Wood engraving of a Thunder God. Throughout the premodern era the masses of the Chinese people, most of whom lived in small rural villages, remained faithful to their local gods. But they also perceived that the world was inhabited and affected by great numbers of unseen forces and beings. The objective of folk religion was to enlist the more benevolent of those forces to protect the social and economic interests of the local community.
Throughout the history of China, folk religion maintained its fundamental importance to the people, even after the development of Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. The beliefs, rituals, and morality of these latter streams of institutionalized religious belief intermingled and coexisted with folk religion to create an eclectic spiritual culture that characterizes Chinese culture to this day.
Since their beginnings more than 2,000 years ago, the major organized religions of China (Daoism ??, Buddhism ??, and Confucian-based state religion ??) were never powerful or popular enough to displace completely the communal religion of the people. Instead, they have had to remain satisfied with sharing the spiritual loyalties of the people with community- and family-based religious observances. But these textual religions have been successful in infusing communal religion with some of their doctrines and traditions. For example, the Buddhist vision of Hell and the afterlife became the commonly accepted vision among all Chinese, Confucian morality penetrated deeply into the everyday morality of the common people, and the Daoist pantheon was largely fused with the pantheon of communal religion. This was one of the ways that Daoist priests were able to establish themselves as the elite religious authorities for both the common people and the state, but the masses of the Chinese people, most of whom lived in small rural villages, always remained faithful to their local gods. Only under the most dire circumstances, when famine, military unrest, or natural disaster destroyed their villages and livelihoods, did they voluntarily throw their support behind charismatic religious leaders from a variety of religious persuasions. Such leaders often promised to lead the people out of their misery and into some divine utopia, but often the final destination was dystopian rebellion.
Because Chinese culture has been spread over a vast geographic area, it developed many regional variations. It is therefore extremely difficult to give a definitive description of the general characteristics of the national communal religion, or even say for certain if such a religion existed. Despite regional differences, however, Chinese culture was remarkably integrated, and that makes it possible to identify some universal qualities. Also, because the major religious traditions worked hard to infiltrate the religion of the people, they inevitably left their marks and these factors serve to provide some consistency of belief from one region to another.
Characteristics of Popular Religion
To the common people of premodern China, as for those in most premodern societies, the natural world was inhabited by a great number of unseen forces and beings. The objective of popular religion always was to enlist the assistance of the more benevolent of those forces to protect the social and economic interests of the local community. On the other side of the spiritual spectrum, a variety of methods were used to defend against malevolent forces. Certain divinities were identified as being primarily responsible for maintaining order in the unseen world, just as certain authority figures were charged with ensuring the smooth functioning of the material world. One of the most striking features of the Chinese conception of divinity is the manner in which the gods were thought to operate through a centralized bureaucratic government, undeniably patterned after a vulgar vision of the imperial government in traditional China. Gods were endowed with titles and often were responsible for well-defined administrative tasks. They were also surrounded and waited upon by legion subalterns and personal attendants. The means of communicating with the gods also, fairly naturally, replicated the manner of dealing with officials of the mundane imperial government: Requests were made via formally worded memorials and necessarily passed through the hands of lower-level functionaries. Sacrifices and temple celebrations were compared with official banquets at which local people entertained visiting government representatives with lavish offerings of food and wine.
Another curious but significant aspect of the relationship between humans and the divine in China was the fact that the gods were assumed to be subject to human authority in some respects, or at least that they existed in a relationship of mutual obligation with humans. Priests of various affiliations, as well as government officials, could issue orders to the officials of the unseen world. Depending on the level of their bureaucratic rank, mundane officials could even promote or demote those holding positions in the divine bureaucracy. Punishment for spirits who had not fulfilled their correct roles was also sometimes necessary. The official titles carried by certain prominent gods were often bestowed by the imperial government in recognition of the gods’ service to humans.
In any village or city of medieval China it would have been possible to find many temples, large and small, that housed gods who were believed to possess powers specific or general. They might protect against natural disaster, cure illnesses, assist women in childbirth, or save sailors at sea. Sometimes there were legends to explain how a god had acquired his or her powers, sometimes there were not. The temples of these gods were maintained by the surrounding community, and for the most part there was no full-time priest in residence. When the occasion called for it, such as the celebration of the god’s birthday, or the arrival of an important juncture in the cosmic cycle, certain members of the community would preside over ceremonies. For the more important rituals, such as the annual Pudu ?? (Ulambana) rite wherein the disenfranchised and unattended spirits in Hell, commonly referred to as “hungry ghosts” (egui ??) were invited to enjoy a feast donated by the community, Daoist priests with specialized knowledge of ritual procedures would be invited; in other cases, the local magistrate would stand in as the master of ceremonies. This latter phenomenon is significant because, at least since the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), the state, which considered itself the only legitimate intermediary between the world of humans and Heaven, had maintained a religious presence in the local communities by giving their local representatives the responsibility of conducting rituals of various sorts, especially those directed toward controlling the forces of nature. Memorials addressed to the responsible divine officials begging for rain, seeking to end pestilence, or in one famous instance, asking that crocodiles refrain from consuming local village folk, were commonly composed and delivered by government officials who may have also offered gifts of cooked food and wine, or simply fragrant incense smoke as inducement.
One of the most characteristic tendencies of Chinese folk religion was the deification of real historical personalities. This usually occurred on a local level, but sometimes the popularity of such a figure might spread to other areas, or even become a national phenomenon. Very often those deified were cultural heroes, people who had distinguished themselves b
y their moral strength or military prowess. Perhaps the most famous example of this is that of the god Lord Guan (Guangong ??), whose fearsome bearded image can often be found presiding over Chinese restaurants and retail stores. Lord Guan was in life a famous and popular general from the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo ??) period (220–265 CE) who captured the popular imagination with his valiant defense of a failing imperial court. The process of deification in China was very much like the canonization of saints by the Catholic Church. The major difference was that in China, no central authority had control over who should and should not be deified. In theory, the imperial government held that authority, and it constantly tried to enshrine those whom it felt embodied values it wished to promote. Lord Guan, for example, was given several titles over the centuries, including a title indicating his divinity bestowed upon him by the Song Dynasty emperor in 1120 CE. In the vast majority of cases, however, it was the people themselves that determined the survival and popularity of a given cult, and if the people did not feel that the god was effective in helping them, his or her temple fell into disuse and disrepair in a relatively short time.
The God of the Locale
One of the most widely dispersed and oldest divinities in China is the God of the Locale (Tudi gong ???), precursors of whom can be found mentioned in the pre-dynastic classics dating from as early as 1000 BCE. Virtually every village and urban neighborhood in traditional China recognized their own version of this deity. He was the protector not only of the people of the community, but also of their livelihoods. Most people saw him as a police chief of the local underworld, and it was through his power to keep the often unruly spirits of the deceased in check that he was able to provide security on earth. While this divinity can be approached by individuals seeking assistance with a personal matter, especially a matter concerning deceased family members, the God of the Locale often was worshipped by the community as a whole. Worship was carried out in times of crisis, but also on special days, such as the god’s birthday. On these latter occasions lavish offerings of food and drink, as well as music and dance, were made, and a generally festive atmosphere prevailed. Such celebrations were a natural opportunity for the members of the community to mix informally with each other, lifting the spirits of all those involved.
The City God
Another god found in many urban Chinese communities is the City God (Chenghuang ??). City God temples are still found in virtually all Chinese cities whose founding predates the end of the dynastic period in 1912. Frequently a city will have several gods distributed among its different wards. Cults of the City God are not as old as those of the God of the Locale; they begin to appear more widely in the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) and Song dynasty (960–1279) as the result of increased urbanization during those periods. City Gods have a somewhat different role to play in the community than Gods of the Locale. They are usually recognized as the direct superior of the God of the Locale, and while the God of the Locale is most often seen as a local personality with no official position, the City God represents the higher authority of the heavenly bureaucracy. They too, have an important responsibility to protect the area under their control from disaster and to bolster its prosperity, but their influence is usually felt to be more far-reaching than that of the God of the Locale. Also, because they are considered to be appointed to their positions by higher powers, those same powers, or sometimes the local representative of the mundane imperial government, could relieve them of their posts and replace them if they did not carry out their duties properly. City Gods are generally accommodated in impressive urban temples that can serve as community centers as well as religious institutions, very much in the same way that the plazas in front of European cathedrals served as meeting places for the citizens of the city.
The family has probably been a center of Chinese ritual activity since Neolithic times. But the nature of family religion changed significantly over time as values and concepts originating in the Confucian and Buddhist traditions seeped slowly down through the social ladder from the elite to the common people. Due to its missionary efforts among the common folk, Buddhism had probably changed the basic worldview of the peasant masses by the beginning of the Tang period. But we can quite safely posit that up until the Song period Confucian ethics were primarily the exclusive preserve of the educated elite. With the explosion of printing and publishing, as well as due to expanded social mobility and the popularity of certain forms of entertainment such as professional storytelling and theatre, by the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) Confucianism had finally brought its normative, or universal, values to the common people of all regions of China, providing them with standard rituals and standard ethics. This was particularly so in the case of the cult of the ancestors. Although ancestor worship appears in the earliest records of the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE) emperors, formal and ideological aspects of such things as funerals, weddings, and posthumous rites steadily became more imbued with Confucian values over time. This process accelerated with the acceptance of neo-Confucianism among the educated class of the Song dynasty and the Ming dynasty. Yet even today there remains considerable regional diversity in such rites.
Traditionally the Chinese believed that human destiny was not determined by effort alone: It was necessary to enlist the help of superhuman agencies to protect the interests and bring prosperity of the living. The closest, most obvious place to look for such assistance was among one’s ancestors. Ancestors were very much considered part of the family. They had moved on to a different level of existence and had special needs, but they were dealt with as if their interest in family affairs remained as strong as when they were alive.
Rituals for the ancestors were aimed at making their afterlife as comfortable as possible. Some ceremonies were also intended to assist passage through otherworldly purgatories in which the past conduct of the ancestors was judged by divine authorities. Not surprisingly, since it was Buddhism that brought the very concept of Hell and reincarnation to China in the first place, it was usually through Buddhist rituals that the ancestors awaiting delivery from Hell could be provided assistance in their progress. It was also popularly believed that only if the ancestors were well provided for materially and free from the clutches of hellish officials, that they could give their protection and assistance to living members of the family. This meant that altars to honor the ancestors were maintained in every household, and tablets with the names of the ancestors were placed there, along with offerings of food and drink. On special occasions, such as Chinese New Year or the Grave-sweeping Festival (Qingming Festival ???), more elaborate rites were enacted before those altars, at the graveside, or at a temple. On such occasions, more lavish offerings were also provided, and joss (paper) money was burned in the belief that it would be transformed by the flames and conveyed to those in the afterlife. Anyone who visits an area where traditional Chinese religion is still practiced will see small metal containers filled with ashes on the sidewalks in front of people’s houses and businesses. These are for the sole purpose of burning money for the ancestors of the family.
The ancestors were not the only spiritual presence in the Chinese househo
ld. Gods and spirits were believed to inhabit strategic locations inside and out. No doubt the most important of these was the God of the Stove (Zaoshen ??). His dominion over the cooking hearth and food-preparation area of the home guaranteed his prestige. The God of the Stove was responsible for watching over the activities of the family, and for reporting those activities to the gods in the heavens. This yearly ascent to make his report was believed to take place shortly before the New Year, and the family would prepare a feast for him to ensure that he would make only favorable comments about them.
Many houses would also have an altar to the God of the Foundation (Diji zhu ???) placed close to the ground. This deity was charged with protecting the family against low-lying evil spirits that resided near the ground. In the Chinese worldview there is general association between things issuing from the low-lying earth, and noxious, yin ? (as opposed to yang ?) vapors. Ghosts and legions of hostile demons also had an affinity for the cold earth. The role of the God of the Foundation was especially important to the preservation of spiritual and physical health in the household. Door gods (menshen ??), whose images were painted on or beside entranceways, also protected against the entry of unwelcomed spirits and ghosts. Statues of the God of Wealth (Caishen ??), the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy (Guanyin ??), and other popular divinities swelled the ranks of the Chinese pantheon during the late imperial age (Ming and Qing dynasties, 1368–1912). The help and protection of these gods was considered critical to the preservation and prosperity of the family.
Shamanism in Chinese Religion
Shamanism is a form of religion that focuses on direct contact with the world of spirits. It is the main religious and cultural tradition in many preliterate cultures. The classical description of shamanic religion was constructed by Russian anthropologists working in southern Siberia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Since that time, shamanic practices have also been identified and studied among North and South American native peoples, among the Bushmen and other tribes in Southern Africa, and among Australian aboriginal tribes, to name just a few examples. The shaman is a person, either male or female, who has can communicate with the spirits. Communication is often affected when the soul of the shaman temporarily is released from its physical body and travels to the spirits’ world, where he or she (since in many cultures the shaman is usually a woman) can speak directly with the spirits and request their assistance in human affairs. Shamans also can cause their souls to vacate their bodies, allowing the spirits to make use of their voices, and sometimes hands and feet, to address humans directly. One of the most important roles of the shaman was to cure illness. Both spiritual and medical means are employed to this end. Often it was necessary to exorcise evil influences, and the shaman was an expert at this task as well.
Although purely shamanic religion has not been practiced in China since prehistoric times, shamanic elements have remained an important part of religious practice. The kings of the Xia ? (2100–1766 BCE) and Shang ? (1766–1045 BCE) dynasties relied on the services of priests who were capable of contacting the spirits to plan their every move. Among the common people, mediums, traditionally known as wu ? (female) or xi ? (male), could enter a trance and allow spirits to speak through their mouths or write with their hands; they have been a basic part of village religion since at least the Zhou period (1045–256 BCE), and continue to be so today. Many temples still employ mediums who hold regular sessions during which popular divinities enter their bodies and provide assistance to people in need. Generally, people attending these sessions are concerned about medical issues, either their own or those of family members, but questions about business and domestic affairs are also common. This type of activity usually occurs in the local temples and without the sanction of government or organized religion. The spirits who descend to provide advice are seldom highly placed in the popular pantheon, but they do have a strong following among people at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder.
Ledgers of Merit and Demerit
Although the role of popular Chinese religion is not primarily to provide moral and ethical guidance, moral behavior is often seen as a prerequisite to the achievement of spiritual goals. As societies become more sophisticated, they require more satisfying explanations about the existence of evil. People want to believe that there are forces that provide compensation to those who have been wronged, and punishment for those who have wronged. In Chinese religion, it is believed that there are gods whose primary function is to keep track of the deeds of humans; at death, the deceased individual is brought before a tribunal of spirit-officials for judgment. Since the Chinese adopted the Buddhist concept of rebirth beginning in the period of political division following the Han dynasty when Buddhism first gained currency in China, it is often a case of determining not only which punishments or rewards should be given, but also how long these will be in force before rebirth occurs. Living descendants can modify the sentence by undertaking certain ritual activities, such as reciting Buddhist scriptures and employing Buddhist priests to intercede on behalf of the departed souls.
Beginning in roughly the third century CE in China, another variation on this theme of morality and retribution developed: the practice of maintaining one’s own personal record of good and evil deeds. The fourth-century Daoist text Baopu zi, by Ge Hong (c. 280–343) details that it was necessary to do a specific number of good deeds to proceed with the quest of immortality. Evil deeds were marked off against the total number of good deeds at a high ratio, and divine authorities ultimately verified the correctness and validity of these records. This belief continued to gain popularity until the late Song dynasty; scriptures that give detailed information on which sorts of deeds count for how many points, and how many points are required to achieve a given reward have been found dating from that time have been found among the texts recovered from the Dunhuang oasis in Gansu Province.
By the Ming dynasty, the practice of recording one’s own merits and demerits had become even more widespread and formalized. Registers for keeping track of merit and demerit points were being published both commercially and by religious establishments. Belief in the validity of the practice had also spread from Daoism and popular religion to Buddhism and Confucianism. Well-known Confucian officials and Buddhist priests were actively keeping their own records and writing about the subject. By the late Ming, moral principles from the major religions had become thoroughly mixed and universalized. This mixing and unifying of moral values is symptomatic of the strong forces of integration at work in the realms of religion and philosophy in late imperial China. Such integration, or syncretism, remains one of the most important aspects of Chinese popular religion today.
Source: Russell, Terence C.. (2009). Religion, Folk. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1873–1879. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
An historical illustration of a shrine to household gods. Ancestors were not the only spiritual presence in the Chinese household. Gods and spirits were believed to inhabit strategic locations inside and out.
Two door gods. Door gods (menshen), are traditionally hung, painted on, or placed beside entranceways during the Chinese New Year. Their images prevent unwelcome spirits and ghosts from gaining access to the house.
Traditional house on the South China coast. Two posters featuring door guardians provide protection from evil spirits. Verses written in couplets that convey good thoughts hang on both sides of doorway, and an auspicious greeting hangs above. Another household deity, the God of the Foundation, was especially important in preserving the spiritual and physical health of those who lived in the house. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Religion, Folk (Mínji?n z?ngjiào ????)|Mínji?n z?ngjiào ???? (Religion, Folk)