Folk Religion, China

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Much has been written about Buddhism's conversation with Confucianism and Daoism since its arrival in China by the first century c.e. While the role of these two systems of ideas and values in Chinese culture cannot be denied, it must be kept in mind that the religious attitudes of the vast majority of the Chinese people never were directly derived from Confucianism or Daoism, but rather from folk religion. Folk (or popular) religion negotiates the relationship of the individual, the family, and the local community with the spirit world by means of beliefs and practices that are transmitted outside the canonical scriptural traditions of China. Often this transmission is oral, but there also exists a long tradition of popular written texts recording myths, rituals, and scriptures. Buddhism's success in China can be measured directly by its impact on this religion of the people.

One major area of Buddhist influence on Chinese folk religion concerns conceptions of the afterlife. Pre-Buddhist ideas distinguished between various paradisiacal realms and a vaguely defined underworld called the Yellow Springs, but there seems to have been no clear link between one's posthumous fate and one's conduct while living. The introduction of such a link by means of the concepts of karma (action), rebirth, and hell (or purgatory) led to a fundamental restructuring of Chinese conceptions of the afterlife, furnishing it with a complete set of hells, reigned over by ten kings, in which the soul of the deceased undergoes a series of punishments in accord with its karmic burden before eventually being reborn. By the seventh century, this new view of the afterlife had already gained some acceptance, and in the following centuries new texts and liturgies for its propagation and ritual negotiation emerged.

Karma linked the afterlife with individual effort, which created the terrifying realm of hell, but also opened up new possibilities for salvation. Here, too, Buddhism made a major contribution by offering the saving compassion of its buddhas and bodhisattvas. From the third century onward, Pure Land Buddhism became the most popular school in China, holding out as it did the hope of rebirth into AmitĀbha Buddha's Western Paradise. The Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, who until the tenth century was mostly portrayed as male, gradually came to be visualized as female. Eventually he became the goddess Guanyin, the quintessential personification of compassion and one of the most widespread deities of folk religion. Other Buddhist figures that played an important role in folk religion include KṢitigarbha (Dizang Wang Pusa), Maitreya (Mile Fo), Yama (Yanluo Wang), the Eighteen arhats (Lohan), and MahĀmaudgalyĀyana (Mulian).

Buddhist saints—revered masters or miracle workers—sometimes became objects of worship, their mortuary stŪpas or mummified bodies attracting large numbers of pilgrims praying for blessings and protection. A very popular deity in modern Chinese folk religion, the Living Buddha Jigong (Jigong Huofo), originated in stories surrounding an unconventional Buddhist monk who lived in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, around the turn of the thirteenth century. While the cult of Jigong spread far beyond its Hangzhou home base, the Patriarch of the Clear Stream (Qingshui Zushi) is an example of a regional deity that developed from the cult of an eleventh-century miracle-working Buddhist monk in Fujian province and remains largely confined to the Anxi area of Fujian and areas settled by Anxi emigrants in Taiwan and Southeast Asia. As bodhisattvas, buddhas, and eminent monks became deities within Chinese folk religion, they were also removed from the doctrinal control of the saṄgha and often took on novel features. The cult of Qingshui Zushi, for example, adopted more and more Daoist elements, so that today its Buddhist origins are barely recognizable. The Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, in the guise of the female Guanyin, became a multifunctional deity who, among many other concerns, is believed to grant children to her faithful, thus earning her the name Songzi Guanyin (Child-Giving Guanyin).

While Buddhism contributed new deities to folk religion, it in turn adopted popular deities into its own pantheon, albeit usually only in a subservient position. There exist many stories of Buddhist pioneers converting local deities or demons to Buddhism and making them guardian spirits of their newly founded monasteries, thus symbolically subordinating local religion to Buddhism. The most famous case of such subordination is the adoption of the powerful folk deity Guan Gong as a tutelary spirit of Buddhist shrines.

In spite of such attempts at symbolic hegemony, Buddhism never came to dominate Chinese folk religion, either symbolically or institutionally. The saṅgha's deliberate separation from local communities limited its influence on their religious life, but gave it at the same time opportunities for ritual interaction. The strong association of Chinese Buddhism with concepts of the afterlife combined with the saṅgha's separateness to provide Buddhist monks and nuns with unique qualifications as providers of ritual services for the dead. In many areas of China, mortuary rites and rituals performed for the benefit of ghosts are predominantly supplied by Buddhist practitioners. Such practitioners include not only formally ordained monks and nuns, but also the followers of Buddhist-inclined lay sects, which in some areas had a more immediate impact as carriers of Buddhist ideas than the mainstream saṅgha. An example is the role of the Dragon Flower Sect (Longhua Pai) in nineteenth-century Taiwan, where, in the absence of a well-established monastic community, sectarians fulfilled many of the ritual functions that elsewhere were the domain of the ordained Buddhist clergy. Such sects arose in large numbers from the fourteenth century onward. They drew their inspiration ecumenically from all religious traditions of China, but in many of them the soteriological promise of the Pure Land combined with the eschatological expectation of the buddha Maitreya to infuse them with a distinctly Buddhist flavor. For this reason they have at times been characterized as "folk Buddhist."

In these ways Buddhism helped to shape Chinese folk religion and was in turn shaped by it. In the process, it contributed a significant number of the pieces that make up the rich mosaic of religious life in Chinese communities.

See also:Apocrypha; Confucianism and Buddhism; Daoism and Buddhism; Entertainment and Performance; Ghosts and Spirits; Local Divinities and Buddhism; Merit and Merit-Making; Syncretic Sects: Three Teachings


Dean, Kenneth. Taoist Ritual and Popular Cults of Southeast China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Overmyer, Daniel L. Folk Buddhist Religion: Dissenting Sects in Late Traditional China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Teiser, Stephen F. The Ghost Festival in Medieval China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Teiser, Stephen F. The Scripture on the Ten Kings and the Making of Purgatory in Medieval Chinese Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

Yü, Chün-fang. Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteśvara. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Philip Clart