Wednesday, February 16, 2011
If you ever decide to come to China, most likely you will fly into Beijing International airport. If you are so lucky as to be near a window and you happen to glance out, you might see that many roofs are painted blue. You might wonder why that is so. I will be delighted to tell you when I meet you at the gate, after you finally land.
Or, I can tell you right now, so that you’ll know to be on the lookout for the blue roofs while you are still in the air.
Most people think that China is a Godless country. And indeed, there is no recognized religion here. More specifically, the CIA World Fact Book lists it as an Atheist country where Buddhism and the Tao prevail. Buddhism and Taosim (and Confucianism, the spiritual triumvirate of China) are philosophies, not actual religions.
In 1950, Mao Ze Dong decreed that religion was non-productive and abolished any active practice of religion throughout the country. I have not read any accounts where the people decry his decree, mainly because there most likely aren’t any. Back then, when people didn’t agree with Mao, they were… put in a place where agreeing with anything or anyone was a moot point.
From that time on, until maybe 1980, when Deng Xiao Ping opened China to limited exposure to the West, not much thought was given to any type of religion. People were too hungry, too terrified and too busy to think of anything besides meeting production quotas, staying alive and getting enough food. Again, there is no literature that says people prayed to anyone (God or Buddha) for comfort, solace or maybe even a morsel to eat. They were still too terrified. The prisons and denouncements were still a very real threat. There is a good chance that older generations might relate stories to that effect, but I think their memory of that terrible time would eclipse any desire to talk about their thoughts of God while starving.
Now there is a loosening of the edict against religion. Not only are Buddhism and Taoism making a resurgence into mainstream society, but books about Confucianism are flying off the shelves (because customers are buying them that quickly, not because they are possessed of mystical powers). Temples are being renovated at government expense. Whether it is because they are cultural relics or because they are religious in nature is irrelevant; the fact is, they are undergoing renovation.
There is even a burgeoning Christian movement in China. Being a foreigner I have been invited various churches several times, and even saw a Christian church while I was out walking the streets of Xi’an. Mind you it was not on a main thoroughfare and I only caught it by happenstance because I looked down the side street, but nevertheless it was there. There are several Christian churches in Wuhan as well. Not actual buildings dedicated to worship like the one I saw in Xi’an, but stores or offices that offer up their space for that purpose. I’ve been given to understand that the Christian population across China is growing. Certainly some of my students follow the Christian doctrine, as evidenced by their testimony of what Christmas means to them.
And, of course, you read about Muslim Street in Xi’an right here in this blog, and surely you are aware of the Muslim population in Urumqi (a province in Northwest China). They featured heavily in the news a couple of years back because of rioting: they wanted an end to the discrimination they have lived under for years.
So, clearly, religion does play a part in the lives of the Chinese. But where do those blue roofs come in?
Back when it was forbidden to believe in anything, people were not willing to give up their devotion to the Buddha. They were not allowed to go to temples and burning incense and praying were most definitely no-nos. But… who was going to say anything about the men, arduously laboring to fix the roofs? And, while they were at it, they just went ahead and painted them… blue.
Because blue is the color of devotion and spirituality. Blue was the color of the Buddha’s robe, to reflect the eternal blueness of the Heavens. Blue is purity of spirit.
To have a blue roof meant that your home was welcoming the spirit of the Buddha into your dwelling, in spite of the political turmoil or the terrible and terrifying living conditions. Having a blue roof meant that you were defying Chairman Mao’s edict, but in such a way that would not be detected and would certainly not be punishable. Having a blue roof meant that, no matter what, spirituality and faith and belief does not die.
So, as your plane makes its final approach to Beijing airport, remember: I will be at that gate, ready and overjoyed to see you. But before you get there, give thought to those brave and devoted ones who, even under heinous living conditions and perpetual terror, had the strength and courage of their faith to paint their roofs blue.