The Monkey and the Rat, which sells “fine and friendly objects from faraway places” is located a block east of Chinatown on Second Ave., between Couch St. and Davis St. The faraway place where these mostly Buddhist objects came from is Eastern Asia, mainly from Thailand. Stan Cass, who showed me around the shop, says that some of the items were originally from Thai Buddhist temples. For example, he pointed out a wooden statue of a man holding a horse above his head, a symbol of strength. Cass said that the statue was originally found in a Buddhist shrine in Thailand, but was replaced when it became old. Old objects in shrines are considered to be insulting to the dead. Instead of being burned or otherwise destroyed as it would have been in the past, the horse and other items like it are now sold to collectors. Other objects sold in The Monkey and the Rat include statues of Buddha11 (1,2,3,4,5,6,7), Quan Yin, and peacocks, prayer flags, wood carvings of lotus flowers and spirit houses. When Cass described these objects to me, he treated them as Buddhist objects that had religious value, demonstrated by his comparisons between the objects and similar objects in Christianity. For example, he told me that in Buddhism, the swan is like the dove in Christianity. When we came to a statue of an ogre head, he informed me that unlike ogres in Christianity, which are scary and evil, ogres in Buddhism are good and only appear frightening so they can scare off evil spirits.
But is it really accurate to call these objects and symbols in the Monkey and the Rat religious? Labeling an object or symbol as religious or non-religious can be a touchy subject. When dealing with human experience, the label "religious" is more easily applied, whether you are applying a definition (i.e. Geertz) or are adopting the subject's view of the experience as religious (i.e. Proudfoot's "Is it a bear or a rock?" question). This is true because these experiences are limited to specific times and places. Symbols and objects, on the other hand, are not. They are defined by their context and have no intrinsic human value. One type of context to consider is the historical context. In some cases, a particular object can have meaning, like the bone of a martyr placed in an Eastern Orthodox Church. It is not that finger bones are sacred, but those particular bones are sacred because of whom they once belonged to. However, most symbols and objects with symbolic value carry their value because of symbolic associations with those objects. The swastika serves as a blunt example of this. From 2000 B.C.E.-1500 B.C.E. in India and China, the swastika was a symbol of good luck and immortality, respectively. Today, it serves a similar function as a symbol for Falun Gong, a new religion that was founded in China in 1992. (The Religious Movements Homepage Project) It has also been put on the chests of Buddhist statues. (Eberhard 280-1) However, after its adoption by the Nazi party in the 1930’s and 40’s, it has come to represent racial hatred and the Holocaust. Like the swastika, many of the objects and symbols in this paper have had different symbolic meanings throughout history.
To understand how a symbol or object can be considered religious in one context but not in another, consider the Chinese dragon, the most widespread symbol I found in Chinatown (1,2,3,4,5,6,7). Many Americans rightly think of the dragon as being a symbol of Chinese culture (cite interviews). In fact the symbol of the dragon has served a great many purposes in Chinese history. In his book Chinese Symbols and Superstitions, Harry T. Morgan says that it is a symbol of guardianship and vigilance and that it was "consecrated by the earliest religion of the Chinese people.” The dragon also served as a state emblem like the eagle does in America, appearing on the Han dynasty's coat of arms as well as many flags until 1911. The five-clawed dragon in particular was, "an emblem of Imperial authority, while the four-clawed version symbolized lesser officials.” (Morgan 7) In a religious context, the dragon has been used as a symbol in Daoism. In Daoism (as well as other Chinese religions), the dragon and tiger symbolize yin and yang and have been used to decorate priest’s robes. (Daoism: and the arts of China 192-4) I never found the dragon used in a religious context in Chinatown. Mostly, the dragon was used to mark something as "Chinese," from the boundary markers of Chinatown (the lamp posts and gate), to teacups and wall murals in Chinese restaurants.
The second most prevalent object or symbol in Chinatown is Laughing Buddha. I found these statues at four locations, The Monkey and the Rat, a gift shop called The Great Era, the Chinese Classical Garden Gift shop, and the Lum Yuem Seafood Restaurant. With his smiling face, large ears, and rotund belly that one rubs for good luck, Laughing Buddha is Buddhism's ambassador to America. When I asked eight of my friends who were self described as having little or no contact with Chinese culture to describe what a Buddha statue looks like, seven of them described Laughing Buddha, while two described Buddha as he is represented in almost all Buddhist art, thin and with a placid faced (one person described both). (Citation) Ironically, Laughing Buddha is not even a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha or historical Buddha, but instead a statue of the bodhisattva Maitreya, who is known as the Future Buddha because he is the bodhisattva who will become the next Budddha. Maitreya has not always been the Santa Claus-like figure he is now. Originally he was represented as a regular looking prince with jewels and fine robes. (Williams 231) The current representation of Maitreya is based on a Ch’an monk who lived about a thousand years ago and who was said to be one of Maitreya’s incarnations. (Religion Facts.com)
Though the statues of Laughing Buddha are Buddhist, I’m hesitant to call them religious, at least in their Chinatown context. A rough equivalent to Laughing Buddha in another religion might be the Buddy Jesus figure in modern Christianity. The images of Buddy Jesus and Laughing Buddha are caricatures of historic charismatic prophets that play central roles in Christianity and Buddhism. As I have said above, Laughing Buddha, as originally conceived, was not an image of Shakyamuni Buddha. In the context of Chinatown, however, this does not matter. In Chinatown, Laughing Buddha is Buddha. This view is not limited to my naive friends mentioned before. When I purchased a small Laughing Buddha statue from The Great Era, the cashier wrote “Buddha” on my receipt to identify the object I was purchasing. In The Great Era, Laughing Buddha is sold along side statues of Quan Yin, men performing martial arts, Confucian gods, elephants and panda bears. In this context, there is no separation between the sacred and profane, and hence it is all profane. (Eliade 267) Laughing Buddha is being presented as an oriental or Chinese item. Let me stress, this does not take away their religious value in other contexts. Someone could easily purchase a Laughing Buddha statue at The Great Era, bring it home, and give offerings to it. In that case, it would become a religious object. Within the present context, however, I do not consider it to be religious.
Another place in Chinatown where the authenticity is important is the recently built Classical Chinese Garden. “The mission of the Portland Classical Chinese Garden is to cultivate an oasis of tranquil beauty and harmony, to inspire, engage, and educate our global community in the appreciation of a richly authentic Chinese culture.” (Emphasis mine) (Portland Classical Chinese Garden) What is this “authenticity” that the Classical Chinese Garden wishes to convey? The garden is presented as physically authentic. It was designed by a Chinese company who based it on the gardens of Suchou, Portland’s sister city12 in China. Every stone, roof tile and every carved or uncarved piece of wood that was used in the construction of the garden was shipped from China. Everything, except for the foundation and the rocks at the bottom of the pond, as my guide laughingly pointed out on my tour, implying that going to such extremes would be silly. Because of import laws, the plants in the garden were donated to by local residents instead of being shipped from China. However, because the same species of plants are found in China, they are said to maintain their authenticity. The plaques that label many things in the garden are also designed to lend an authentic feel. All the signs in the garden that label buildings have the name of the building in both Chinese and English. The use of Chinese characters is not for utility’s sake, but for authenticity’s. Chinese characters are not used to label the restrooms, nor are they used in the garden’s pamphlet. All of the informational plaques in the garden that describe things, such as the Qing style furniture, are also only in English. The garden is designed to be an English experience, not a bilingual or Chinese one.
Many of the symbols and references from religious traditions in the garden have lost their religious authority and are now merely part of the garden’s “authentic” experience. The Portland Chinese Classical Garden is based on Ming Dynasty era gardens in the “scholar” style. Historically, government officials built these gardens when they retired to their native city after serving the government in other parts of the empire. The tour guide at the garden said that the scholars enjoyed infusing their gardens with references to Chinese stories and texts. Some of these are apparent in the Portland Garden. For instance, there are several references to the Daoist tradition. First, the floor of the entranceway is patterned with crabapple blossoms that look like yin-yangs. Another floor pattern the tour guide called “plum blossoms on cracked ice.” He said that it was a popular reference used by scholars. The image of cracked ice recalls, “the line from Lao Tzu that the sage is ‘like ice about to melt,’ blending harmoniously with the transformations of nature.” (Morris 26) Lotus blossoms, one of eight “precious things” in Buddhism and a symbol of purity, grow in the garden’s pond and are carved on wooden panels on garden walls. (Eberhard 168) The names of the buildings and bridges, such as, “Covered Walk to Celestial House of Permeating Fragrance,” are also references to various Chinese stories and texts. Despite the claim of authenticity, these images have lost their meaning in the context of the garden’s location and audience. To the vast majority of the garden’s visitors (i.e. native English speakers who know little about Chinese culture), these religious references now carry meaning because of their identity as references and not because of what images, stories or metaphors they might be recalling.
In the garden’s teahouse, where Chinese food and tea are served to visitors, there is a small shrine for Quan Yin, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion who is also one of the most popular figures in Buddhism. (McArthur 43) The shrine consists of a female statue13 of Quan Yin, in front of which are placed various offerings such as money, flowers, jewelry, food, and burning incense. Quan Yin is the second most prevalent Buddhist figure in Old Town/Chinatown. Though they share the same name, the Quan Yin Method and the bodhisattva Quan Yin seem to be unrelated. It is hard to say whether this shrine is religious or if it just another aspect of the garden intended to lend to the garden’s authenticity. The religious nature of the shrine would depend on the intention of the person who constructed the shrine. If their intention was to add authenticity to the atmosphere of tea house, it would not be religious, no matter the physical similarities between this shrine and others like it. Unfortunately, I was not able to find out who constructed the shrine.