When an elderly woman was videoed by a security camera bowing and making offerings before a statue, viewers interpreted the actions in different ways. Suggesting that the statue was not a shrine to Guan Yu (a general who became recognized as the God of War for many in China) but a figure from a video game, some have laughed at the elderly woman’s mistake, while others have expressed sympathy or wondered if the divine would respond to a prayer presented sincerely before the “wrong” statue.
The suggestion that she made a mistake assumes that the identification of the statue with the gaming figure is the only way to view the image. Knowing that people can interpret symbols differently, the acknowledgement in the description that the figure appears similar to Guan Yu raises the question about how to discern the difference. One way to determine whether the image represents a shrine is to rely on the notions of tradition that some assert, namely that a shrine (even in a home setting let alone a public shrine) requires proper ritual practices for its installation to be consecrated. On this basis, we can determine if the shrine/statue was legitimate/authentic by investigating if the statue was ever consecrated/empowered. Of course, this notion of authenticity benefits those identified as ritual specialists, who ostensibly have control over what counts as a shrine and foregrounds the “official” account of a religion, while many suggest that commentary should avoid simply confirming “official” interpretations. For example, Natasha Mikles further speculates that the woman’s practice reflects “elastic” character of things that people identify as religion. Whether significant or not, the rules for installation themselves have a variety of interpretations, just as people give the statue different identities.
The debate also reflected different notions of religion. Some commenters used the incident to suggest that any prayers to a divine figure were nonsensical, no different than praying to a fictional video game character. Others, though, suggested that the important element is the woman’s sincere belief rather than the authenticity of the “shrine,” suggesting that her prayer could be efficacious. So the same incident can become the occasion to attack beliefs as foolish or present a generous view of divine intervention, seeing the divine as responsive to a sincere believer, whether or not her location or her identification of the statue/shrine was correct. Beyond the debate about religion, both of these views reflect particular assumptions about human activity, that the notion of our mental capacity (for rationality or sincere belief) remains the primary location for determining the worth of an action. Like any event or narrative, people can generate a variety of interpretations of it that reflect their assumptions and interests. The description of some image or event as consequential is not simply a reflection of what exists but becomes a product of the person making the description.
Image credit: Screenshot from http://shanghaiist.com/2016/04/07/woman_prays_online_game_character.php