Council officials have asked a chef to change the “provocative” name of his new Chinese restaurant after he called it the Fat Buddha. Durham City Council wrote to co-owner Eddie Fung saying the name was contrary to the city’s reputation as “a place of respect for religious beliefs”. But Mr Fung, who is a Buddhist, says the name will stand as no-one has been offended by it.
Tracey Ingle, the council’s head of cultural services, said she stood by the original comments she had made in the letter. [...] The letter to the restaurant said: “I have to say, in my view, the name is provocative. To use the name of a major religion’s deity in your restaurant brand runs contrary to this city’s reputation as a place of equality and respect for other’s views and religious beliefs.”
Hilarious, because even a highly westernised half-Chinese boy such as myself knows, the fat buddha (or more usually, the laughing buddha) is a recurring motif in Chinese cultures and countless restaurants, shops, houses and places of worship have him with his enormous belly, cheery laugh and enormous earlobes that I found terrifying as a small child. He is not The Buddha (aka Siddartha Gautama) but rather a buddha (usually called Budai) in one way at least, whose form is the personification of the jolly fat man (cf. Father Christmas in Western culture) and his presence is a sign of wealth, happiness and prosperity – for good luck, you rub his belly. In short, he is a rather positive figure and there is nothing pejorative associated with the term at all.
The letter goes on:1
“The generic descriptive adjective of “fat” is not in itself a derogatory term when applied generally [..] the name implies an Eastern offer [...] as it is associated with a religion that grew from Asian countries [...] It does not, however, offer vegetarian cuisine solely nor does it refer to Buddhist belief systems. The name is provocative.”
For starters there are various misassumptions and uneducated assertions in the letter: As well as the confusion outlined above, the Buddha here is asserted as being a “deity” – the perceived divinity of the Buddha varies according to which strand of the faith you believe in, with many Buddhists regarding him as a human, not a supernatural being – and that Buddhists adhere to a solely vegetarian diet, which they most certainly do not.2 Given this is from Durham City Council’s head of cultural services (who has a blog that’s even less regularly updated than this one) it’s a pretty shocking ignorance of the diversity of belief within one of the world’s major faiths; what makes it frightening is the wilfulness to boil down “what is a Buddhist?” down to such simplistic terms in order to make a point which they feel terribly compelled to make.
Within this story lies the real evil of political correctness – not the sentiment behind it (I’m sure Tracey Ingle meant well, in her own way) – but by being so zealous in their duty to create a world totally free of offence rather than one of general mutual respect. The question over whether something is “offensive” is only ever satisfactorily answered by assuming the role of the most easily-offended, i.e. the most fundamentalist and generally pissed-off. Tracey Ingle’s hypothetical pissed-off Buddhists, miserable militant vegetarian deity-worshippers with nothing better to do than be outraged at such blasphemy, don’t really exist, but the politically correct are still fearful of this fictional construct. Ironically, this attitude has underpinning it a certain set of patronising and ugly assumptions about the intelligence and peacefulness of people of faiths and races other than their own (vis. the same softly-softly approach that assumes all Muslims will turn into Rushdie-burning fanatics at the slightest provocation) that share more than a passing resemblance to the intolerance and racism they are so avowedly trying to fight.
1 Ugh, I linked to the Daily Mail. Feel unclean.
2 IANAB: I Am Not A Buddhist, although many of my family are at least nominally so. I don’t claim to be an expert on the faith by any means and I am not willing to get into a theological argument over this quite complex subject – but by and large I am right.