the rhythmic beating of drums and the trance-inducing recital of
prayers, monks burn a wooden pole adorned with silk and paper
slips, and a skull, exorcising the evil spirits of the new year.
It was the weekend in Hohhot, the frozen capital
of north Chinaís Inner Mongolia region, and hundreds had turned
up at the Dazhao temple, a center of Tibetan Buddhism for the
past more than four centuries.
"Itís important for me to visit at least once a
year," said Tuoya, a courteous 55-year-old woman, who like many
Mongolians has just one name.
As the Great Prayer Festival culminated Saturday
and Sunday, the thickening crowds were testimony to the regionís
religious revival, even if the different generations did not
display exactly the same degree of devotion.
"I believe in it, but only a little," said
Sharina, Tuoyaís 25-year-old daughter, returning home from her
university studies in Beijing, and entering the Dazhao temple
only for the second time in her life.
"Maybe Iíll start believing more once I reach my
motherís age," she said with a shrug.
As China becomes a freer society, Mongolians and
other ethnic minorities are allowed to quietly trace their
cultural roots, and usually those with memories of life before
Communist times are the first to seize the opportunity.
"Itís mostly elderly people who really fervently
believe," said Tengus Bayaryn, an anthropologist at the Inner
Mongolian University, his long gray hair tied flamboyantly in a
"There are also some young people who think life
without religious belief is empty, and that some problems are
hard to solve without the aid of religion, but itís not very
The narrow temple yards at the center of the
Dazhao complex filled with the sweet, penetrating odor of
burning incense during the weekendís rituals.
But even the dense smoke could not disguise the
constant and, it seemed, deliberately visible presence of
While post-reform China boasts of its religious
tolerance, the authorities remain watchful for any signs that
spiritual emotions could challenge the existing social order.
This is especially the case in areas such as
Inner Mongolia, where different ethnic groups mix to an unusual
extent, bringing together Mongolians, Han Chinese and Muslim
Huis, the descendants of Arab and Persian traders.
Further complicating the situation, the
Mongolians have adhered to the unique Tibetan style of Buddhism
since the late 16th century.
Recognizing the power of religion, the Chinese
government is unlikely to ever allow the monks to regain the
sway they had in society prior to the Communist revolution of
This is partly for pragmatic reasons, as the
monks of old contributed little to the regional economy, paying
no taxes and producing almost no offspring as the vast majority
"The number of monks today is extremely small
compared with the past, and they have much, much less influence
on society than before," said Baladugqi, a professor at the
Inner Mongolia Modern History Research Institute.
"Since 1949, the monks have been sealed off from
the rest of society," said the scholar, himself an ethnic
Despite the concerted effort to wipe out the
monks as a social force, Dazhao and other temples have seen a
steady stream of young men wishing to devote their lives to
"It was my own decision to become a monk," said
20-year-old Delenebolok, clutching a Palm Pilot which he used to
show how to write his name.
"Itís not like the old days, when people let
their sons become monks because they didnít know how to support
them," he said.
Even so, much of Inner Mongolia remains
destitute, and it is reported that many still are forced by dire
circumstances to send their sons to temples and monasteries.
"Of course, itís not going to be the same as in
the past, if only because the government puts limits on the
number of monks allowed at each temple," said Bayaryn, the
Political pressure is not the only concern for
followers of Tibetan Buddhism in todayís Inner Mongolia.
Traditional temples had their own independent
revenue sources in the form of large land holdings, but in
modern China all land is in government hands, forcing clerics to
scramble for new types of income.
The Dazhao temple made brisk business at the
weekend, selling entrance tickets at 15 yuan (a little less than
"If you pay money, youíll get good luck," said a
monk asking for contributions for reconstruction work at the
temple, still not entirely recovered from destruction during the
Politics and commerce are irritants for an
ancient religion reasserting itself, but the biggest menace may
come from ordinary people finding it hard to reconcile their
faith with the requirements of everyday existence.
"Itís impossible to be a one hundred percent
believer if you also want to have a life," said Geyile, a
"If you have to follow all the rules, like the ban against
harming any living being, you canít even step outside your own