Op-Ed Contributors

Why officials are superstitious

By Zhang Zhouxiang (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-06-24 07:39
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Officials of Suqian county in Jiangsu province recently renamed Luoma Lake in guide posts because the word luoma sounds similar to "turn down" in Chinese. Public pressure, however, forced them to revert to the original name.

The Luoma Lake case is one of the many examples of how superstitious some government officials have become. The irrational belief that an object, action or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome, or the irrational belief in some mysterious divine power may not be new to Chinese. But superstition among government officials is different, for it can alter the course of public life.

Li Xiangping, professor and director of the Center for Religion and Society in East China Normal University, says superstition among some officials should not be seen simply as a kind of religious belief. It actually reflects their lack of norms in belief and has become a problem for society.

Several years ago, reports of a municipal people's court in Hunan province holding superstitious ceremonies after an accident drew Li's attention. After a thorough research, Li found that some officials believed in superstition because it was deep-rooted in society.

He says superstition among officials first became evident in the 1980s, spreading quickly in the past two decades. The last few years of the 20th century threw up several officials known for their superstitious beliefs.

In 1994, officials of Jiaokou county in Shanxi province changed the structure of an office building on the advice of a geomancy master. Hu Jianxue, former Party head of Tai'an city in Shandong province, who was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve in 1996, had even ordered the building of a bridge because fortune-tellers had told that that would facilitate his "promotion as vice-premier". In 1999, Jia Yongxiang, a corrupt official of the intermediate people's court in Shenyang, Liaoning province, hired a "master" to determine the exact date of moving into a new office, not long before his arrest.

Li employs sociological and historical methods to seek superstition's origins in culture. Worshipping deities has long been a tradition of Chinese society. There's no dearth of sincere believers. But many people visit temples with a specific purpose: praying to the gods not for purity of belief, but for fortune and power.

Li uses the term "privatization of belief" to describe this phenomenon. Many Chinese consider religion to be an intimately private affair that involves direct dialogue between a believer and the god he worships. They believe the governing divinities are the source of happiness and will reward those seeking it sincerely.

The same logic applies to officials who seek promotion and long for more power. During dynastic rule in China, when emperors derived their legal authority from heaven and distributed power among their subjects and a strict ranking system demarcated the individuals' positions, praying to deities became a source of mental relief for many officials who sought higher positions.

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