Buddhist notions of “saving life” can be observed in various rituals across Hong Kong. Contrary to popular belief, most of these customs are not Chinese in origin, but are a consequence of the spread of (originally Hindu) beliefs following the introduction of Buddhism into China, mainly via the overland Silk Road from Central Asia, around 200BC. Such traditions became prominent when, during the long period of international openness that characterised the Tang dynasty (618-907), modified versions of Buddhist cultural practices became integrated into mainstream Chinese life.
Maritime links with Southeast Asia, where assorted Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms held sway for more than 1,000 years, reinforced such practices.
Because one of the principal tenets of Buddhism is to refrain from the taking of life, acting to rescue a creature otherwise ordained for death (usually to be slaughtered for food) is believed to bring merit. Saving fish or crabs in the market, for example, and releasing them into the wild, is a meritorious act believed to positively influence one’s own destiny. The mere fact of the animal’s release from captivity is deemed good enough; after the individual who released it has departed, that is the end of the matter as far as they are concerned.
Unfortunately, “fang sheng” (“giving life”) rituals frequently end in unpleasant early deaths for the creatures concerned. One obvious example is the small birds that are bred specifically to be sold for release. The bird market in Mong Kok – widely touted in tourism literature as one of Hong Kong’s “must-see” cultural attractions – has budgerigars, Java sparrows and finches destined to be purchased and freed by the pious. Signs on their cages and the relatively cheap prices charged for them make their purpose clear.
With no survival skills or naturalised wild population to blend into upon release, and being immediately recognisable, they make colourful targets for birds of prey, snakes and rats. In the case of fish and crabs, and occasionally small birds, other humans have been known to lurk close by the scene of the “fang sheng” ritual to scoop up the creatures for resale or consumption, when no one is looking. Virtually none of these unfortunate animals – blithely freed by the superstitious to “save their lives” – last more than a day or two. But, ultimately, that is not the point. The individual who turned them loose has, in their own mind, done something meritorious, and what happens to the creature afterwards rests in the hands of fate.
Not so long ago, one of Hong Kong’s larger Kwun Yum temples, dedicated to the Bodhisattva Goddess of Mercy – who, incidentally, was originally the androgynous Hindu deity Avalokiteswara – got itself into the news by organising a protective ritual to free a batch of turtles into the ocean. Believers happily donated non-trivial sums of money to help enable the event. Since turtles symbolise long life in Chinese cosmology, an additional hope was that a correspondingly lengthy span would follow for themselves. There was, however, a major problem lurking not far below the surface; the turtles obtained for release were all freshwater dwellers. Fortunately, most had their own lives subsequently saved by alert lifeguards – a certain irony there – who realised the inevitable consequences of this superstitious lunacy and plucked the unfortunate reptiles from the sea before they all died a nasty death from exposure to salt water.