’s speeches that he made to Yugoslavian comrades. Ah, propaganda at its finest (and paired with beautiful scenery).

However, this year proved that God – or at least religion – is surprisingly alive in China.

It’s always better to travel cheap, so I circumnavigated the Yellow Sea to get from Dalian (where I taught English for three weeks) to Qingdao (where I could relax and have fun with Zihao Sui, ’18).

Sometime along the eight-hour boat ride I began to get hungry, so I made a quick stop to the in-boat grocery store, packed with packaged foods and fancy bowls of instant noodles.

Freeze-dried mung beans and sad, overly sweet attempts at European bread didn’t seem like the best choices, so I picked some sweet soybean snacks and a Sichuan-style spicy sausage. (Thank God the names aren’t as alliterative in Mandarin.)

I’m not sure whether it was the immense hunger or the general lack of dexterity in my hands, but those packages were not cooperating with me. Here I was, separated from the savory, spicy, high-caloric wonder that is Chinese junk food – and by my own two hands.

I awkwardly looked around for a good few minutes, aware that now I was both the only foreigner and only person unable to open up their own food on the entire boat.

Finally I gently tapped the shoulder of the lady in front of me, a stout woman with a short haircut tinged brown in some spots. She was watching some Chinese game show on her phone, and her volume was set so high that I could hear the laughter from her earbuds.

Chardonnay Needler
The boat at the Dalian port.

“Excuse me. Could you open this for me?” I showed her the plastic wrapping with the sausage, and she removed the earbud from her right ear.

“No, I can’t,” she curtly replied as she returned to her show.

I was bewildered. Did I say something wrong? I ran the sentence in my head over and over – my tones were all right, right? There was no way I could mess up something that simple. Was my accent that bad? Eeesh …

“Um, sorry for bothering you a minute, but could you please open this this bag? It’s really proving difficult to me -”

“No, I cannot,” she interrupted me mid-sentence, although I was likely starting to blabber. “Look what’s in there.”

Hot and spicy pork sausage? I stared at the package and slowly read to ensure I missed nothing.

“It’s pork,” she continued. “I’m Muslim – I can’t eat or even touch that, so, I can’t open that up for you.

“According to my religion, pork is forbidden; it’s unclean. It’s also tradition for me. Hopefully you can find someone else.”

She resumed her TV show as I tried to not get too wide-eyed. Her head wasn’t covered, her phone wasn’t saturated with Arabic, her Mandarin was definitely her L1 (mother tongue), and it even carried the rhotic twang of a Northeastern accent. So how was I supposed to know?

A few hours later when the boat had finally reached the port, she and her family were gathering their things.

“Mai-ha-mu-de, where’s your portable charger?” I quickly went to my dictionary and kept repeating those four syllables to myself.

Mahmoud was her son’s name, and seeing him made a lot more sense. He had darker skin from his mother and much curlier hair.

And that reminded me that my charger was still plugged in at the in-boat charging station.

Now, she wasn’t the only Muslim whom I had met in China. Two weeks previously, I had met a family of Uighurs, only they weren’t as open verbally about their beliefs.


Read the next installment of this series on August 20.

—By Chardonnay Needler

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