No, seriously. Before you turn away and call me a loon or a bigot, do take note that I’m Chinese who was raised on this stuff. I grew up with this hodge-podge compendium of beliefs and superstitions that forms this syncretic religion. However, what I experienced may be a distilled version of it since we live in the Philippines. Our take on it may not be similar to that of Taiwan and mainland China, but I know enough to make connections with other things that may be like it. I also know enough about Warhammer 40,000 to write about wild green men in space. This has to be the most deranged blog post I’ll ever write in 2023, so let’s go for a ride.
It’ll take a while for me to connect it to how a bunch of fictional green-skinned creatures can paint red an amalgamation of metal and somehow make it not only run, but actually go faster. I’ll even throw in a deer god with the face of a man on top of it for kicks. I’ll also talk about a month supposedly dedicated to ghosts and how it somehow consistently brings me bad luck year after year, even if I refuse to fully believe in it.
If you think I’m wack for writing this, I understand.
Note: My only real basis for whatever I say here about Chinese folk religion is mostly from experience due to being raised in this culture. I don’t care to research further because I frankly don’t care much for it.
The Videos That Inspired This Deranged Blog Post
As is often the case in this blog, this post was inspired by a couple of YouTube videos. The main one is this video by Accented Cinema on 2023 Hong Kong mystery thriller film Mad Fate.
The idea of the antagonist being fate itself is both interesting and potentially disastrous. How can you make the audience fear something as intangible and abstract as fate itself? You make them dread what can happen in the future, much like their futures. I’ll be looking out for this movie.
In the meantime, the video author’s description of Chinese folk religion is one of the best I’ve encountered online.
Notice how the Five Elements is a Taoist belief while Karma is a Buddhist one. It is here that we should talk about the cultural and religious background of this movie.
All of the rituals you see in this movie are rooted in Southern Chinese folk religion, mostly practiced in Cantonese-speaking areas, but also in parts of Singapore and Malaysia.
It’s also present here in the Philippines. There are temples scattered throughout Metro Manila; my family used to attend some of them every Sunday.
It’s more of an amalgamation of religions, combining ancient shamanism with Taoism and Buddhism. It has no central authority nor unified doctrines. There is no “Church of Chinese Folk Religion.” It’s more like astrology than Christianity.
Practitioners would visit Taoist or Buddhist temples, even hold weddings in Catholic churches, without rejecting any of them. It’s a Chinese buffet of belief systems.
My mother is Buddhist — an adherent of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. She doesn’t eat or cook beef. She also goes to Taoist temples, but they’re rarely pure Taoist. Statues of Budai or Maitreya may sit right next to the Four Heavenly Kings, Guanyu, Judge Bao, and so on.
I myself don’t know much about them as my mother allowed me to not get deep in the sauce. For instance, in the Pao Ong Kong Temple in Pasay, which has over twenty shrines that worshippers have to serve incense to, she would make me do only the first two.
Due to this lack of a central authority, the religion is very grass-roots. Instead of sutras or hymns, the most common prayer is “good health and good fortune” — very utilitarian.
More interesting is the lack of unified doctrines. Rituals and customs are determined collectively, often shaped by momentary needs… not because there is a rule for it, but because they believe it. Taoism is true when feng shui is needed; Buddhism is correct when they want karma.
This mindset is why fate in this film seems so nebulous. Heaven is the way of the universe, yet also a sentient being. When things can’t be helped, then the will of heaven cannot be defied. But when you need the will to fight, then destiny can also be fooled.
This contradictory mindset isn’t the flaw of the movie — it is how Chinese people perceive fate.
To get a sense of how crazy all of this can get, this review of the game Amazing Cultivation Simulator by SsethTzeentach actually gets it across quite well. You may think Sseth is taking the piss out of the game, but the sheer convolutedness of the myriad of mechanics in the game is something I can relate to. Both Chinese folk religion and folk medicine made my life just a bit more unbearable than it already was due to the power of my mother’s belief in them.
My mother can get pretty crazy with this stuff in this part of the neighborhood, but there are even more hardcore adherents out there. The problem I’ve always seen is how there’s no real way to determine what stuff is genuine article or made-up bullshit. The only difference between them is that canon beliefs come from somewhere with some rationale, although they’re mostly passed down through oral tradition. Meanwhile made-up bullshit is… made up.
Chinese Folk Religion
As I’ve hinted at, I don’t know much about this beyond the few things my mother makes me do. She views religion as a vague explanation for day and night, sunshine and rain, and the seasons. Many Chinese from her generation tend to not be as scientifically literate as those who succeed them due to either lack of education or greater pressure to listen to elders.
Chinese folk religion is an example of syncretism, which is the combining of different beliefs and schools of thought into one belief system. This kind of belief system is not unique to the Chinese. For instance, Hispanics in the Caribbean and some parts of South America have Santeria, which is like a combination of Yoruba religion, Catholicism, and Spiritism.
The Philippines has its own folk Catholicism. There’s also kulam, which is basically Filipino witchcraft based on a combination of local mythology, Catholicism, and animism. That’s its own can of worms and I don’t know much about it, but I do have some friends and acquaintances who know more about it. Trese, the comic by Budjette Tan and the show on Netflix, is heavily based on that mythology and mysticism.
Let me preface this section by disclosing that I’m related to someone who professes to be a feng shui expert. He’s my estranged half-brother; I don’t know him that well. My last interaction with him was nine years ago as of this writing. Our mother thinks he’s a charlatan, and I concur.
When I said there’s little difference between the canon and made-up bullshit, I had him in mind.
Feng shui directly translates to wind and water. It’s the divination of how qi (or chi) flows through an environment and how that affects the people around it. The objective is to be in harmony with the flow of qi by designing and modifying the environment to allow that.
That’s why skyscrapers in Hong Kong tend to have those gaping holes and why some Chinese establishments have those foo dogs in front of them.
I find it more interesting if it’s used not for geomancy, but as a set of guiding principles for interior design. Dear Modern on YouTube is about blending feng shui with modern interior design to create spaces that are more conducive for productivity and living. At first, it all seems convoluted, but Cliff Tan’s explanations soon make sense.
The oversimplified explanation for this — modern feng shui is playing tetris with furniture to optimize spaces; just make sure to not block doors and windows.
While that does make feng shui make more sense, its origins are a lot more indiscernible for the uninitiated. It requires study and experience, even if it’s not the most scientific of expertise. Such fields like feng shui and traditional medicine tend to be built on a foundation of correlations interwoven like constellations in the sky, which then form a galaxy of collected knowledge.
That knowledge may or may not be factual or resilient to scientific rigor, but it’s a body of knowledge nonetheless. It’s also an industry powered by collective belief.
The Orks of Warhammer 40,000
Now it’s time to take this to a wacky direction by talking about green-skinned humanoid creatures. Orcs are everywhere in fantasy, from the Uruk-hai in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books to the noble savages of Blizzard’s Warcraft. What makes the orks (spelled with a K) of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 different is not only the sci-fi setting, but also the blend of physiology, culture, and behavioral traits that make this take unique.
These orks are magical in their own way, primarily in their imagination. Their magical thinking is so powerful that their collective belief in a simple idea like assembling a bunch of scraps into the shape of a vehicle is enough to make that creation work. Even if that assembly by itself isn’t anywhere near functional, it works because the orks believe that it works.
They then paint it red to make it go faster. But it’s not like Char Aznable’s Zaku in Mobile Suit Gundam, which moves three times faster because it’s a special Zaku with better engineering and piloting and not because it’s painted red. The red ork vehicle is faster because it’s painted red. The orks believe if it’s painted red, it will go faster, and it does go faster because of that.
If they want to render something stealthy, they paint it purple. Why? Have you ever seen a purple ork? Exactly.
It’s a different take on magical thinking. Imagination as magic is a fairly common motif in fantasy, but the way it’s done with orks in Warhammer 40,000 is different because the orks themselves are too simple-minded to be aware of exactly what they’re doing. It’s not fair to call them stupid because that’s like calling your pet cat or dog stupid. Orks are orks; they are what they are.
I have a draft on magic systems based on willpower and self-belief that I’ve been sitting on since 2021. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it, but I may add this ork example in there.
“Ritual work because they are rituals.”
Let’s now take this blog post to an even crazier direction by bringing up the SCP Foundation, one of the most popular collaborative fiction projects on the Internet. It’s about a fictional secret organization that aims to capture, contain, and study mysterious, paranormal, and supernatural objects, creatures, and phenomena called SCPs while keeping them secret from the public.
It’s basically the X-Files combined with Twin Peaks and analog horror.
This rabbit hole involving Chinese folk religion and the weird chaotic magic of the orks in Warhammer 40,000 reminded me of this particular SCP, commonly known as the Deer God.
Somehow, the Foundation was able to capture and contain this powerful entity that’s able to disintegrate any matter into hydrogen atoms with mere thought. It’s kept contained with an elaborate ritual that must be performed regularly.
Upon reading about the details of the ritual, you may question its significance and efficacy. But somehow, it’s working against this ungulate deity that can turn anyone and anything into puffs of gas with a passing fancy. It’s not with any science that makes the ritual work, but with belief.
Rituals do not work because of some underlying laws such as those that science operates on.
Rituals work because they are rituals. They work because an arbitrary set of criteria has been met with exacting care.
Belief that meeting these arbitrary criteria achieves a certain end assigns power to the ritual.
The actions that were once meaningless now have been assigned meaning through their repetition and application.
This is how one seals away a god. And this IS a god.
It then uncovers another layer to the concept of belief creating a powerful feedback loop.
For gods, words have power. Ritual and belief hold greater power over a god than all the laws of science.
However, it must be kept in mind that the stag could escape right now if it so chose. With a thought, this entire facility could turn into a puff of hydrogen.
If at any point the stag thought to escape, it would and we would be powerless to stop it.
However, it will not think to escape or even to change its strategy. The idea will not even pass through its mind. It cannot comprehend the concept. It does not think in the way we think.
Truth be told, I would not say it thinks at all.
Perhaps the deer god is fooled by the wiles of mere humans, but the way it thinks as a force of nature instead of a creature within it makes for an interesting concept.
This is an old god. It does not dabble in decisions.
Decisions are for creatures who may act erratically, variably, or out of line. A god of this strength simply is. It is an absolute. It acts as a force.
In building this ritual, we have shifted its being the slightest bit, and now it is locked into a pattern of behavior. It struggles against us, we struggle against it, and we are locked together in an eternal dance so long as the ritual remains intact.
If one thing goes awry, the entirety is lost and the deadlock is broken. Unstoppable force without an immovable object. The rituals might seem to be nonsense, but they are what I defined to be the best course of action.
There are powerful symbols there, and whether or not you think they are appropriate to this situation is irrelevant. I have listened to the converted and I have listened to the echoes of the stag in their songs. They are not suffering, but they are no longer human. They are changed utterly.
The ritual remains as it is.
This is one of my favorite SCPs. Perhaps I’ll write more about the SCP Foundation in a future blog post. It makes for some fascinating reading.
I’m not a superstitious man; I’m quite the opposite. I’m beholden to logic and science. My life is a battle between my ADHD and my incessant need for study and preparation to tackle even the minutest of problems. Despite that, there’s one thing that has constantly been a thorn in my side for each year of my adult life — the Ghost Month.
The Ghost Festival is an occasion held in predominantly Chinese cultures throughout East and Southeast Asia. The month it occurs in — the seventh month of the lunar calendar — is typically known as the Ghost Month.
It usually happens in August, but it sometimes takes place in September because of that whole thing with the lunar year gaining an extra month every few years. Whether you agree with the Gregorian calendar or not, at least the solar calendar system makes a bit more sense.
However, many hold the belief that it’s not limited to a month, but also extends to the following months. Here in the Philippines, it somewhat precedes All Souls’ Day, making it a double whammy for commemorating the dead among Chinese Filipinos like us.
For many, Ghost Month is known for bad luck. I remember being horribly sick for a whole month in September 2015, getting my shit kicked in that following month, and having an extraordinarily bad third quarter this year. I’m not superstitious, but I can’t help but be wary of this pattern.
And yet, I still think it’s the collective belief in it that has given it power, which then affects me. But by believing that I have no control over it because others’ belief in it then negatively affects me also gives it power. If I think about it, even to convince myself that it’s not real, it also gives it power. Whatever I do, whether I believe or not, I’ve noticed that it does affect me somehow.
I belong to this culture, whether I like it or not. Therefore, I’ll always be affected in some way.
Perhaps it’s due to most things having a downturn during this time, from agriculture, business, economy, to people’s mood swings and even the start of the school year. I don’t fully understand it myself, but I know that I’m apparently not exempt from this phenomenon.
The only thing I can really do is prepare whenever this part of the year rolls around. I have to prepare for it every year until the day I die. Even if I move to somewhere far away from here, it may still affect me in some way. I can never be fully rid of it as I will remember what it is and how it manifests. Whether I’m in Chinatown or in Antarctica, Ghost Month will follow.
I have neither a proton pack or holy water, but I have my own ways to fight ghosts and demons.
Only in this blog will you see an article that links Chinese folk religion and a weird strategy simulation game with Warhammer 40,000 and even the SCP Foundation. Whether it’s the dumbest or most weirdly brilliant piece I’ve ever put together in my life, all I know is that I should write more crap like this. Maybe someday, I’ll even turn it into a video.
Have something to say? Do you agree or am I off-base? Did I miss a crucial detail or get something wrong? Please leave whatever reactions, questions, or suggestions you may have in the comment section below.
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