A tea company is in hot water after Shenzhen officials deemed its latest marketing campaign to be “borderline” illegal. Hey Tea (喜茶, xǐ chá), a popular national beverage chain, recently partnered with the Jingdezhen China Ceramics Museum on a marketing campaign that featured cup designs inspired by 20th century artist Zeng Longsheng’s porcelain renderings of arhats, original followers of the Buddha in the Chinese Buddhist tradition. The promotion, called the “Happy Buddha Latte,” featured one of three arhats (Rahula, Kanaka the Vatsa, and Maitreya) alongside the character for “Buddha” on the cup. The promotion went live on November 28. On December 1, Hey Tea executives were issued a “summons” by officials with the Shenzhen Municipal Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs, an informal but potentially serious punishment. By December 3, the promotion was taken off in-store and online shelves. When reached by reporters for The Beijing News, Hey Tea offered no comment on the incident and the Jingdezhen museum said only that it had already ended its collaboration with Hey Tea. An employee of Shenzhen’s Municipal Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs told The Paper, a state-owned news outlet, “For the moment, we’ve only issued them a ‘summons,’ which is one of the legal tools at our disposal. Their company has been very cooperative and shown a positive attitude in being willing to admit their mistake(s).”
The incident has garnered significant media attention in China. Online, supporters of the Shenzhen officials’ actions commented that the summons had upheld the dignity of Buddhism. Others were more concerned with the precedent set by using vague, bureaucratic regulations to police popular and relatively inoffensive art. Well-known journalist Song Zhibiao‘s essay on the incident noted the bitter irony that one of the arhats used in the promotion, Rahula or the “Silent Bodhisattva”, is known in Chinese as “the Arhat of Deep Reflection”:
Even though there are two opposing viewpoints on Hey Tea being ordered to remove its products from shelves, both the action taken by the government and the popular response to that action share one characteristic: blissful ignorance. The most surprising thing about this incident is that everyone has simply accepted that this was a “law-enforcement” incident because the “relevant organs” spat out a few regulations. Nobody wants to delve too deeply into whether there was a clear basis for the government’s action.
[…] The problem with this has already become apparent. Once people accept that Hey Tea violated taboos against the use of religious imagery for commercial purposes, the scope of “the commercialization of religion” will expand to allow criticism of the business models adopted by Lingyin Temple, Shaolin Temple, and many other temples. Although Hey Tea buckled under, public discussion of the incident has only continued to spread. It was like throwing water on a grease fire.
Restricting the use of the Buddha’s image to temples and other religious sites cannot begin to encompass the many facets of the Buddha’s visage. In fact, the commercialization of the Buddha’s image is the truest reflection of the Buddha’s power to save those who are destined to be saved. Even though the Jingdezhen museum’s collaboration with Hey Tea has been taken down, the introduction to the 18 Arhats exhibition is still up on its official Weibo account. Sometimes silence speaks louder than words.
In summary, the Hey Tea summons incident exposes China’s characteristic folly. All those departments with all their regulations find that when it comes time to use them, it’s easier said than done. Nevertheless, the summoners and the summoned, along with those who think Hey Tea was in the wrong, can all share in the vague, muddled exercise of power. The real name of the now-recalled “Silent Bodhisattva” is the “Arhat of Deep Reflection.” How fitting to use it in this instance. [Chinese]
Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Hey Tea was issued a summons by Shenzhen police. The summons was issued by the Shenzhen Municipal Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs. The article has been updated to rectify the mistake.