Popular Religion in China
Stephan Feuchtwang

Session 4 Demonic Power, Subversion and Republican Rule

Intro Session 1 Session 2 Session 3

Gods are human beings that died and are therefore in the Yin world, invisible, but can intervene in the visible Yang world of the living. Death rituals can show us how gods are conceived and understood.

Death rituals

Death rituals deal directly with the demonic aspects of human beings and the transition from the Yang into the Yin world, and therefore with the possibility of a reverse transition. In rites of encoffinment, burial and commemoration, all human beings are treated as ghosts. If neglected or abandoned, they are hungry and trapped in the places where they met their death and can be very harmful to those who pass by. Death rituals seal off the demonic and corporeal aspects, by burying the body whose bones convey the forces gathered by the site of the grave. On the one hand death rituals honour and elevate what is conceived as an ancestor, and on the other they intervene on behalf of a soul that needs salvation into the Buddhist Western Paradise. The ancestor is installed as a name onto the domestic altar of its descendants, to be honoured on its death day and on standard occasions for the veneration of ancestors. The soul must be released from a purgatory pictured in scrolls, prints, and temple murals that is as lurid in its inventions of torment and torture as that of Christianity.

virtue of the deceased's children employing Buddhists or Daoists to recite scriptures and intercede on behalf of the soul, is solemn and repetitive. But attached to it is a much more theatrical enactment of the mythic stories of those who, like the filial son Mu Lian rescuing his dead mother, crossed from the Yang to the Yin world. The fact that they made the crossing shows the way to intercede on behalf of what would otherwise be an eternally trapped or forgotten soul. The performances of their crossings include comic enactments of the wiles of bribery and cajoling needed to find a way past guardian monsters and officious gatekeepers.

But a person who showed uncanny abilities in her or his lifetime, and died before having fulfilled the normal span of life at the time, or after having renounced the normal obligations, and had committed extraordinary deeds must have died with extraordinary demonic power. If those who commemorated that person told of miraculous events that were the result of honouring and petitioning the deceased, that was considered proof of that person's powerful capacity to cross from the Yin to the Yang world. Another trajectory to deification stems from the offering of propitiation to the bones of a stranger, an orphan ghost, to prevent them from doing harm. If this results in a good turn of fortune and the reputation for the same result grows, then the orphan ghost becomes known as a god.

Stephan Feuchtwang
Paper clothing is burned to accompany the dead into the next world.
Imperial imagery clothes demonic power with the same authority that is claimed by the leaders of the Chinese state. But where the authority of the state is established by a number of self-validating methods, including those of writing official histories and compiling the texts and registers of religious orthodoxy, the authority of popular deities is better understood as a form of charisma. Charisma here is an uncanny power to respond, conveyed by stories of petition followed by desired changes of fortune. These individual stories are collected around an incense burner and the god to whom it is addressed. A following is formed, adding to an image of authority each time they project the image with rituals of greeting, offering and departure. The followers form an association and in the place where the image of authority has been projected, the leadership of that association and the association itself are authorised. To the image of authority is ascribed the joint intentions of the followers, corresponding to each of their desires and fears. Whereas actual rule is authorised by the establishment of textual tradition, popular religion is defined by the creation of local traditions of this sort. Popular religion creates objects of charismatic authority using rituals and stories that are like those of established tradition in many respects, but because they surround the charisma of demonic power, their figures tend to be heterodox and unruly. Thus popular religion authorises a form of self-organisation.


The most important and widespread god of intercession for the dead, for women wanting children, and for the sick, was originally a Buddhist divinity who in Chinese history was transformed from a male into a female deity. This is the bodhisattva or pusa (one who has achieved buddhahood but chooses to remain in merciful attachment to the world) who in Sanskrit is called Avalokitesvara. In China he was merged with the legendary Miaoshan, a princess who incurred her father's rage by her choice of an ascetic, unmarried life until her death. She then returned to life to save him from severe physical and moral sickness by sacrificing her eyes and arms for him to eat as medicine. As a deity she is the female Guanyin, often known in English as the Goddess of Mercy. Her depiction is usually benign, but many Buddhist temples portray her other aspect as a much more majestic and commanding deity with a thousand arms and with feet literally stamping authority on the monstrous dragon of the waters that is the realm of demons. Daoists honour her, as well as Buddhists. She is one of the gods whose worship has spread throughout China and epitomises the mix of vernacular and textual traditions in Chinese religion.

Guanyin is an easily tolerated god of popular religion. Most dangerous among heterodoxies were those in which a living person assumed an imperial title. Such heterodoxies were intrinsically rebellious and usually millenarian, promising a new age. They claimed a pedigree that has been repeated so often that it has been called a paradigm. In this paradigm without a textual tradition the world is seen as chaotic, a battlefield of demonic powers into which someone who can command them by secrets revealed through dream, vision or spiritual possession will bring about a new order. The secrets include treasures, such as a peach and pennants coloured red and numbering nine, a sword, and a protective amulet that can be multiplied. The demon commander is a new emperor who has entered into a blood covenant with a bestowing divinity to save the world, in which humans are like hungry ghosts and are prey to the violent depredations of monster devils. Resurgence of such condemnations of the present and promises of a morally and materially prosperous near future continue to pose problems for republican governments of China.

Popular religion and Republicanism

For the whole twentieth century, republican governments attacked 'superstition', by which they meant the popular cults and their temples and the kinds of healing, spirit-mediumship and divination that they supported, as well as the more threatening sectarian and millenarian movements. On the other hand, governments supported at arms' length institutionalised religions, just as the governments of the imperial dynasties had.

Stephan Feuchtwang
A doorguard in the guise of a People's Liberation Army general, from a door in northern Yunnan.
The most thorough and extreme of attacks came in the years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when both religion and superstition were eliminated, their buildings destroyed or put to use as storehouses, offices, or schools, and their statues and liturgical books destroyed or hidden. But since 1976, resurgence of fears held in abeyance by the strength of the iconic figure of Mao and faith in Party rectitude has been seen in the rebuilding of temples. In Meifa, the village in the southeastern province of Fujian, two events in 1981 led to a popular revitalisation movement. First, the man who had had the statue of the local protector god destroyed during the Cultural Revolution died from unknown causes while still in his early thirties. Then the man who as brigade leader had forced people to burn down the ancestral hall became mentally ill. Some villagers said that the angry gods and ancestors had attacked them. Such stories of gods offended by their homelessness have been recorded in many other villages. Someone, usually an elder, has a dream in which the village deity appears and expresses resentment over the lack of a respectable dwelling. That person then convinces others who can recall the festivals and the temple most vividly to form a group to gather subscriptions for reconstruction and the holding of festivals. They select a capable person to manage the project. In Meifa, the person so entrusted was renowned for having sacrificed his political career for the sake of the villagers in the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution.

Wang Mingming
Opening ceremony of the ancestral hall in Meifa.
Religious freedom is guaranteed in the constitution of the People's Republic of China, but that freedom is under the surveillance of the Religious Bureaux with which religious organisations, places of worship, and religious festivals have to register. Religious activities and organisations are treated as a threat by the policing organisations of the Chinese mainland state in several ways: as harming citizens physically or by fraud, as disturbance of public order, or most severely as sabotaging the law, subverting state power and aiming to overthrow the socialist system. Or they are regarded as 'superstitious activities'. Organisations that exercise the gathering and reinforcement of breaths or energies (qi) also have to be registered with a regulatory bureau, and to do so they have to be accepted as 'scientific', otherwise they too are treated legally as criminal or as superstitious activity. Superstitious activities and unregistered religious activities are subject to interdiction by police, who can stop meetings and destroy buildings, but more often they are tolerated in a kind of legal and ideological limbo as far as official policy and its terms are concerned.



'use strict';