Happy Chinese New Year, and Good Luck!

One of the first things you learn about foreign languages is that people aren’t speaking your language with different vocabularies.  “There’s no English word for that,” you hear all the time.
Here in South China, that’s what they say about the word “Joss.”  Joss is a Cantonese word, sort of meaning Luck and Fate and God and the Devil combined.  For me, it feels pretty close to Luck; but a much more substantive and present luck than the flimsy thing we think of in the West.  And as luck would have it, we’re here at Chinese New Year, the festival for good Joss – good luck – for the year ahead. 
The Chinese – I’m told – really believe in luck.  A successful businessman plays the Baccarat tables as well, because his joss is good.  The Chinese give each other money at New Year’s, because money is lucky.  People wear red on this holiday, because red is the color of joss.
And they burn “joss sticks” at the local temple, perhaps for many reasons; but I assume joss – or luck – has something to do with it.
Worshipers at Hong Kong’s Wong Tai Sin temple
And so I watched with genuine interest today as throngs of people poured into Wong Tai Sin Temple to close out the last week of the old year.  Most held dozens or hundreds of sweet-burning joss sticks, preparing to offer prayer before their chosen shrine.
The Temple is a shrine to Master Wong Tai Sin, a 4th Century Taoist figure who is believed to have become a celestial being.  But the temple has deities to go around.  Upon entry, I am met by the fierce scowl of Yue Heung, standing in bronze on a dragon-mount with gilded sword raised to strike.  Apparently, this is a deity who doesn’t care all that much if you love him.
Next, after visiting the soothsayer booths, you can pray at the shrines of Caichen, Yao Wong or Fuk Tak, who all look to me like fairly typical village gods.
But as you mount the stairs to the enormous Wong Tai Sin shrine, you see that these deities are all relatively small potatoes.  Here, before the massive and ornate gilded shrine of Wong Tai Sin, hundreds of people mill about preparing their offerings to its namesake.  There are scores of prayer mats.  Many people kneel and bow perfunctorily three or four times, and then get their girlfriend to take their picture.  Grandfathers help toddlers kneel, and snap their picture for some future purpose.  Young daughters will watch their mothers bow, and then repeat the act before running and giggling with their friends.  Businessmen and street sweepers will bow and light joss stick just the same.
Joss sticks offering sweet smoke
Apparently, there’s some serious joss at stake, and this is the time of year to line up your luck for the coming year.
But anywhere in the world, you find people whose prayers come from deep in the heart.  I watched an old woman praying on her mat, face to the floor, faintly rocking as she prayed.  Others came and went, but she prayed.  I thought I’d watch her as she emerged from her prayers, but I couldn’t wait her out.  Eventually I walked on, and left her prostrate and rocking on her knees.
So what did I take away from Wong Tai Sin Temple?  Well, a few interesting things:
  • First, everyone prays.  It doesn’t seem to matter whether your belief is either orthodox or profound.  It doesn’t seem to hurt to pray.
  • Second, people don’t seem to be particularly troubled by contradiction.  In this rather strongly Christian city, maybe it doesn’t hurt to cover your bases.  Who knows? It might help your joss?
  • Third, every kind of person comes here: old and young, people from all ethnic origins and economic strata.
  • Fourth, the community pours resources into the place, with manicured gardens, resplendent shrines and clean toilets.  Dozens of people continuously sweep the walkways.
  • And finally, even in a strange temple amidst swirling incense, you can find people – I think – whose hearts are sincerely drawn to the Creator of the universe.
What does it all mean to an evangelical Christian visiting this part of the world for the first time?  Oh, I couldn’t attempt to answer that on my first visit.  As John Lagerway, a Christian professor and Calvin College alumnus, advised us upon arrival here: “When you first observe Chinese religious practices, it’s best to remind yourself to suspend judgment.”
Thanks for reading, and whatever it might mean, good luck — and good joss — for the New Year!
J. Elwood
The Lord has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.  He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.  All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.  Psalm 98:2-3

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