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Villagers Put Gods Before Marx

Revival of native religion underscores how Communists are losing battle for hearts and minds

IT is a chilly February morning, the 11th day of the first lunar month, and the villagers of Shibu are hushed with anticipation.

A painted statue of the native god, Kang Wang, a deified general of the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), sits imposingly in the village temple for the first time since the Communist Party destroyed his old image in 1952.

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When all is ready, several men hoist Kang Wang onto an awaiting wooden palanquin. Others grasp a colorful flag. Then to the crashing of gongs, drums, and firecrackers, some 300 villagers set off in procession across the fields for the traditional Chinese New Year "touring of the god."

"All the villages in this area tour gods," says Lin Yaoxiu, a demobilized soldier in Shibu. "It's a kind of friendly exchange. It's very lively."

The loud report of drums across this lush, rolling terrain of rice paddies and bamboo groves in western Guangdong Province symbolizes a revival of native religion in China's countryside. The resurgence of traditional beliefs underscores how the Communist Party has lost its ideological grip over the minds of many rural Chinese.

Alarmed by this trend, Beijing in 1989 began dispatching "work teams" to villages to strengthen party branches and indoctrinate peasants in socialism for the first time since the Mao era. (Socialist education, right.)

But in Shibu and elsewhere, peasants are defying the party's attempts to reassert ideological control. Villagers and officials here openly admit that trust in the ancient deity Kang Wang far outweighs any allegiance to the ideology of Mao, Marx, and Lenin. Kang Wang offers hope; the party does not, they say.

"The people here don't care about Marxism, they don't follow any party line, they just pray to the god for sustenance," says Lin Yaheng, who runs a firecracker factory in Shibu.

"The god can resolve the worries in our hearts," says Yaheng. "The village cadres all pray to the god, too." (Shibu men are all surnamed Lin. For clarity, given names are used after the first reference.)

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Kang Wang also plays a vital social role. As a sort of roving ambassador between villages, his mute mediation skills apparently outrank the vocal efforts of the township and county governments.

"When we tour the god on holidays, it helps us overcome any conflicts we have with other villages," says Yaoxiu. Clan disputes and friction over land and water use are common in the area.

For five days after Chinese New Year, each village sends a large entourage to parade its god along rust-colored dirt paths to dozens of neighboring hamlets. At each stop, the host village greets Kang Wang with offerings of fruit and incense and entertains him with local operas before sending him off. "Without the god, we could not do this," Yaoxiu says, standing before the white-washed village temple.

Yet Shibu has had to struggle to defend Kang Wang over the past two years, as Guangdong provincial authorities have targeted the village in a campaign to eradicate "feudal superstition."

Shibu's troubles started in late 1989, one year after villagers had commissioned an elaborate, hand-carved statue of Kang Wang and renovated the village temple. One morning in December, villagers were dismayed to find that two smaller earth gods from the temple had been thrown into the latrine at the village school. Just before Chinese New Year in January 1990, the same thing happened again.

Then in February, posters began to appear around the village bearing slogans like "Oppose feudal superstition!" "There is no god!" and "Long live science!"

Finally, someone secretly broke into the temple, dragged Kang Wang into the fields and covered him with mire, and left a sign on him asking, "Old man, do you know who we are?"

Villagers soon discovered that four disgruntled teenagers were behind the pranks. The four were questioned and scolded by their parents and other angry villagers. The boys' families apologized and donated several hundred dollars to carve a new Kang Wang.

But everything changed when the boys secretly wrote a letter to Nanfang Daily, an official provincial newspaper. Without interviewing other Shibu villagers, the newspaper seized on the boys' story as a prime example for an ongoing communist campaign to "wipe out the seven evils," one of which is "feudal superstition."

In early 1991, several front-page reports in Nanfang Daily glorified the four youths and their defilement of Shibu's gods.

"Justice will always defeat evil," read the headline of one report in which government officials lauded the youths' acts as a "living lesson in the struggle against the seven evils."

In contrast, the newspaper labeled Shibu's 20-member village committee as a shen weihui, or "spirit committee," and supporters of the god as shen gun, or "spirit scoundrels."

Police meanwhile entered Shibu and confiscated the second statue of Kang Wang. Then, without issuing warrants, the police jailed three so-called "spirit scoundrels": deputy village head Lin Bingliang, Yaheng, and another villager, Lin Tayan.

Yaheng was detained for four months until police accepted bribes to release him. Tayan, who lacked the resources to pay off police, remained in jail for eight months, despite his poor health.

Bingliang, a spry, balding cadre with a full set of gold teeth, was only held for one day because of his prestige in the village and township. A party member since 1954, he was elected as deputy village head in 1984 and remains popular even though township officials forced him to resign after his detention.

"Bingliang is talented and upright. He goes the way of the people," one villager says.

The harsh government actions have stirred bitter discontent among the 1,600 residents of Shibu, cadres and villagers say.

Members of the four youths' families expressed deep misgivings over the violence of their sons, describing them as misled and naive. They denied government charges that they and their children had been interrogated and harassed by other villagers.

"I feel terrible about what my son did, and he knows he was wrong, too," says the mother of one of the boys, breaking into tears. Her son even tried to flee the village to avoid a Guangdong television crew that came to film him as part of the propaganda blitz on the incident, she adds.

Angered by the official press reports, villagers secretly penned their own account of the incident for history's sake.

The 19-page account states simply: "We cannot understand why other people can have religous freedom, while the people of Shibu are called `superstitious' for doing the same thing."

"Every village around here has a god, and 90 percent of the villagers believe in this," Bingliang says. "It has no bad influence, it's harmless, and moreover, it's our tradition - so why oppose it?"

In a clear act of defiance, the villagers of Shibu gathered their savings to carve a third statue of Kang Wang.

Most of the time, the statue is safely hidden from the police. But on every important holiday Kang Wang returns proudly to the village temple.

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