(Original Title: Two Daoist Temples: The Baiyunguan (White Cloud Temple) in Shanghai and the Bok Kai Temple in Marysville, 1880s until Present)
There is an old Chinese proverb, loosely quoted, that says: "Seeing for oneself is better than hearing it from others."
While spending a year teaching in China, I visit Taoist temple and witness a traditional Taoist ceremony where ten priests, dressed in traditional blue gowns and black flat hats take turns reading long prayers. As they finish, each one bows toward the altar as incense burns and the smoke curls up from each of the deities chosen to dispense blessings. Seven other priests play the fundamental Taoist music with their traditional musical instruments and together these sights, sounds, and smells of the temple begin to envelop my senses. I notice there are candles being lit throughout the temple as an ancient ceremony is being performed to honor the hundredth birthday of a deceased relative. I am told that this ritual is the commission for the continuation of lengthy afterlife rites and the descendants have paid for this service to ensure that the wishes for the happiness and wealth of their ancestor in the afterlife are still being carried out.
Attending rituals like this at the Baiyunguan (White Cloud) temple in Shanghai, China, was once reserved for members of the temple, or for those who lived in the surrounding neighborhood, to allow the people in the community to come face to face with their ancient rites of Taoism. However, now intruding tourists and visitors like myself are invited to visit and view these temple rites and celebrations in an effort to sustain the temple both culturally and economically
Across the Pacific Ocean in California, in a town named Marysville, another Taoist temple is holding a celebration that will bring back to the community not only its slowly vanishing members but also many visitors from the large cities in the area, such as Sacramento and San Francisco, to a Chinese community that has grown smaller and smaller throughout the years. This is the only temple in the United States that still celebrates Yee Yeut Yee, or "Bomb Day," (1) a holiday honoring the deity known as Bok Kai, the God of the North and Protector of the Floods. (2) This holiday, usually held on the second day of the second month of the Chinese lunar calendar, derives its name from the shooting off of "bombs," which contain good-fortune rings, and has been an ongoing holiday in the Marysville area for over a century. The two-day holiday begins quietly with religious observances on the first day and ends with the bombs and a parade featuring the Golden Dragon. This Golden Dragon is said to have been brought to America sometime before the turn of the century. It was exhibited at the World's Fair in New York and was last used in the 1937 parade in Marysville. (3) Now, in later years, a newer, shorter dragon is used in the parade.
Marysville, at the junction of the Feather and Yuba rivers, was once an entrance to the goldfields of the Sierras and served as a jumping-off point for both prospective miners and their goods during the days of the gold rush. The temple, located next to a levee, was prone to flooding, and Bok Kai, the principal deity of this temple, was believed to offer protection from the often occurring floods.
During the Bok Kai celebration, this local temple is filled with community members, visitors, and tourists alike who come to light incense sticks to a particular deity to express gratitude for the blessings they have been granted or the good fortune they hope to receive. There are no longer any Taoist priests at this temple to perform prayers or rituals, so usually an individual is left to worship on his or her own. If, during your visit, you ask an attendee how he or she knows which rites are being performed, you are told that any explanation of the rituals of this Bok Kai temple are only ones that have been passed down in families for many generations through oral translation and tradition.
Since my research is in the field of the religion/philosophy of Taoism and its temples, when walking in a Chinese mainland city such as Shanghai, Beijing, or Xian and looking for Taoist temple structures, I am always genuinely surprised when I see the "construction" of a Taoist temple. It would be the same when I visit the California cities of Marysville, Oroville, Weaverville, and Mendocino, several locations of the remaining semi-active Taoist temples in the United States. Here again, as in China, I would be surprised that the buildings I viewed were actually "temples." In the West, we tend to think of temples as large, ornate structures and as such, it was always unexpected, when I found a temple structure, to see that it was usually a small, nondescript building looking on the outside very much like an ordinary, small wooden house. Both the "old" Baiyunguan temple in Shanghai and the Bok Kai temple in Marysville are of this type, where one can hardly discern anything of a religious nature other than some ornate carvings around a doorway or a roof with curling eaves. I would find my most recognizable feature of both of these temples especially during temple holiday celebrations, and it would not be the physical construction but rather how each temple had reconstructed itself to be, for those few special days not only a place of worship, but also a local and visitor tourist attraction.
So we must begin to ask ourselves why Taoism, and more importantly its representative temples, are becoming important to the occasional visitor or tourist, both Chinese and Chinese American. Is it because today's visitor is beginning to recognize that the Taoist temple of yesterday could well be the symbolic reflection of a changing society in both China and the United States? I believe we must look at the example of these two Taoist temples, their past, their present, and hopefully their future, as a...