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Local Deities and Worthy Men of Song

Local Deities and Worthy Men of Song


Popular Gods. The expanding markets in Song times (960-1279) had great impact on the worship of popular gods. In addition to supporting Buddhist and Daoist monasteries, each district in Song China had a group of temples devoted to local gods. Many of these deities had been human beings who came to be adored in their native districts after their deaths. Nature divinities—including tree, mountain, and river gods—were also worshiped. These gods achieved miracles suitable to the agricultural society from which they sprang. Local people prayed to them in order to bring or stop rain, to hold off drought and locusts, and to defend them from disease, food shortages, and the dangers of childbirth.

Seeking Help. Lay people could confer with a host of religious specialists, who might in some cases be affiliated with Buddhism and Daoism. They could pray directly to deities for help while they were in search of some person, or god with the power to perform miracles, which they called Ling (efficiency). For example, if someone, whether human or divine, could cure an ill person or make it rain, then people would seek their help irrespective of their religious affiliation.

Good Luck Charms. Merchants and traders who traveled to buy and sell goods often carried their gods with them. Worshiping a Six Dynasty hero, for instance, some merchants grew lotus pods and roots that they sold at market, and they credited their god with sending rain that swept locusts away from their precious lotuses. Traders also credited their gods with keeping them safe, even when traveling far from home on business.

Shrines to the Local Worthy. During the Song dynasty temples to popular deities were not the only religious institutions located in the countryside, although their numbers were expanding. Alongside these temples were shrines, frequently situated in schools or Confucian academies, that were dedicated to worthy men. Unlike the gods, these men were honored for having accomplished good deeds in life, and they had no divine powers. Most had been noted statesmen, bureaucrats, generals, or writers. They were native residents, whose memories the community attempted to keep alive by setting up a tablet in a shrine to them. Many had been highly moral local officials. The shrines, sites of worship, and memorial halls were established to encourage people to imitate the achievements of these dead notables. From time to time students and teachers came to these shrines to offer incense and foodstuffs as an expression of respect for the privileged dead.

Shrines to the National Worthy. While the temples of popular deities and shrines to worthy men were of local character, some were constructed in communities with no direct relations to the deified men. The honored individuals had not been born in, had not served as officials in, and had never even visited these communities. Temples of this sort, for example, were constructed all over south China to honor three well-known philosophers: Zhou Dunyi, Cheng Yi, and Cheng Hao.


Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600 (New York: Norton, 2000).

Robert P. Hymes, Statesmen and Gentlemen: The Elite of Fu-chou, Chiang-hsi, in Northern and Southern Sung (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Brian E. McKnight, Village and Bureaucracy in Southern Sung China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971).

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