Individuals have been dressing up as monks to fool tourists and locals for years, but the problem has recently aroused new discussion after a series of temples on Mount Wutai in northeastern Shanxi province were caught fund-raising illegally. According the the Wall Street Journal’s summary of a story by Xinhua news agency, the “Temple for the God of Wealth and another temple called Foguo Zhongxin reportedly hired fake monks to trick tourists into donating money and buying expensive incense”. Mt. Wutai is one of China’s most sacred mountains and is home to over 50 monasteries and temples. (WSJ: “Of Falling Trust and Fake Monks”)
Two weeks ago, I scoped out the “Temple of the Six Banyan Trees” in Yuexiu, Guangzhou to see whether it would be a decent place to take my parents on their visit. After touring around for a few minutes or as long as would make the ¥5 entry fee worth it, I exited the sacred 1000 year-old cove into an open breeze of unprotected streets beyond. Pulling my jacket close around my chest, I spotted an old changfen restaurant streaming with people huddled around plastic tables made to look like wood. I decided to stop in and grab a bite of southern China’s steaming rice tortilla to ease the sting of a chilly afternoon hunger. As I waited for my meal, a man dressed in drab robes walked up and handed me a square golden token that, like the tables at the restaurant, was trying as hard as it could to conceal its plastic identity. The token was slipped into a small red envelop, which featured an image of a buddha with the Chinese phrases, “出入平安” and “吉样如意” or “safety wherever you go” and “good fortune as you wish”. The man then bid me well and turned to walk away, moving only a few paces before I, in my helplessly curious spontaneity, called him back. “What is this?” I asked. He considered my question, face contorting between surprise and a concerted strain to hide emotion. Though upon recalling the memory, I’m pretty sure there was a hint of triumph in his expression as well, given his next response: “Oh, it’s a good luck token. Please sign your name here. Any donation you choose to make will be greatly appreciated”. Damn. My question had undoubtedly given him an opportunity to use his native language to explain his fund-raising strategy in more persuasive lingo than an English phrase like “give money”. I signed my Chinese name illegibly and handed over ¥5— less than a dollar. When I asked what temple he was from, he responded something like, “Oh, the one just down the street”, which a quick Google maps search later that day proved otherwise.
Tricking or ripping someone off, usually translated, 骗人 pian ren, is one of the most commonly-heard phrases in this society, though it’s often only used to joke and say that one’s job is so easy it feels like one is swindling a boss or using a persuasive argument to fool someone into doing something. Still, China has no shortage of palm readers, fortune tellers, and superstitions, all of which contribute to the worrisome idea that unknown risk exists in our world, a risk that can then be shaped and molded into whatever fictional information most attracts customers. Then again, while we may scoff at fake monks or honest attempts at trickery, it might be worthwhile to consider what percent of the world’s so-called “legitimate” business also relies on manipulating information and risk— perhaps there’s a market for China’s fake monks and palm readers on Wall Street.