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Chinese Religion: Popular Religion


Chinese popular religion is a scholarly construct which does not correspond to any traditional Chinese notion or institution. Scholars in China, in Japan, and in the West give it different meanings; while several historians or anthropologists have tried to define it, most authors use the phrase loosely to refer to whatever religious idea or practice does not fall clearly within the purview of China's three institutionalized religions, Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. The fundamentally ambiguous word "popular" sometimes refers to any widespread or commonly held idea or practice, and is sometimes used more narrowly in contrast to "elite" religion. This ambiguity is both creative and confusing; the confusion is further compounded by the very frequent use of phrases such as "popular Buddhism," "popular Daoism," and "popular Confucianism." Whether these are similar or different from "popular religion" is a matter of opinion.

As a consequence of such loose and varied usage, words such as "popular religion" or "folk religion," although often used in a similar way, might arguably be totally eliminated. Yet scholars and observers need hermeneutical tools to understand the religious field in Chinese history, and "popular" should be useful if defined properly. This essay considers the elements of popular religion in the context of Chinese religion, and it attempts to delineate what "popular" implies by looking at the roles of clerical institutionalized religions, local lay communities, and individual specialists and devotees.


With the exception of religions, notably Islam and Christianity, that arrived in China from elsewhere and could not become fully integrated because of exclusive claims of truth, most religious practices, beliefs, and organizations in China can be described as belonging to a single system, best termed "Chinese religion" (sometimes called "Chinese traditional religion"). This organic, non-hierarchical system integrates traditions of individual salvation (self-cultivation through meditation and body techniques, morality, and spirit-possession techniques, including spirit-writing), communal celebration (cults to local saints and ancestors), and death rituals together with the three institutionalized religions, Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism.

The three institutionalized religions are precisely defined, each with a distinctive clergy, a canon (scriptures that define orthodoxy), a liturgy, and training centers (monasteries and academies where the canon is kept and the clergy is trained and ordained). The institutions defined by these four characteristics can be referred to as "Buddhism," "Daoism," and "Confucianism" stricto sensu. Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism within Chinese religion do not function as separate institutions that provide their members an exclusive way to salvation, as in the nineteenth-century Western concept of religion; rather, their purpose is to transmit their tradition of practice and make it available to all, either as individual spiritual techniques or liturgical services to whole communities. In late imperial times and well into the twentieth century, only clerics and a small number of retired laymen (jushi) would declare themselves as Buddhists or Daoists, but very few Chinese indeed have never engaged in Buddhist or Daoist practices. The wide acceptance and official status of the doctrine of the three religions' coexistence has made them complementary to one another.

The three institutionalized religions serve the whole of Chinese religion, which is not "syncretism" as it is too often described (the word syncretism should be reserved to certain sectarian traditions): they are expected to coexist but not mingle, and people do not confuse them. The many independent communities that form the social structure of Chinese religion choose from among the shared repertoire of beliefs and practices those services offered by the three religions that give them relevant meaning, and their choices hinge on socio-economic, ideological, and theological considerations much more complex than an elite/popular dichotomy can suggest. Therefore, the large majority of communities that are not Confucian, Buddhist, or Daoist can be labeled as Chinese popular religion, but this term does not necessarily imply any social class, lack of intellectual sophistication, or heterodoxy. On the other hand, while the three religions have nationwide institutions, cult communities are fundamentally local in nature, and they have been therefore aptly described as "local religion. "

Historical Construction

Most of the fundamental elements of Chinese religion began to be observed during antiquity, that is, in the period before the unification of the Chinese world under the Qin empire (221 bce). Religious beliefs and practices of the ancient royalty and nobility have been documented through partly transmitted liturgical manuals and archaeological evidence, but local cults and commoners' practices have also been reconstructed through fragmentary evidence, notably recently excavated manuscripts. Shared practices among various social classes and regions have led scholars to speak of a "common religion" for the late antiquity and the Han dynasty (206 bce220 ce). The major features of this common religion include care for the dead, addressing both the corpse (hence the importance of grave maintenance, and in later times geomancy) and souls that go through a netherworld administration and can either be installed as ancestors, or, if not given proper rituals, suffer as ghosts or demons. A bureaucratic vision of the universe, and particularly of the netherworld, had already been formed by the Han, and it would be further developed by Daoism. It informs the contracts and formal demands to netherworld officials concerning the fate of the dead, the prolongation of the living person's life-span, and the cure of illnesses caused by ghosts or demons. Ancestors as well as gods can be requited through sacrifices of alcohol, grains, and most importantly, meats; the offerings differ by type of sacrificial animal or cooking methods according to the relationship between the person and the ancestor or god. Sacrifices are preceded by ritual purification (zhaijie ), including abstinence from alcohol, meat, sex, and unclean activities. Incense, first used as a purificatory fumigant, would later gradually become the most basic and common offering (in ancient time as powder, and later as sticks). Gods or ancestors can possess the living so as to participate in the sacrificial banquet or speak to humans; spirit-mediums (wu ), or shamans as they are sometimes called (somewhat problematically) in Western languages, were recognized intermediaries, but it also happened that non-specialists, and indeed children, could be possessed. Possession played a major role in exorcisms from ghosts or demons; the exorcising deities are themselves usually former ghosts or demons. All of these features of the common religion of late antiquity still comprise the basic elements of Chinese religion in the twenty-first century.

Confucianism formed during the Han dynasty as the self-proclaimed heir of the elite sacrificial religion of antiquity, became the state religion during the Han, and would remain so until the end of the empire in 1911. Meanwhile, during the second century bce, Daoism gradually organized into communities and a distinctive liturgy, and Buddhism began to flow into China from Central Asia. These three religions often conflicted with one another until a doctrine of their equal orthodoxy and coexistence was formulated during the Tang era (618907). At the same time, all three attempted to control the pre-existing local cults by integrating them into their clerical structures and reforming their practices, but with limited success; for example, Buddhism and Daoism notably attempted, but failed, to suppress animal sacrifices. From the third to the tenth centuries, Buddhist and Daoist monasteries were the largest religious institutions, and clergy-led pious associations were omnipresent in rural and urban China, but local cults continued to practice as well.

The modern religious organization of Chinese society, still existing despite twentieth-century upheavals, gradually took shape between the tenth and the thirteenth centuries. This process included the growth of the cult of local saints which superseded clerical institutions (monasteries) as the religious centers of society; the appearance of the large temple festivals and opera performances; the adoption of local saints within the liturgical pantheons of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism (through the process of state and Daoist canonization of local gods); the growth of lineages and corporations as powerful religious and economic institutions; the employment of Buddhist and Daoist clerics in temples of local saints, lineages, and corporations as contractual managers; the democratization of salvation techniques (meditation, inner alchemy); the phenomenal growth of spirit-writing (fuji, fuluan ) and the formation of a common ethics shared by the whole of Chinese religion based on spirit-writing revelations and expressed in morality books, shanshu. Spirit-writing is fairly uniform as a technique, but it is used by many different kinds of groups, including immortality cults, gentry morality cults, and sectarian movements.

The early modern religious organization of Chinese society was dramatically upset by twentieth-century political revolutions. As early as the 1898 reforms, an edict called for the seizure of all local temples to be turned into schools, and although promptly revoked, this measure was again adopted after 1901. Political reformists considered temple cults as the center of local identities and autonomy, and an obstacle to nation-building: they wanted to destroy temples and associations in order to seize their material and symbolical resources and build a modern nation-state. At the same time, the introduction around 1901 of the Western notions of religion and superstition caused a complete reformulation of the imperial religious policies: now, major world religions (with a church structure, a canon, and a philosophy) were tolerated, but superstitions were targeted for destruction. This became the official stance of the Republic of China (1912) and the People's Republic (1949) that gave relative recognition to five religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, with the first two defined in a narrow, monastic sense) but actively suppressed all local cults, temples, and festivals. Because of destructions and financial ruin, local cults gradually declined, which opened the way for many sectarian movements to flourish. Such movements offered conventional services (healing, morality teachings, and liturgical services such as death rituals) but at the same time fully embraced the modern discourse of religion against superstition. This was notably the case with movements that practiced spirit-writing and proselytized on a very large scale, such as Tongshan she, Daoyuan, or Yiguandao. The Qigong movement of self-healing, first supported by the Communist authorities, also occupied the vacant space. Progressive liberalization on the mainland since the 1980s, however, has allowed a remarkable renewal of local cults on a scale unexpected by most scholars, and the Chinese religious field is gradually recovering its erstwhile diversity.

Social structures

Western descriptions of Chinese religious life have long tended to emphasize its motley, disorganized nature. Closer examination, however, reveals that it is based on well-defined social structures, some of which are coterminous with local society (village, clans) and others which are more purely religious: thus, even though religious groups are strongly linked to secular social organizations, the former do not merely reflect the latter, and religious communities have their own logic and agency. What best characterizes the social organization of Chinese religion is the communities' fundamental autonomy. While they can, and often do, negotiate alliances and build networks, for both religious (large-scale celebrations) and secular purposes (order-maintenance, infrastructure building, arbitrating local tensions, and conflicts), all temples, communities, and other religious groups are independent, refusing to take any order from any external authority, secular or spiritual. Some scholars have described the networks of cult communities as China's civil society.

The typology and relative importance of the social structures of Chinese religion vary among different regions of the Chinese world, between rural and urban areas, and between Chinese residents and the diaspora; it is possible, however, to distinguish basic types. The most fundamental distinction opposes ascriptive communities, where adhesion is compulsory and by household relative to social status, and congregations characterized by free, individual participation. Three main types of ascriptive communities exist: the territorial communities, the clans, and the corporations.

Of the three, the territorial communities are the most prevalent and also the most ancient direct descendants of the earth god cults, she, of antiquity. According to one of the oldest and most fundamental principles of Chinese religion, all persons living within a given area must take part in the cult of the territorial god of that region, or domain (jing ). In many places, the generic impersonal she, or tudi gong in modern parlance, evolved during the Song (9601279) into local saints, each of which was given its own individual name, birthday, and history, and she altars became elaborate temples with statues. The imperial state, notably under the first emperor (r. 13681398) of the Ming dynasty (13681644), tried to revert the territorial cults to canonical she altars, but with limited success. During the modern period, territorial communities exist at different levels: while streets, or small neighborhoods maintain modest shrines to an anonymous generic tudi gong, many larger villages and urban neighborhoods have one communal temple for the cult of a saint embodying local identity and history. Walled cities have a temple for the territorial cult of the whole city, the Chenghuang (god of the moat and walls, or, more commonly, city god), a cult that appeared during the Tang period and became fully institutionalized and universal during the early Ming. In all cases, the territorial temple is built and owned in common, and all households have a duty to contribute to it, often through a poll tax (dingkou qian ).

The clans or lineages are of more recent origin. Even though the ancestral cult has been a fundamental element of Chinese religion throughout recorded history, it was organized at the family level (jia, or household) only. The advent of very large kin groups based on common descent (proved or supposed) from a common ancestor, and pooling resources for cults to this ancestor, seems to be a twelfth-century innovation. Although not canonical institutions, these clans shared the neo-Confucianism ideology, and rose to prominence between the Song and the Ming to become influential on the economic, social, and religious scenes. Modern worship focuses on the ancestral cults using Confucian liturgy, but many clans also sustain cults to local saints and employ a variety of religious specialists.

The emergence of corporations is also a Song phenomenon, but one that reached maturity only by the late Ming, since it was strongly linked to the commercial and urban development that characterized these two periods. Professional and commercial guilds, called hui or zuo, managed relations with the state; regulated competition, prices, and wages; supervised training and confirmation of apprentices, and were organized as cults to patron saints (zushiye ). A related type of organization, not well attested before the Ming, is the common-origin association, usually called huiguan or gongsuo. Most of the time, huiguan were also trade guilds, since numerous trades were comprised of monopolies of people from certain districts. Larger cities, however, also contained larger provincial huiguan that welcomed people from different trades. Both guilds and common-origin associations established halls in which members could meet and unite in ritual celebration. The most affluent groups built their own place, with a temple and facilities (such as a hotel, meeting rooms, and an opera stage). The poorer guilds constructed a hall or chapel within a larger temple.

These three kinds of ascriptive communities are quite different from congregations characterized by free adhesion. In the former, one, or rather one's household, had to join a particular clan, trade guild, and territorial community whether one liked it or not; on the other hand, in the latter, joining a devotional group was an extra, an individual option. Those who chose to join one of these groups received social approval; their participation was seen as a mark of piety and moral dedication. On the other hand, the imperial state did not approve of such congregations. The religious policy of the late imperial state drew a line between ascriptive communities, which respected the natural patriarchal structures of local society and recognized them as orthodox, and devotional congregations, which were outlawed. In practice, however, most congregations were left to themselves and operated openly, since it proved impossible for the authorities to clearly separate the two kinds of groups.

The congregations were extremely varied. Many originated in medieval Buddhist and Daoist pious societies (yi or she ). The societies financed, within or without monasteries, activities such as rituals, the making of scriptures or icons, or and mutual aid between members. They were often under clerical leadership. In the early twenty-first century, such societies continue to exist; after the tenth century, however, they became less numerous than other congregationsoften called xianghui, or incense communitiesthat worshiped local saints and were housed in temples. These devotional groups may organize rituals to celebrate the birthday of their saint or contribute to the upkeep of a temple by making specific offerings or by maintaining and cleaning chapels; the best-endowed congregations built their own temples. Pilgrimage associations also developed on a major scale, as pilgrimages to holy mountains (such as Taishan, Wudang shan, Xishan, and Miaofeng shan near Beijing) drew hundreds of thousands of pilgrims a year during the period between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Amateur troupes also perform during temple festivals, processions, or pilgrimages. Many congregations run charitable programs (offering tea or food to pilgrims or beggars, and providing medicine, clothes, or coffins to the needy). Devotional groups focused on charitable acts developed and institutionalized themselves between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries; they eventually became large philanthropic foundations, shantang, but never lost their devotional dimension.

Finally, many congregations were oriented towards individual salvation and spiritual practice. This category includes groups that were led by clergy and geared towards lectures and meditation practice. In addition, increasingly after the sixteenth century, the category added spirit-writing cults formed of laypersons, with one or several spirit-mediums receiving direct revelations from gods and saints and publishing these revealed communications in book form. Many such texts were morality books; consequently, these cults also engaged in charity, and their roles largely overlapped with philanthropic foundations. Another sub-category was the sectarian tradition, also geared towards revelation, study of sacred texts, and meditation, but with a distinctive theology and body of scriptures, called baojuan.

Sectarian groups are often called minjian zongjiao, literally "popular religions", in scholarly Chinese publications. This label is confusing, because the Western-language term "popular religions" encompasses much more than just the sectarian tradition. Some scholars, considering the distinctiveness of the theology and scriptures of the sectarian tradition, have considered it to be China's fourth religion. On the other hand, fieldwork observation shows that most sectarian groups are not marginalized or exclusive communities. Rather, they are devotional associations whose leaders provideto members and outsiders alikeservices such as healing, teachings on morality, death rituals, and local leadership in village affairs. These social services are very similar to those offered by other groups.

Although ascriptive communities and voluntary congregations, including sectarian groups, are clearly different, they share much in common in terms of organization, such as the nomination processes for leaders, modes of financing, rules, and ritual celebrations. Through these groups, individuals receive access to a large range of religious services, to specialists, and to salvation. All sorts of them can be found throughout the Chinese world, but their relative importance varies by region (for instance, clans are much more prevalent in South China), and even from village to village. In places where some types of organizations are rare or weak, others tend to take over their role, and there have been instances of sectarian groups acting as a village's territorial community.

Temples and Specialists

Most religious communities build a temple, but this is not absolutely necessary for the purpose of the cult. Many groups, either because they cannot afford it, or because they are illegal and cannot have highly visible meeting places, have no shrine of their own. Each religious group, however, must have an incense burner (xianglu ) and a material support for their deity (a statue, a name tablet, or a painting that has to be consecrated, kaiguang, a ritual normally done by a Daoist or a Buddhist cleric). Families also have a domestic altar in the house's main room, which contains statues or tablets of ancestors as well as some protective deities. Most faith communities build their own temple, or a chapel or hall within an existing temple. Many such temples were constructed (probably over one million as of 1900), most of which had many different cults beside the main deity that gave the temple its name; separate chapels and icons were erected by sub-groups or individuals within the community. All Chinese temples conformed to a single general model in terms of architecture, layout, and symbolic vocabulary. A temple belongs either to the clerical, or more often, the lay community that built it, so most temples can not be deemed Daoist, Buddhist, or Confucianor even "syncretic"rather, they are the meeting place for communities constituted in their alliance with their saints. Only temples built by clerical communitiesthat is, Buddhist and Daoist monasteries, and Confucian academiescan be said to belong to a definite religion. Temple community leaders are chosen, usually every year, by a combination of bids (leaders are usually wealthy locals who pay dearly for the symbolic capital of religious leadership), rotation, and election by the god (divination, drawing by lots); they preside over the rituals and manage temple assets and regulations.

Temples can hire religious specialists, and many of the larger temples who can afford it do so. Among specialists, Buddhists or Daoists are hired as temple managers (zhuchi ) on a contractual basis: they are financially supported (by temple land endowments and community taxes) and can adopt and train the disciples of their choice; they have to manage the temple's day-to-day liturgical life, under the supervision of temple community leaders. They might lose their positions if they appropriate temple property or gravely misbehave. Occasionally, Buddhist managers are replaced with Daoist ones and vice versa, so the confessional affiliation of the resident cleric and that of the temple are two clearly separate questions. Male or female clerics can be temple managers; in the early twenty-first century, estimates of the proportion of women in these roles range between 25 and 30 percent. Buddhists and Daoists not living in the temple can be contracted to perform scheduled rituals; they are also available to families and individuals for death rituals and other services (such as exorcisms or consecrations). Parish systems are rare, and families are free to hire the cleric of their choice if they can afford it. Confucian clerics (lisheng, males only) almost never work as temple managers, but they may be invited to preside over sacrifices or family rites (notably funerals).

Other non-clerical specialists also work full-time or by invitation in temples and for families. Diviners help laypersons to interpret oracles, notably those communications obtained through divination sticks (lingqian, sets of oracular poems; some sets are devoted specifically to medical queries, yaoqian ). Some Buddhists and Daoists double as diviners, but this service is often provided by professional diviners, yinyang xiansheng, sometimes doubling as geomancers. Spirit-mediums, trained and ordained by Daoists, are important temple specialists, acting either during festivals or on a regular schedule (for example, holding sessions once a week). Laypersons can come and ask questions (such as advice on upcoming decisions or requests for cures) to the god through the medium; the latter answers either verbally (with an interpreter at hand) or writes a talisman (sometimes with his or her own blood) that can protect or heal. In the village world, many spirit-mediums and healers work at home, independently from temples: they maintain an altar with their own favorite deities, and can heal petitioners' illnesses through a combination of divination, propitiations, and exorcism. Both men and women can become spirit-mediums or healers; they need only to be called by the gods (a vocation which is often resisted), and to develop charisma; in modern times, women healers seem to have become more numerous. Spirit-mediums and healers' own deities are extremely varied, but fox spirits are very common throughout Northern China, and groups of five exorcistic deities (Wutong, Wuchang) predominate in southern China.

Yet another category of specialist is the spiritual master who teaches self-development techniques, from yangsheng, cultivation of health to achieve long life (through breathing techniques, dietetics, gymnastics, and sexual techniques) to more elaborate and demanding body-and-mind practices designed to produce supra-normal powers and eventually salvation (as an immortal). Among these masters, Daoists and Buddhists compete with sectarian leaders, martial artists, and doctors of Chinese medicine.

Popular religion, State and Society

Popular religion and the state have a long history of complicated relationships. Until the twentieth century, anti-superstition campaigns, Chinese religion, and local cults in particular had never been completely banned: territorial, clan, and corporation cults were mostly recognized as orthodox, and their liturgy, notably sacrifices, was Confucian, that is, the same as that practiced by the state cults. On the other hand, the imperial state has always tried to curtail the number and the size of temple cults, for a host of theological, economic, and socio-political reasons. Most often, the state has limited the number of cults in which commoners were allowed to participate, even though such laws seem to have been consistently ignored throughout history. The state has recognized certain local cults by integrating them into its own register of sacrifices(sidian ); all other cults were deemed yinsi, a complex notion meaning "profligate," "immoral," or "wanton," that is, causing financial and emotional excesses and eventually bearing no graces but only harm. Such immoral cults were forbidden but nonetheless remained extremely common; usually, state toleration and accommodation alternated with occasional repression, and stories of officials destroying "immoral" temples are common from the Han dynasty to the modern period. Officials also attempted to distinguish orthodox local territorial gods from forbidden devotional congregations, notably those involving women. Late imperial law forbade women to visit temples (Confucian orthodoxy aspired to confining them at home), which they nonetheless did in great numbers; large-scale women-only pilgrimage associations also were formed. Nighttime celebrations and participation of mediums were also targeted by officials, with equally little success.

Attempts at curtailing the celebrations of local temple cults were linked to a growing Confucian fundamentalism during the Ming and Qing periods. At the same time, sectarian movements were banned outright because of rebellions. For this reason, some scholars have looked at Chinese popular religion as a field of resistance to state power. For the most part, local cults do not develop an ideology of opposition and resistance; the vast majority of communities align themselves with law and order, but because religious groups were the only natural and tolerated form of social organization in imperial China, and as the individual temple communities incarnated local identity and autonomy, it is only natural that resistance movements came to be religiously organized. The twentieth-century anti-superstition destructions had much more effect on popular religion than did imperial policies, and also caused more resistance among the people.


As Chinese religion does not have a common canon and spiritual authorities, there is no unified formal theology. All cults and specialists, however, share a common cosmology. This cosmology, formed during late antiquity and the Han period, dictates that the material and spiritual realms are not separate. The universe is a whole organic system, constantly evolving according to known rules, described through operative symbols (including yin and yang, five phases, and trigrams). All beings are in constant interaction (ganying ), even at long distances. Due to their different inherent qualities and histories, beings are more or less pure and endowed with spiritual power, ling, meaning efficacy and charisma. All beingshumans, animals and even plantscan purify themselves (through morality and self-cultivation) before and after death, and thereby ascend the ladders of the spiritual hierarchy and increase their ling. Miracles and the answering of prayers are manifestations of ling. Beside these basic principles, the formulation of cosmological and theological thinking is entrusted to clerical specialists (Buddhists, Daoists, Confucians, and sometimes sectarian leaders): that is why these specialists are invited by cult communities to write texts (such as stele inscriptions, scriptures, hagiographies, and liturgical hymns) to justify their cults and practices and place them in a larger orthodox framework. These sources, in particular the stele inscriptions which are the records of temple communities, mix the external discourse of literate clerical specialists and the internal discourse of the community.

Communities and individuals by and large share similar values, especially since the Song period, which included the advent of a common ethics (integrating elements of Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist origins) that was expressed in morality books. All practitioners agree that actions carry retribution (conceived either as automatic karma accounting, or, more often, as a post-mortem judicial process administered in courts of hell), and this concept determines the fate of each human (and animal) being after death. The theological exegesis provided by specialists is supplemented by an abundance of "popular theology," mostly in accord with clerical formulations, that expresses itself in genres such as the novel or the opera. Vernacular novels such as Fengshen yanyi, Xiyou ji, or Shuihu zhuan, have played a major role in transmitting lore on gods and ritual; moreover, their authors have even been accused by some officials of encouraging heterodoxy and inspiring rebellions.

Who are the deities? Anthropologists have found that most Chinese divide the realm of other-worldly beings into three categoriesgods, ghosts and ancestorsand indeed, similar distinctions already existed before the Han period. These are not strictly separate categories, however, as the ancestors of one group are the ghosts of another, and as both ghosts and ancestors can become gods. Ancestors are those who, having gone through a good death, and being subsequently fed by their patrilineal descendants, stay with them at a carefully maintained distance. Ghosts and demons are those who have suffered a bad death (early death, suicide, dismemberment, and other unnatural circumstancesthe demonology is very rich) and who could not be ritually installed as ancestors. They roam around, seeking vengeance, and they can cause illnesses and accidents. Ghosts and demons have to be kept at bay, which includes being bribed by sacrifices (notably during their seventh-month propitiation ceremony) and disempowered by exorcisms. Gods (shen ) are also dead human beings endowed with exceptional ling (due to morality and fortitude). Although many gods are, like ghosts, victims of bad death, unlike ancestors, they are thought to work mostly for the good of humans, especially those orthodox gods (zhengshen ) who have a privileged position in the spiritual bureaucracy. Nearly all gods, ghosts, and ancestors are dead humans, with a history, birthdays and death days to be celebrated, and traces left on earth (places where they committed such and such acts of prowess; however, there is little cult worship of relics outside of the Buddhist context). For this reason, local gods, notably those who were canonized by the state or by the Daoists, can also be referred to as saints. In addition, there are a few nature gods and pure Daoist stellar deities that are not dead humans.

All cults are reciprocal, contractual relations between a human community and a deity. The community nourishes (through sacrifices) and houses (in temples) the deity in exchange for the god's support. If support and miracles fail to happen, the cult dies out, and new cults arise. Since each community contracts its own relationship with its deity and freely elaborates its hagiography and iconography, there is no cohesive pantheon structuring all of the deities. There are many concurrent pantheons: the liturgical pantheons of the Daoists, Buddhists, and Confucians, which are more or less unified throughout China, as well as those of the innumerable communities; there are also regional pantheons integrating local gods in the framework of common rituals, myths, and temple cult alliances within one area. Although they only overlap partially, these various pantheons do not really contradict one another. Many gods are known nationwide, whereas most local saints are unheard of outside of their home county. Nationwide gods usually have been canonized by both the state and Daoism, and most of them rose to regional and national status during the pivotal Song-Yuan period. The most common ones include emperor Guan (Guandi, full name Guan Yu, a martial and upright hero, known as the god of war), Zhenwu (a Daoist saint, also a martial deity), Mazu (a fisherwoman patron saint of boatmen), Eastern Peak (Mount Taishan, head of the netherworld courts), Lü Dongbin (an alchemist saint, healer, and instructor through spirit-writing), Wenchang (a Daoist patron saint of scholars and spirit-writing morality books). Some gods are specialized in certain services (such as healing or granting rain) but most local saints will answer any prayer. It is, moreover, difficult to associate a god with definite values or beliefs, as a god can mean very different things in different communities.

One fundamental structure of Chinese pantheons is the bureaucratic metaphor, that is, the idea that gods fill positions in a bureaucracy, are promoted or demoted, and have to answer to higher authorities. The head of this pantheon is Yuhuang, the Jade emperor god, commonly called Heaven. Yet, whereas many authors have taken this bureaucratic metaphor as a way to project human society and the imperial political system onto the other world (a thesis followed by scholars who think that religion merely reflects socio-political realities without any autonomous agency), there are many differences between the human world, even in idealized form, and the way the Chinese say the other world works. First, many deities, notably territorial gods (Chenghuang and tudi gong ), are mostly officials within a hierarchical system (the Chinese often say "our gods are our officials"), but many others work from outside the spiritual bureaucracy, either as benevolent mediators (Guanyin and the Daoist immortals) or as outsiders, helping their devotees in an exclusive relationship that is not validated by inclusion in larger symbolical schemes. The bureaucratic metaphor accommodates both integration with larger, pan-Chinese political and symbolical systems and of the need for autonomy and self-defense from the intrusions of such systems. At the same time, there is a gendered aspect of such oppositions: male deities tend to be territorial and bureaucratic, and ascriptive communities are often managed by male worthies; while female deities tend to operate from outside hierarchical pantheons, and voluntary congregations are the main venues for the activities of women. Both men and women, however, share the same goal: salvation through becoming ancestors or gods.


The Chinese religion's economy of salvation offers several channels for both individual and communal interaction with deities, thereby fulfilling worldly needs and providing ultimate salvation. Temples are not open at all times to individuals. People tend to visit on certain occasions: the temple festival, New Year's Day, and on the first and fifteenth day of each month in the lunar calendarthe official suppression of which during the late 1920s was meant to eradicate superstitions. People usually visit temples when they have a prayer to address to deities, as there is no compulsory attendance in Chinese religion (however, all must pay taxes to the local territorial temple and clan shrine). Beside burning incense, devotees bring offerings (foodstuffs, candles, flowers, and cash donations) and formulate their prayer, either orally or, if there is a clerical specialist present, in a formal written request (shu ), prepared by the cleric and burnt (all messages and offerings to gods are sent to them through fire). Written petitions to deities existed as early as late antiquity and have been developed by Daoism; they are used particularly when the devotee feels he or she has been the victim of wrongdoing and seeks justice through the gods; ordeals may also be staged. The objects of prayers are naturally those of most common concern to Chinese people: health, prosperity, children and continuation of lineages, favorable weather and agriculture, and business success.

Prayers are normally accompanied by a vow (yuan ). When praying, the devotee promises (xuyuan ) to do something (give a donation, build a new temple, engage in charity, make a pilgrimage, or become a vegetarian); if the prayer is answered, she or he returns to the temple to make good on the promise (huanyuan ). Temples, as well as home altars of spirit-mediums and other specialists are full of votive offerings (such as wooden boards, furniture, banners, and other decorative elements) carrying the name and words of thanks of those who did huanyuan and bear witness to the god's efficacy. People who have been cured by a religious specialist or a god often become the adopted son or daughter of the specialist or god through ritual adoption. Healing seems to have always been the most common cause for an individual converting to a community or a cult.

The communal liturgy of Chinese local cults is the temple festival, miaohui or saihui, usually held to commemorate the birthday of the main god. A festival combines several elements: clerical liturgy, sacrifice, performing arts and processions, as well as socio-economic functions (a temple fair or market is organized, and allied communities are invited). Daoists or Buddhists are often contracted to perform grand classical liturgy, which is fundamental for integrating the cult in the larger scheme of Chinese civilization, notably the Daoist jiao ritual that places the community and its gods into a cosmic alliance and its economy of universal salvation. For this reason, scholars have described Daoism as the liturgical framework of local cults. Local saints, except for some Buddhist and Daoist vegetarian saints, are also honored with animal sacrifices. Since the Song period, after the formation of the beef taboo (which reserved sacrifices of oxen or buffalo and consumption of beef to certain imperial and purely Confucian cults), sacrificial victims are pigs, sheep or goats, and smaller animals (such as poultry or fish). As in sacrificial traditions worldwide, the meat is first tasted by the deities, thereby sanctified, and eventually shared by the community during a banquet. Buddhists and Daoists usually take little part in this sacrifice, however, that often follows a Confucian liturgy. The ostentatious and competitive aspect of festivals is apparent; different families or congregations compete to see who can provide the largest and most spectacular offerings.

At the same time, local vernacular liturgy is performed outside the temple. Processions are an important part of temple festivals, particularly for territorial cults; these processions precisely follow the boundaries of the territory or jurisdiction of the god; they have also an exorcistic value (expelling ghosts and demons and all pestilence from the community) and spirit-mediums play a major role. Processions also include voluntary devotional associations that perform martial art, farces, stilt walking, lion dances, and other kinds of popular shows. In front of the temple, operas are performed for the gods and community members. One particularly important opera, found throughout China, is the Mulian cycle, which tells the story of the monk who visited the hells looking for her sinful mother and managed to save her, as well as all the other suffering souls. Mulian plays are staged during the seventh month at the same time as the large-scale celebrations (which are colloquially known as ghost festivals) that try to save all suffering (and potentially malefic) ghosts and demons of the community, thus serving as communal exorcism, remembrance, and expiation of bad conscience. Mulian plays are dramatic, entertaining, and highly didactic, as the travel through the hells allows the actors to dramatize their values and beliefs regarding morality and retribution.

Scholarship and historiography

Because Chinese official historiography documents poorly and in a very biased way all local, non-clerical religious institutions and practices (in fact, most of them document repression and conflict), historians have long underestimated the extent, variety, and vitality of local religion. Only a few historians and folklorists (such as Sawada Mizuho), who study anecdotes and other narrative sources, have been able to address the complexity of past religious culture. The study of popular religion has been conducted mostly by anthropologists, first in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and overseas communities, and since the 1980s in mainland China. Among the pioneers were K. Schipper, S. Feuchtwang, D. Jordan, and S. Sangren, all of whom worked in Taiwan, following up on late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century observers, often missionaries (J. de Groot, C. Day, J. Shryock, W. Grootaers). Since the 1970s, historians have supplemented the theories of anthropologists with written material, notably regarding sectarian movements (S. Naquin, D. Overmyer, B. ter Haar) or local cults (P. Katz). One very influential paradigm, formulated mostly from a sociological perspective by C.K. Yang, was that Chinese popular religion was "diffuse" (transmitted by families and through shared values, rather than through institutions). With the renewal of temple cults and other large-scale organizations on the mainland since the 1980s, however, and the discovery of huge amounts of written material produced by these cults and found in the field, social scientists have had to reconsider the importance, not only of the religious beliefs and values, but also of the social structures of local religion in premodern and modern Chinese society. During the 1990s, researchers led important efforts to collect and publish written material found in the context of local cults; these studies have greatly expanded knowledge of the field, notably the Taiwanese-led projects around the journal Minsu quyi and related collections. Materials include scripts of rituals (performed by local Daoist lineages or other specialists) and operas, hagiographies, stele inscriptions, and records of pious associations.

At the same time, theories elaborated on the basis of early fieldwork in Taiwan and Hong Kong are beginning to be challenged or refined, thanks to observations in inland provinces; some of these provinces, although inhabited by tens of millions of people, are still poorly documented. Much research on Chinese popular religion has dealt with the question of diversity: Are popular and elite religious ideas and practices different enough to justify the notion of two different religions, or are they just varying expressions of a fundamentally unique religious tradition? This debate has been brought to more subtle levels by discussing ways in which attempts, mostly by late imperial and modern elite, to bring unity (hegemony) to religious representations and practices partially succeeded, shaping the discourse of the villagers in a Confucian framework, and partially failed, as villagers are able to maintain their cults and rituals under the appearance of Confucian orthodoxy. Another topic of Chinese religion with questions of unity or diversity is the liturgical calendar. The basic structure of the calendar is the same throughout the Chinese world, with the new year event (a family celebration of renewal and settling accounts with both humans and Heaven), rites for ancestors, propitiation of ghosts and demons during the seventh month; yet at the same time, much variety exists among regional and local yearly events.

See Also

Afterlife, article on Chinese Concepts; Ancestors, article on Ancestor Worship; Divination; Domestic Observances, article on Chinese Practices; Millenarianism, article on Chinese Millenarian Movements; Soul, article on Chinese Concepts.


Clart, Philip. "Confucius and the Mediums: Is There a 'Popular Confucianism'?" T'oung Pao 89, nos. 13 (2003): 138. On twentieth-century spirit-writing cults as popular Confucianism.

Cohen, Myron. "Shared Beliefs: Corporations, Community and Religion among the South Taiwan Hakka during the Ch'ing." Late Imperial China 14, no. 1 (1993): 133. A sociological approach of religious organizations.

Dean, Kenneth. Daoist Ritual and Popular Cults of South-east China. Princeton, N.J., 1993. A superb fieldwork and comprehensive description of how Daoists provide a "liturgical framework" for local cults.

Dean, Kenneth. "Transformations of the She (Altars of the Soil) in Fujian." Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie 10 (1998): 1975. A history of territorial cults and their evolution through the early modern period.

Durand-Dastes, Vincent. "Prodiges ambigus. Les récits non-canoniques sur le surnaturel entre histoire religieuse, histoire littéraire et anthropologie." Revue bibliographique de sinologie (2002): 317343. An excellent historiographic discussion on the use of narrative literature for the study of popular religion.

Feuchtwang, Stephan. Popular Religion in China: The Imperial Metaphor. London, 2001. A classic, theoretically complex, but comprehensive discussion of popular religion in a Taiwanese village.

Goossaert, Vincent. Dans les temples de la Chine: Histoire des cultes, vie des communautés. Paris, 2000. A synthetic introduction to Chinese temples.

Goossaert, Vincent. "Le destin de la religion chinoise au 20e siècle." Social Compass 50, no. 4 (2003): 429440. A first discussion of the modern history of Chinese religion, faced with anti-superstition campaigns, temple destruction, and the birth of scholarly study of local cults.

Guo, Qitao. Exorcism and Money: The Symbolic World of the Five-Fury Spirits in Late Imperial China. Berkeley, Calif., 2003. How ambiguous exorcist gods became integrated in orthodox local ritual in sixteenth-century Huizhou (Anhui province).

ter Haar, Barend. "Local Society and the Organization of Cults in Early Modern China: A Preliminary Study." Studies in Central and East Asian Religions 8 (1995): 143. Temple cults and their social organization as seen by an historian.

Hansen, Valerie. Changing Gods in Medieval China, 1127 1276. Princeton, N.J., 1990. An authoritative study on the birth of regional and national cults.

Katz, Paul. Demon Hordes and Burning Boats: The Cult of Marshal Wen in Late Imperial Chekiang. Albany, N.Y., 1995. A local cult, seen through history, hagiography, and ritual.

Lopez, Donald S., ed. Religions of China in Practice. Princeton, N.J., 1996. A very readable selection of important primary sources from antiquity to the present.

Naquin, Susan. Peking: Temples and City Life, 1400 1900. Berkeley, Calif., 2000. A very detailed study of urban temples, their history, and their functions.

Overmyer, Daniel. "From 'Feudal Superstitions' to 'Popular Beliefs': New Directions in Mainland Chinese Studies of Chinese Popular Religion." Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie 12 (2001): 103126. A critical discussion of the nascent Chinese scholarship, clarifying many complex terminology and conceptual issues.

Poo, Mu-chou. In Search of Personal Welfare: A View of Ancient Chinese Religion. Albany, N.Y., 1998. A comprehensive discussion of early Chinese common religion.

Sangren, Steven P. "Traditional Chinese Corporations: Beyond Kinship." Journal of Asian Studies 43, no. 3 (1984): 391415. An excellent argument for a comparative approach of the different forms of religious organizations in Chinese society.

Schipper, Kristofer. "Neighborhood Cult Associations in Traditional Tainan." In The City in Late Imperial China, edited by William G. Skinner, pp. 651676. Stanford, Calif., 1977. A seminal study on territorial communities.

Schipper, Kristofer. "Structures Liturgiques et société civile à Pékin." Sanjiao wenxian 1 (1997): 923. The religious organization in early modern Beijing.

Sutton, Donald. "From Credulity to Scorn: Confucians Confront the Spirit Mediums in Late Imperial China." Late Imperial China 21, no. 2 (2000): 139. The growing Confucian fundamentalism turning against the most important specialists of popular religion.

Wolf, Arthur P. "Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors." In Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society, edited by Arthur P. Wolf, pp. 131182. Stanford, Calif., 1974. The classical study on popular theology.

Yang, C.K. (Yang, Qingkun). Religion in Chinese Society. Berkeley, Calif., 1961. The classical analysis of Chinese popular religion as diffuse religion.

Yü, Chün-fang. Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara. New York, 2001. A superb history of how the Buddhist bodhisattva Guanyin became a popular Chinese goddess.

Vincent Goossaert (2005)

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