The booming business of the Buddhist "life release" ceremony

A smile cracks across the man’s weather-beaten face when asked if the turtles he sells are for fangsheng, or “life release”.

Hopping up from his seat beside the ancient and bustling Fangsheng Bridge in the water town of Zhujiajiao near Shanghai, he launches into a quick rundown of prices: Just RMB15 (about US$2.40) to set one of the smaller turtles free and rack up a bit of good karma; up to RMB180 for the biggest ones. The red-eared sliders – a highly invasive North American species – are cheaper, he notes helpfully.

As he spoke far more animals in the township were being fried, stewed, steamed or grilled than set free. However, the resurgence of Buddhism on the mainland in recent decades has prompted a widespread return in China of the life release ceremony, and of religious organizations dedicated to freeing creatures destined for dinner plates. Buddhist animal release, commonly held to originate from India and practiced in China for centuries, has become a regular business for many in China looking to make a quick yuan, and Buddhist groups can individually spend over US$1 million a year buying animals for release.

But the economic, ecological and epidemiological consequences of releasing wild animals from a globalized supply chain into China’s fields, forests and lakes may be far greater than one man selling turtles out of buckets suggests. The turtles are important too, though.

“Life release is an important source of invasive red-eared sliders in China,” said Shi Haitao, a conservationist specializing in Chinese turtles and professor with the College of Life Sciences at Hainan Normal University. In addition to pet owners who buy baby turtles only to later release them once they’ve grown too big, Shi said larger scale life releases have introduced sliders into a variety of environs throughout the mainland, where they have displaced native species thanks to their voracious, omnivorous diet and adaptable constitution. Such invasive species can also introduce new diseases to an ecosystem which can wipe out other native species, further throwing the local ecology out of whack, sometimes to disastrous effect.

Such consequences are far from the minds of those who release the animals. Fangsheng ceremonies are intended as a means of accruing good karma for oneself or one’s relatives, living or dead. While practiced mainly in Taiwan and Hong Kong until late last century, religion’s resurgence on the mainland has popularized the practice among the growing mass of newly devout Buddhists. In response to such noble intent, an industry has sprung up to serve the growing demand for animals to release. This has resulted in more animals being captured in order to satiate believers’ desire to do good deeds—sometimes including those just released.

An informal compilation of fangsheng organizations on the mainland from 2010 listed 281 such groups located around the country in every municipality, province or region (except for Tibet), including six in Beijing, 16 in Shanghai, 28 in Jiangsu and 52 in Guangdong. Groups without a website or online contact information remain unknown in size and number, as do individuals who buy and release animals solo, but the potential market for fangsheng on the mainland numbers in the hundreds of millions: A 2010 Pew survey showed that about 18% of the country’s population, or 244 million people, identified as Buddhist.

Compassion’s consequences

On a cold winter morning on the outskirts of Beijing, three buses full of Buddhists piled out into a small parking lot atop the mountain-flanked, snow-flaked Wanjiayuan Reservoir. The passengers had just finished hailing the celestial Buddha Amitābha ceaselessly on the hour-long ride out from the capital, calling out “Namo Amituofo” 360-odd times in singsong unison. But two members of the Beijing Fangsheng Association hurried over to the reservoir’s two-story monitoring station to set up a large speaker over which they could broadcast further pre-recorded praises.

Meanwhile, small group of men in puffy black jackets shuffled down the steep stone wall of the reservoir toward its frozen surface. There, they began methodically hacking three holes in the ice, each about the size of a trash can lid. Others from the congregation began unloading boxes, bags and sacks of animals from two idling freight trucks, while the rest milled about in small groups trying to stay warm.

Inside the trucks carp splashed in blue, tarp-walled, waist-high pools as soft-shell turtles squeaked incessantly against the inner walls of their Styrofoam crates. Altogether the group estimated the trucks contained about 600,000 animals, though the many plump plastic bags filled with pulsing schools of pinkie-sized fry had no doubt helped inflate the figure. Whatever the total, the group had paid RMB93,128 (US$15,140) for this host of creatures, plus a transport fee of RMB165 to ship them to the reservoir. (Members had each paid an RMB30 bus fee to get there themselves.)

With their cargo offloaded, the men and women, children and elders, locals and migrants began chanting the Buddha Amitābha’s name. They began forming two long lines to pass the animals down toward the fresh openings in the ice.

The price ranges for animal purchases from a recent reporting expedition by a Jilin-based journalist with the paper New Culture Times offer an instructive look at the market for animal release: In the city’s East Market, an entire sub-industry is devoted to selling animals exclusively for release. During the reporter’s visit shops were selling snakes, turtles, frogs and more for release. Non-venomous songhua snakes ran customers a steep RMB100, but business was brisk. “The ones we sell are all for use in fangsheng,” one shop’s owner told the Times. “If you’re doing fangsheng, then I can sell to you.” He explained the snakes had all been captured in the nearby mountains, keeping start-up capital to a minimum.

A rundown of prices for birds sold for release by the same journalist gives a glimpse into the easy profit the ceremony offers to industrious trappers: One small bird goes for RMB2-10, with some fetching even more. That’s RMB100 of returns on a day’s catch of 50 birds. During the migration seasons from mid-March to early June and mid-July to mid-November, bird catchers can rack up an income of 10,000 RMB, if not more. With 100 bird catchers working together profits can reach RMB500,000 according to the New Culture Times report. All to sell for release back into the wild, where they can be caught again and sold for release to one of the seven fangsheng groups in Jilin.

When done on a large scale, a release can easily entail a single Buddhist congregation spending hundreds of thousands of yuan on a single ceremony. Indeed, releases by individual believers are dwarfed in size and impact by the long-term, continuous releases of groups like the Guangdong Fangsheng Association, which claims to have released a total of over 100 million animals since 1989.

No doubt many of those came from bags full of juvenile fish (yumiao in Mandarin) that come relatively cheap and can be bought wholesale; in a January ceremony the group released 200,000 of them into a tributary of the Han River which runs through the city of Meizhou, according to its website. But beyond such small fry the group also released over RMB200,000 (US$32,600) worth of other fish species, including carp and loach, on the same day.

That might dwarf the sum spent on most weekends by the Beijing Fangsheng Association, but the congregation seemed pleased enough with the scale of its work as the two bucket brigades began passing animals down toward the dark pools in the surface of the frozen reservoir. Worshippers chanted in unison as animals changed hands under the gaze of monks, who watched from the second-floor windows of the reservoir’s monitoring station. Multitudes of tiny fry squiggled from their bags into the water’s murky depths, and turtles slipped beneath the icy water and quickly disappeared—though some animals had clearly been injured during transport.

One massive, mangled carp, sticky with blood and twitching as it floated in one of the holes, couldn’t summon the strength to submerge itself. With a hushed “Namo Amituofo,” one of the faithful took a stick and pushed it beneath the water.

Karmic backlash

Local groups like this can have substantial economic and environmental impact through the aggregate animals being bought and released. By its own estimate, the Beijing Fangsheng Association has already released 15 million animals at a cost of over RMB6.9 million (US$1.1 million) in 2014 to date. The group’s biggest one-day release this year ran up a tab of RMB441,352 (US$71,810).

In the early 20th Century and those prior, animals released in the greater China region might have been more likely to be sourced from nearby, as demonstrated by one account from Beijing in the 1930s: When religious festivals rolled around each year, some beggars would sell water snakes to devout old ladies for release, then recapture them for resale the next day. But globalization has introduced a variety of new species such as red-eared sliders and North American bullfrogs to locales throughout the country in staggering quantities, though no knows exactly how many got there by way of the life release ceremony.

Xu Haigen, a prominent researcher of invasive species at the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences, said that to his knowledge no comprehensive studies had been carried out on the role of animal release in introducing invasive species to the mainland, nor were there any on the scope and value of the industry to date. In Taiwan alone, where the practice has been subject to more open debate and research, the Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan estimated that 200 million animals worth a total of about NT$200 million (US$6.56 million) were released by religious groups on the island during one 18-month period from 2003-2004.

Many of the growing number of accounts of mainland life release come from local Chinese papers, which together with foreign media often focus on more outrageous examples. In one incident from 2012, a Buddhist group released thousands of poisonous snakes into the village of Miao Erdong in Hebei province—which then had to set about the grisly extermination of the entire slithering swarm. The ceremony’s increasing popularity has prompted calls for “scientific fangsheng” from some officials and scientists, often in reference to not letting dangerous or diseased creatures loose near human settlements.

The possibility of catching diseases from handling wild or farmed animals can be substantial: In a study (pdf) of the disease-spreading potential of wild red-eared slider turtles in China, Hainan Normal University’s Shi Haitao found that 39% of the sliders sampled carried Salmonella. An investigation into the likelihood of birds in Cambodia spreading H5N1 avian influenza found that under experimental conditions, Eurasian-Tree sparrows were susceptible to infection either by direct inoculation or contact with infected poultry.

The study didn’t conclusively demonstrate a risk of contamination of poultry by infected sparrows, but its authors noted that “the presence of significant quantities of H5N1 virus on sparrow feathers would suggest that the [life release] ritual represents a risk for human contamination in countries where the avian influenza virus is circulating.”

Despite possible and demonstrated harm to both humans and China’s ecosystems, Shi said the government has yet to begin strictly regulating life release ceremonies, and thanks to a dearth of research the present scope of the ceremony on the mainland remains hard to pin down even as anecdotal evidence and available records suggest a growing popularity. However, few practitioners seem to understand the history of the ceremony, or how quickly criticism arose over its contradictions.

Wang Lihu, a member of the Beijing Fangsheng Association, attributed the practice to Siddhartha, the Buddha himself. Many shared his belief that the practice came from Indian Buddhist tradition, but the first recorded instance of an animal release ceremony actually comes from a 3rd century Daoist text, the Liezi, according to a 2010 study of fangsheng’s history in the journal Contemporary Buddhism (pdf). The tome describes not only the delight of an elder at the release of doves by townsfolk as a gesture of kindness, but also a visiting traveler’s rebuttal:

“The people know you wish to release them, so they vie with each other to catch them, and many of the doves die. If you wish to keep them alive, it would be better to forbid the people to catch them,” the traveler says. “When you release doves after catching them, the kindness does not make up for the mistake.”

The elder’s reply? “You are right.” 

Author and photographer: Hudson Lockett (@KangHexin)

Research: Wade Strub


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