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7 May, 2013

China Experiencing a Craze For Thai Buddha Amulets

(Global Times)

Beijing, May 06, 2013 – Since ancient times, wearing an amulet was supposed to endow the owner with either a protective quality, or would herald the coming of good luck and fortune. These days, when high-profile Chinese celebrities have turned to wearing an amulet as a fashion statement, the market in China, whether the wearers are “believers” or not, has taken off. And nothing is more on-trend right now than Thai Buddha amulets.

A Buddha amulet is called plah keang in its local language. It’s said that once upon a time, there was a renowned monk in Thailand, who was invited by the king to go to the disaster area when a deadly drought afflicted the nation.

A customer selects Buddha amulets in a shop in Beijing. (Global Times/Wei Xi)

Unable to bring the large Buddha statue in his home, he dreamed of the Buddha statue telling him he could make a small model of it with the clay from the temple and bring that instead. He did what he was told, and the drought eased. When the monk gave this amulet to the king, the king asked him to make more and spread them among the common people.

Shaping belief

Like Christian crosses and Chinese Buddha amulets, Thai Buddha amulets can be made of metal or precious stones. Yet a majority of them today are still a combination of clay and incense ash. They are then molded into a Buddha statue (some are not) and put in a box. Sometimes, pollen, herbs, metal bars (with Scripture carved on), an eyebrow hair from a holy monk and a drop of his blood may also be contained inside. It’s not finished and ready to give out until it’s blessed by a renowned monk.

Thai Buddha amulets can be made into different shapes, such as round, square and triangular. Yet, what decides an amulet’s major function is the Buddha or creature shown on it.

Buddhism is polytheistic religion and there are multiple gods and goddesses. For example, a Buddha called bida (one with his hands covering the face) helps to drive bad luck away. A colorful butterfly is useful for a woman to attract a man.

In the old days, Buddha amulets in Thailand were purely hand-made, but today, due to the large demand, some procedures, like carving a model, are mechanized.

Although almost everyone can make an amulet, it is believed in Thailand that only those made by renowned monks contain power, and each Buddhist master has his own specialty. Luang Phor Koon, a renowned monk at Wat Ban Rai, a temple in Nakhon Ratchasima Province in Thailand, is famous for making bida Buddha.

“Today, most of the amulets are made up by these masters’ disciples and then blessed by the masters, because these masters are all elderly,” said Wang Lei, a Buddhist believer and Thai amulet dealer in Beijing.

Fashion fad

According to Wang, the price of a Thai Buddha amulet has almost doubled in two years or so. And behind the climbing prices are the uses of them in fashion not only in Thailand, but also in Malaysia, Singapore, the Chinese mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Yet, the trend in the mainland started much later than in other places.

Wang said that in 2005, there were only three Thai Buddhist amulet shops in Beijing, and the number climbed to around 1,000 last year, while this year, it soared to nearly 3,000.

A simple click on popular online shopping platform taobao.com can also see the prosperity of this market – altogether there are 3,156 shops and the most popular one sold over 7,000 pieces in the past one month.

Prices can range from 500 yuan ($81.25) or so, to millions of yuan for those sold on the luxury market.

According to another Thai Buddha amulet seller in Beijing, Wang Yang, the trend in the mainland, to some degree, is also led by celebrities, when actors and actresses like Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen and Cecilia Cheung are seen wearing them in public.

As similar amulets to those worn by celebrities can often sell for a higher price, despite other facts like the fame of the maker and the age of an amulet often decide whether an amulet sells at several hundreds of yuan or millions.

“Many wearers think [the amulets] are very effective [in bringing luck], although I do believe 50 percent of them do not believe in Buddhism, but only think it is very fashionable,” Wang Lei said.

He added that some only buy them for the purpose of showing off their wealth, and therefore prefers to ask for silver or gold ones, but pay less attention to whether the amulets have been blessed.

Buyer beware

The popularity of Thai Buddhist amulets in the mainland market also brings business opportunities to copycats. But different from Thailand, which has professional certification agencies, customers in the Chinese mainland can only rely on the trustworthiness of the vendors.

Wang Lei told the Global Times that every experienced amulet dealer will bring a magnifier with them, for many details often reveal the identity of an amulet, but this is a skill requiring long-term professional experience.

He first heard of the Thai Buddhist amulets in 2005 and began trading them in 2007. During his previous two years, he was often cheated.

And Wang Yang added that very good imitations are also difficult to identify even by experienced dealers. Therefore, to avoid being cheated, they prefer to buy amulets directly from famous temples in Thailand.

Wang Yang said that unlike a number of temples in the Chinese mainland that have become over-commercialized in recent years, most temples in Thailand still possess a high reputation among local people and will not sell fake amulets. He believes it is also the over-commercialization of Chinese Buddhism that has driven more and more believers away to other religions.

“To enter a temple, you have to first buy a ticket and believers are sorted [to high and low] according to the money they spend on incense,” said Wang Yang. “Many of the monks [do not come from long years of self-cultivation but] graduate from Buddhist colleges.”

Wang Lei believes some rare amulets are still collectable and have value as an investment. In fact, he told the Global Times, amulets have already been auctioned in Thailand, and for some expensive ones the price can reach 50 million Bath, or nearly 10 million yuan.

As every trend has its peaks and troughs, the pursuit of amulets will not be an eternal phenomenon either. For that final fate, Wang Lei said he prepares by keeping an eye on business opportunities outside Beijing.

“The business in second- and third-tier cities [in China] has not been raised yet,” he noted.