The first time mother tasted religion was when she was seventeen, dissatisfied with the men her father arranged for her. She prayed under a tree that Yue Lao would lasso her an adequate husband with a red string. The Yue Lao she talked to was not the real Matchmaker God, but an old village man who claimed that he had sacrificed his eyes for desperate people, for the service of hunting their missing halves. His fingers slipped from mother’s palm to her wrist like an eel on an oily floor, his nail-lines black as his teeth. When he had swum mother’s hands, he glossed his lips with the scent frozen on his forefinger and said, “A pretty bird like you would fly out from the mountains and find home in a rich house.” Mother paid him and used that to shield against the butcher’s son, the tailor’s son, the fisherman’s son, and the farmer’s son. At thirty-one, pregnant, she married a factory owner who thought his wealth justified his temper.
The second time mother picked up religion, she was kneeling inside a temple, smoky with incense, tearing red candles with golden engravings. Three kowtows, in the proper way of her forehead kissing the cushion violently. She wore long relaxed-fit pants and long-sleeves: the former to hide the maternity fat, the latter to cover her bracelet of bruises. She requested a remake of her drunk husband, who, by that time, was constantly absent, who was harder to put up with when present. Sitting in front of the monk, an authentic one this time, she waited for the explanation of the stick she drew from the bamboo cup. She left before the monk could find the page in the book of fortune. Mother was scared that Guan Yin couldn’t hear her among the Namo-Amitabhas, more scared that Guan Yin might have heard her. After all, what she had asked for was her husband’s death.
The third time mother tested religion, her own mother was shrinking on the hospital bed, tubed and unconscious, a barely breathing lump. The doctor tried to lay out the math of the experimental treatment for her: a couple painful months, at best; decades of debt, for sure. Mother had stepped into every temple she could reach for the god of longevity, and returned with two silver Guan Yin statues and five tortoise-shaped talismans. That night, after she prayed to every god in our home, she opened the only bottle in the cabinet, Nu Er Hong, the rice wine that parents keep intact until their daughters’ weddings. The flashing kaleidoscope aurora from the Buddha chanting player failed to color her face. The liquor she swallowed down flooded back out from her eyes. “What’s the good of living long, Bao Bei? What’s the good of living long?” She was jealous of her late husband, her sick mother, her young daughter. When I moved her to her bed, I heard her mumbling, “Sorry, Mama, I’m so sorry.” The plot she splurged on was approved by a master of Feng Shui, in a cemetery cradled by green hills and unnamed lakes. The master said that it was a good place: the mountains were palming it by forming a bowl, and as water meant money, no drop of fortune could escape.
The fourth time mother wielded religion, she begged to have the man competing with her hit by a loaded truck, so she could secure the promotion. The fifth time, she tried to use religion to do what legislation failed: free her new boyfriend who was arrested for a pyramid scam. Two years later, she wanted him to stay and rot in prison like a forgotten fruit. No successful woman would carry a fifty-year-old ex-con, though she would love to keep the Cadillac he left in our garage. She prayed when she felt the fever on my forehead; she prayed when she saw depression gushing out from my wrist. She always prayed for what she needed. I asked her what she told Guan Yin last night. She said, “Bao Bei, I wished us a long, happy life.”
How religious are Chinese? I can’t offer a simple answer. I think most of us are constantly vacillating within the spectrum, and often our religion seems to be practical and need-based. Then my own question is, does that practicality render people less deserving of a blessing? Once I went to a Buddhist temple with my family, and overheard a terrible prayer from a woman—she was wishing someone dead. Yet I found myself unable to condemn her. It was visible that her harsh life led to her horrible wish, not her heart. I was also inspired by the documentary film Fortune Teller (《算命》) by the director XU Tong. I hope my piece has raised more questions about religion and being religious.
Xueyi Zhou is an emerging writer in mainland China. A native Chinese, she enjoys the challenge of writing in English, a language out of her parents’ reach. More importantly, she enjoys the eye-rolling of her family when they demand to know but can’t. She currently works full-time in a stainless-steel company in Foshan. She is on Facebook and is figuring out Twitter @xueyizhou.