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Buddhist art sparks storm in paper tea cup

By Cui Jia | China Daily | Updated: 2023-12-06 09:11

A Chinese tea chain has stopped the sale of its recently released range of merchandise that features depictions of Buddhist artwork due to it potentially violating Chinese law concerning the commercial promotion of religion.

On Nov 28, Hey Tea released co-branded tea and merchandise with the Jingdezhen China Ceramics Museum in Jiangxi province featuring images of ceramic Luohan sculptures. The collaboration, named Hey Buddha, featured three of the ceramic sculptures exhibited at the museum depicting the 18 Arhats, or Luohan in Chinese, from Buddhism.

Among them, the Thinking Luohan gained internet notoriety earlier this year after memes of a photo of it with the added text "speechless" went viral. Taming Tiger Luohan and Happy Luohan from the series also went viral, becoming the other two designs from the collaboration.

Hey Tea printed the images of the three Luohan ceramic sculptures on special paper cups designed for its tea latte beverages in the series. Other merchandise included fridge magnets and stickers. With the younger generation increasingly interested in Buddhist culture, the collaboration quickly became a hit on social media.

On Friday, the Shenzhen Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau informed the tea chain, which is headquartered in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, that the collaboration could be seen as an act of commercial promotion in the name of religion, which is in breach of China's Regulation on Religious Affairs, media outlet ThePaper.cn reported on Sunday.

A directive introduced in 2017 to specifically tackle the issue of the commercialization of Buddhism and Taoism also prohibited commercial promotion in the name of Buddhism and Taoism.

A bureau staff member said Hey Tea had been very cooperative. By Sunday, it had removed all paper cups and merchandise from the collaboration from its outlets across the nation.

Hey Tea's alleged violation of regulations on religious affairs became one of the most discussed topics on social media on Monday.

Li Yanqin, who bought a tea latte from the collaboration, said she thought the paper cup with a Thinking Luohan was just for a laugh at first, but then she found herself in an awkward situation when she finished the drink.

"I don't know if I should throw away the cup or not," she said. "I am not a follower of Buddhism, but I don't think it's a respectable thing to just toss the cup in the bin because there is an image of Luohan on it. Now, I still have it on my desk." She said companies should be respectful of all religions and their followers.

Some people said Hey Tea only used the images of ceramic Luohan sculptures, which are just works of art from the perspective of many people, meaning the allegation of a breach of regulations could be flawed.

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