A popular national beverage chain, Hey Tea, faced backlash from Shenzhen police for their recent marketing campaign which was deemed “borderline” illegal. The campaign, called the “Happy Buddha Latte,” featured cup designs inspired by 20th century artist Zeng Longsheng’s porcelain renderings of arhats, original followers of the Buddha in Chinese Buddhist tradition. The cups featured one of three arhats (Rahula, Kanaka the Vatsa, and Maitreya) and the Chinese character for “Buddha.” The campaign launched on November 28 but was taken off shelves on December 3 after receiving a “summons” from Shenzhen police. When asked for comment, Hey Tea did not respond and the Jingdezhen China Ceramics Museum, their partner in the campaign, stated that they had ended their collaboration with Hey Tea. According to an employee from Shenzhen’s Municipal Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs, the company has been cooperative and has shown a positive attitude in admitting their mistake(s).
The incident has garnered significant media attention in China. Online, supporters of the Shenzhen police 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”:
Despite the conflicting opinions on Hey Tea being mandated to remove its products from shelves, both the government’s decision and the public’s reaction share a common trait: unawareness. What stands out the most about this situation is that everyone has unquestioningly acknowledged it as a “law-enforcement” issue simply based on a few regulations issued by the “appropriate authorities”. No one seems interested in investigating whether there was a valid reason for the government’s intervention.
The issue at hand has become clear. When Hey Tea was found to have broken the taboo of using religious symbols for profit, it opened the door for criticism of other temples such as Lingyin Temple and Shaolin Temple. Though Hey Tea eventually conceded, the conversation about the incident has only escalated. It was akin to adding fuel to a fire.
Limiting the utilization of the Buddha’s likeness to just places of worship and other sacred locations is insufficient in capturing the full essence of the Buddha’s appearance. Interestingly, the commodification of the Buddha’s image is the most accurate representation of his ability to rescue those who are meant to be saved. Despite the removal of the collaboration between the Jingdezhen museum and Hey Tea, the introduction for the 18 Arhats exhibit remains on its official Weibo account. At times, silence can convey more than words.
The recent Hey Tea summoning case highlights China’s tendency towards folly. Despite having numerous departments and regulations, when it comes to actually applying them, it proves to be more difficult than anticipated. As a result, both the summoners and those being summoned, as well as those who believe Hey Tea was at fault, can all participate in the ambiguous exercise of power. Interestingly, the true name of the “Silent Bodhisattva” that has now been recalled is the “Arhat of Deep Reflection,” which is quite fitting in this situation.