local religion

local religion
Rural society in China is intensely local in orientation, and as a result, villages or clusters of villages often maintain characteristic traditions of religious practice. Religion celebrates local tradition by preserving idiosyncratic festivals, and benefits the community by ensuring divine blessing. In addition, the religious resources of local society are also employed in the religious lives of families and individuals. Although suppressed during the first three decades of the People’s Republic, local religion began to revive during the late 1970s.
Local religion can be focused on material resources, such as shrines and temples, or a tradition of performance, such as religious opera or sectarian ritual. During the early twentieth century, most villages had at least one temple, even if only small shrines to the tutelary deity, and the calendar of local festivals revolved around the worship of temple gods. However, the prominence of village temples also made them easy targets; many were destroyed in the political campaigns and warfare of the early twentieth century, and most of those which remained were appropriated or razed during the 1950s and 1960s.
Especially before 1949, ritual practice was often the responsibility of local religious specialists. The Jiangnan region supported tens of thousands of Buddhist monks, and even poorer villages of north China often had a monk or Daoist priest (see Daoist priests) residing nearby. In other cases, lay villagers acted as specialists, performing elaborate rituals on important days in the liturgical calendar, such as the New Year, as well as on days of local significance, such as the birthdays of temple deities. The form of these festivals was shaped by local custom. In rural Shanxi province, local festivals were operatic rituals called sai, which were performed either by professionals or by villagers. Elsewhere in north China, ritual performance consisted of scripture recitation by sectarians. After 1949, the official definition of religion was construed so as to exclude local religious specialists, who were branded as exploitative. Even ritual performed by peasants themselves was banned as feudal superstition, and by the mid 1960s, local religious practice almost completely ceased.
After 1979, local religion began a period of cautious revival. Often, this was specifically a restoration of pre-1949 local religious customs. Areas along the southeast coast have reconstituted temple cults and rebuilt extensive temple networks, even reaching out to Taiwan or overseas communities for funding. Villages in north China have revived operatic and sectarian ritual, often after great efforts to retrain specialists. As often, local religion has been created along more general lines, without specific regard for earlier village customs.
At the same time, although official policy is not always enforced with great diligence, it has shaped the revival of local religion. Many groups, such as Yiguan Dao, Protestant house churches, and especially Falun gong, are regarded as a continuing threat, and must remain underground. Other groups have fended off criticism by portraying their practices as orthodox Buddhism or Daoism, or else not as religion at all, but simply ‘folk culture’. In addition, local religion is a significant tourist attraction, as with sanctioned minority festivals, such as the Tai (Dai) Water Splashing Festival, and invented traditions like the Chrysanthemum Festival celebrated in towns along the Hong Kong border.
Chau, Adam Yuet (2001). ‘The Dragon King Valley: Popular Religion, Socialist State, and Agrarian Society in Shaanbei, North China’. PhD diss., Stanford University.
Dean, Kenneth (2001). ‘China’s Second Government: Regional Religious Systems in Southeast China’. In Wang Ch’iu-kui, Chuang Ying-chang and Cheng Chung-min (eds), Shehui, minzu yü wenhua zhanyan huoji yantaohui lunwenji. Taipei: Hanxue yanjiu zhongxin, 77–107.
——(2003). ‘Local Communal Religion in Contemporary South-east China’. In Daniel Overmyer (ed.), Religion in China Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 32–52.
Fan, Lizhu (2003). The Cult of the Silkworm Mother as a Core of Local Community Religion in a North China Village: Field Study in Zhiwuying, Baoding, Hebei’. In Daniel Overmyer (ed.), Religion in China Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 53–66.
Flower, John and Leonard, Pamela (1998). ‘Defining Cultural Life in the Chinese Countryside: The Case of the Chuan Zhu Temple’. In Eduard Vermeer, Frank N.Pieke and Woei Lien Chong (eds), Cooperative and Collective in China’s Rural Development: Between State and Private Interests. Armonk, NY: M.E.Sharpe, 273–90.
Judd, Ellen (1996). ‘Ritual Opera and the Bonds of Authority: Transformation and Transcendence’. In Bell Yung, Evelyn Sakakida Rawski and Rubie S.Watson (eds), Harmony and Counterpoint—Ritual Music in a Chinese Context. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 226–48.
Liu, Tik-sang (2003). ‘Nameless but Active Religion: An Anthropologist’s View of Local Religion in Hong Kong and Macau’. In Daniel Overmyer (ed.), Religion in China Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 67–88.
Yang, Mayfair Mei-hui (2000). ‘Putting Global Capitalism in Its Place: Economic Hybridity, Battaile, and Ritual Expenditure’. Current Anthropology 41.4:477–509.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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