Bathing the Buddha

Harrison Davis and Kailee Rogers


The bathing of the buddha clip begins with a procession of men, women, and children. Some men and children appear to be playing instruments that resemble small gongs and flutes. Other men can be seen guiding horses and donkeys, as well as carrying sedan chairs. The clip then moves on to show people carrying large stalks of sugar cane to a temple. After showing a widened view of people carrying the sugar cane, the clip goes back to showing the procession of people. In this second shot of the procession, the viewer can see cloth signs with Chinese lettering on them. The viewer can also get a better look at the horses and donkeys which shows that small versions of deities are riding on the horses’ backs. At the end of the procession, the clip switches to show three women at a small roadside shrine, where they begin to burn incense. After showing the first roadside shrine, the clip shifts to another roadside shrine appears. At the second shrine, the footage shows a woman lighting candles and burning incense. Buddhist rituals are present throughout the footage. The procession itself is used for the bathing of the Buddha ceremony which is used to honor the Buddha for his birthday. This is a Buddhist ritual that is typically performed on the fifteenth of the first month of the Chinese New Year. The roadside shrines are linked to women needing help regarding their children. The shrines are more closely related to the popular religion in China, although Buddhist rituals can be found throughout the popular religion.

Extended Explanation

Harry Caldwell was the missionary who recorded the Bathing of the Buddha clip. Caldwell’s goal in Fujian was to be a successful missionary. He achieved this goal by combining his love of missionary work with his hunting skills. Caldwell used his hunting ability to help the people of Fujian with their tiger problems.[1] Caldwell sought to learn about the people of Fujian as well as share his beliefs with them. When he first arrived in Fujian he studied Buddhism and Daoism, so this clip could be a continuance of his desire to learn more about Buddhist rituals.[2]

In the clip, the people of Fujian are participating in the bathing of the Buddha festival. It would be easy to say that the only religion evident in this clip is Buddhism, but that would be untrue. There are four main Chinese religious traditions, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and popular religion.[3] Each of these religions overlaps by sharing some of the same gods, rituals, or both.[4] Buddhist figures appear heavily within the popular religion, so while the clip does attempt to show Buddhist rituals, it is likely that similar rituals can be found within the popular religion.[5]  Harry Caldwell gives his own descriptions of what he believes is taking place in the clip. He claims that those participating in the festival would carry deity statues from their home temples through processions. They would then buy stalks of sugarcane and soak them in the water used to bathe the Buddha to bring the curative powers of the Buddha home to the sick and weak.[6] They also sanctified the statues and incense in the same water and brought them back to their villages.[7] This bathing the Buddha ceremony took place on the fifteenth of the first month of the Chinese New Year to celebrate the birthday of the Buddha. These rituals performed are based on three sūtras (Buddhist scriptures) introduced to China in the third and fourth centuries. They describe the process of creating the fragrant water in which the Buddha should be bathed, the same water then used for healing and sanctifying as Caldwell described above. These sūtras also prescribe how to bathe the Buddha along with instructing that the Buddha should be dried using white silk or white cotton once the ceremony has concluded.[8]

Later in the clip, we see women attending altars and shrines in the hills and mountains, not affiliated with temples, as they pray for their sick children.[9] These shrines were most likely associated more with Chinese popular religion than Buddhism because women were allowed to be more active in the popular religion.[10] Caldwell describes women visiting the altars and shrines of folk religious deities separate from the gods associated with temples. Even though temples were managed by men, women still constituted a major role in the religious society. Women were tasked with not only participating in religious activities to better themselves, but the role of taking care of the family fell upon women’s shoulders. Additionally, women were not bound to any particular temple, as they often participated in religious activities in a variety of temples across the regions they lived in. Finally, as Yanfei Sun notes, women worshipped Buddhist and popular deities without discrimination devoutly worshiping both traditions. All three of these traditions play a major role in the fact women were the major fundraisers to rebuild temples after the Cultural Revolution. From this background of involvement, women played an essential role in the rebuilding of Chinese religious society after the government lifted its ban on organized religion in 1976.[11] As part of the offerings to the gods, these women visiting this altar of a folk deity are using the act of burning items to allow the gods to receive the offerings. In these offerings, fire plays a transformative role, allowing items in the physical world to be transferred into the realm where ancestors, deities, and ghosts can access the offerings. It was, and still remains, common for paper replicas of clothes, money, and other common items to be burned as an offering. Once burned, the recipient of the offering would then be able to use the offered item in the afterlife or spirit world. The footage Caldwell took exemplifies how common and significance fire and the act of burning played in these religious offerings.[12]

Caldwell’s clip allows for an exploration into Buddha bathing ceremonies and the role gender played in Chinese religion during the 1930s. The people of Fujian would have most likely understood the rituals in this clip as a way to honor the Buddha as well as a way to help the sick members of their families. It portrays the scale of these ceremonies along with how those participating would have experienced it. It allows for an understanding of the traditions associated with the ceremony Caldwell filmed. Simultaneously, the clip allows for an understanding that the role women played in religion at this time was much larger than themselves. Their responsibilities included praying for the wellbeing of their entire family, a unique responsibility at this time. This responsibility would be the foundation for the role women played in the rebuilding of the temples and the religious institutions after the Cultural Revolution. 

[1] Chan, 1.

[2] Ibid, 13.

[3] Shahar and Weller, 1.

[4] Ibid, 3.

[5] Ibid, 9.

[6] Caldwell, Methodist Missions in China.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Liu, 37-38.

[9] Caldwell, Methodist Missions in China.

[10] Reed, 234.

[11] Sun, 461, 469-471.

[12] Arthur, 144-166.


Arthur, Shawn. Wafting Incense and Heavenly Foods: the Importance of Smell in Chinese Religion.” Body and Religion 2, no. 2 (September 2018): 144–166.   

Caldwell, Harry R., dir. Methodist Missions in China. Harry R. Caldwell, d.u.

Chan, Ying-Kit. “Manly Civilization in China: Harry R. Caldwell, the ‘Blue Tiger,’ and the American Museum of Natural History.” Modern Asian Studies (2019): 1-34. 

Lui, Shufen. “Art, Ritual, and Society: Buddhist Practice in Rural China during the Northern Dynasties.” Asia Major, Third Series, 8, no. 1 (1995): 19-49.           

Reed, Barbara. “Women and Chinese Religion in Contemporary Taiwan.” In Today’s Woman in World Religions, edited by Arvind Sharma. Albany: SUNY Press, 1994.

Shaher, Meir and Robert P. Weller. “Introduction: Gods and Society in China.” In Unruly Gods: Divinity and Society in China, edited by MeirShahar and Robert P. Weller, 1-36. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.

Sun, Yanfei. “Popular Religion in Zhejiang: Feminization, and Bifurcation, and Buddhification.” Modern China 40, no. 5 (September 2014): 455-487.         

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