Chinese folk religion
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|Chinese folk religion|
The Chinese folk religion or Chinese traditional religion[note 1] (traditional Chinese: 中國民間宗教 or 中國民間信仰; simplified Chinese: 中国民间宗教 or 中国民间信仰; pinyin: Zhōngguó mínjiān zōngjiào or Zhōngguó mínjiān xìnyăng), sometimes called Shenism (pinyin: Shénjiào, 神教), is the collection of grassroots ethnic religious traditions which have historically comprised the predominant belief system in China and among Han Chinese ethnic groups up to the present day. Chinese folk religion primarily consist in the worship of the shen (神, shén; "deities", "spirits", "awarenesses", "consciousnesses", "archetypes") which can be nature deities, city deities or tutelary deities of other human agglomerations, national deities, cultural heroes and demigods, dragons and ancestors, deities of the kinship. Holy narratives regarding some of these gods are codified into the body of Chinese mythology. Another name of this complex of religions is Chinese Universism[note 2], especially referring to its intrinsic metaphysical perspective.
Chinese folk religion is sometimes categorized as "Taoism", since over the centuries institutional Taoism has been assimilating or administering local religions. Zhengyi Taoism is especially intertwined with local cults, with Zhengyi daoshi often performing rituals for local temples and communities. Faism, the tradition of the fashi ("masters of rites"), is a minor but ancient tradition on the boundary between Taoism and folk religion. Confucianism promotes certain aspects of Chinese traditional religion, especially ancestor veneration.
According to old statistics, the Chinese folk religion has 454 million people involved, or about 6.6% of the world population, making it one of the major religious traditions in the world. Statistics by the Pew Research Center estimate the number of practitioners in China at 22% of the total population. Another estimate puts it over 30% of the total population. Scholars estimate a higher proportion. A 2010 survey gives the following numbers: 56.2% people practice Chinese ancestral veneration, but only 16% believe in the existence of ancestral shen (spirits).[note 3] The same survey says 13% adopt Taoist practices on a level which is indistinguishable from the Chinese folk religion. Chinese religion mirrors the social landscape, and takes on different meanings for different people.
Both in imperial China and under the modern nation, the state has opposed or attempted to eradicate these practices as "superstition". Yet Chinese folk religions are currently experiencing a revival in both Mainland China and Taiwan. Various forms of culture have received support by the government of China, such as Mazuism in Southern China, Huangdi worship, Black Dragon worship in Shanbei (Heilongdawang Temple), and other forms of local culture, for example Pangu or Caishen worship. The Vietnamese folk religion is similar to the Chinese folk religion practiced in the south.
- 1 Overview
- 2 Typology
- 3 Features
- 4 Demographics
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Chinese folk religion is very diversified, varying from provice to province and even from a village to another, for it is bound to local communities, kinship, and environments. In each setting, instiution and ritual behaviour assumes highly organised forms. Temples and the gods enshrined acquire symbolic character, with specific functions involved in the everyday life of the local community. Local religion holds aspects of ancestral belief systems such as animism and shamanism.
The Chinese folk religion is a grassroots, pervasive factor in all aspects of the social life, contributing to the very fabric of Chinese society. It is deeply embedded in family and civic life, rather than expressed in a separate organisational structure like a "church".
Village temple associations and kinship-lineage associations with their temple-congregations, pilgrimage associations and formalised prayers, rituals and expressions of virtues, are the common forms of organisation of Chinese folk religion on the local level. Neither initiation rituals nor official membership into a church organisation separate from one person's native identity are mandatory in order to be involved in religious activities. Contrarywise to institutional religions, Chinese indigenous religion does not require "conversion" for participation.
The prime criterion for participation in Chinese folk religion is not "to believe" in an official doctrine or dogma, but "to belong" to the local unit of Chinese religiousness, that is the "village" or the "kinship", with their gods and rituals. Scholar Richard Madsen describes Chinese religion, adopting the definition of Tu Weiming, as characterised by "immanent transcendence" grounded in a devotion to "concrete humanity", focused on building moral community within concrete humanity.
Despite their great diversity, all the expressions of Chinese folk religion have a common core that can be summarised as four spiritual, cosmological, and moral concepts:
- Tian (天), Heaven, the transcendent source of moral meaning;
- Qi (气), the energy that enlivens the universe;
- Jingzu (敬祖), the veneration of ancestors;
- Bao ying (报应), moral reciprocity.
The Chinese traditional belief of bao ying, moral reciprocity, implies that people dwell in a moral universe, a universe that is kept ordained by mores, good actions, thus moral retribution is in fact a cosmic retribution. It determines fate, as written in Zhou texs: «on the doer of good, heaven sends down all blessings, and on the doer of evil, he sends down all calamities.» (《书经•汤诰》)
The cosmic significance of bao ying is better understood by exploring other two traditional concepts of fate and meaning:
- Ming yun (命运), the personal destiny, in which ming is "life" or "right", the given status of life, and yun defines "circumstance" and "individual choice"; ming is given and influenced by the transcendent force Tian (天), that is the same as the "divine right" (tian ming) of ancient rulers as identified by Mencius. Personal destiny (ming yun) is thus perceived as both fixed (the status of life) and flexible, open-ended (the individual choice in matters of bao ying).
- Yuan fen (缘分), "fateful coincidence", describing good and bad chances and potential relationships. Schilars K. S. Yang and D. Ho have analysed the psychological advantages of this belief: assigning causality of negative events to yuan fen beyond personal control, people tend to maintain good relationships, avoid conflict, and promote social harmony; meanwhile, when positive events are seen as result of yuan fen, personal credit is not directly assigned, and this reduces pride on one side of the relationship and envy and resentment on the other.
Ming yun and yuan fen are linked, because what appears on the surface to be chance events (for better or worse), are part of the deeper rhythm that shapes personal life based on how destiny is directed. They are ultimately shapen by bao ying, good action. Recognising this connection has the result of making a person responsible for his or her actions: doing good for others produces further good for oneself and keeps the world in harmony.
These three themes of Chinese indigenous spiritual heritage—moral reciprocity, personal destiny, fateful coincidence—come alive when a fourth theme is introduced:
- Wu (悟), "awareness". According to scholarly studies, many practitioners recently "reverted" to the Chinese traditional religion speak of a "new awareness" (kai wu 开悟 or jue wu 觉悟) triggering their consciousness of the aforementioned three themes, a spiritual awareness that works as an energy that moves the themes from being mere ideas to be motivating forces in one's life: awareness of ming yun ignites responsibility towards life; awareness of yuan fen stirs to respond to events rather than resigning. Awareness is a dynamic factor and appears in two guises: a realisation that arrives as a gift, often unbidden; then it evolves into a practice that the person intentionsally follow.
There are many public-domain folk religion texts such as Journeys to the Underworld, The Peach Blossom Spring, the Shi Yi Ji, the Investiture of the Gods, the Shanhaijing, and notably the Yijing divination book, distributed in temples (often without charge) or sold in religious goods stores.
The notion of xian ling (显灵), variously translated as "divine efficacy" or "magic efficacy", "divine virtue" or also "efficacious response", is of foremost importance in the Chinese folk religion, in the relationship between men and gods. It describes the manifestation, activity, of the power of a god (灵气 ling qi, "divine energy" or "divine effervescence"). Within the context of traditional cosmology, the interaction of these energies constitutes the universe.
The term xian ling may be interpreted as the god revealing his presence in a particular area and temple, through events that are perceived as extraordinary, miraculous. Divine power usually manifests in the presence of a wide public, and once the event is witnessed and acknowledged, reports about it spread quickly and the cult of the deity strikes a root, grows in popularity, and temples are built.
Scholar Zavidovskaya has studied how the incentive of temples restoration since the 1980s in Northern China was triggered by numerous instances of gods becoming "active", "returning", and claiming back their temples and place in society. She brings the example of a Chenghuang Temple in Yulin, Shaanxi province, that during the Cultural Revolution was turned into a granary; in the 1980s the temple was restored to its original function because the seeds kept into the temple always rotted, and this event was recognized as god Chenghuang giving signs to empty his residence of grain and let him back in. The ling qi, divine energy, is believed to accumulate in certain places, temples, making them holy. Temples with a longer history are considered holier than newly-built ones, which still need to be filled by divine energy.
Another example of Zavidovskaya is that of the cult of god Zhenwu in Congluo Yu, Shanxi; the god's temples were in ruins and the cult inactive until the mid 1990s, when a man with a serious cancer, in his last hope prayed (bai 拜) Zhenwu. The man began to miraculously recover day after day, and after a year he was completely healed. To thank the god, he organised an opera performance in his honour. A temporary altar with a statue of Zhenwu and a stage for performances was set up in an open space at the foots of a mountain. While the opera was being played, large white snakes appeared, not afraid of people and not attacking them, seemingly watching the opera; the snakes were considered by locals as incarnations of Zhenwu, who came to watch the opera held in his honour.
Within temples, it is common to see banners bearing the phrase "if the heart is sincere, god will reveal his power" (心诚神灵 xin cheng shen ling). The relationship between men and gods is an exchange of favour. This implies the belief that gods respond to the entreaties of the believer, if his or her religious fervor is sincere (cheng xin 诚心). If a person believes in the god's power with all his heart and accumulates the energy of piety, the gods are confident in his faith and reveal their efficacious power. At the same time, for faith to strengthen in the devout's heart, the deity has to prove his or her efficacy. In exchange for divine favours, a faithful honours the deity with vow fulfillment (huan yuan 还愿 or xu yuan 许愿), through individual worship, reverence and respect (jing shen 敬神).
The most common display of divine power is the cure of diseases after a faithful asks for aid. Another manifestation is the fulfillment of a request of children. The deity may also manifest through mediumship, entering the body of a shaman-medium and speaking through his or her lips. There have been cases of people curing illnesses "on behalf of god" (ti shen zhi bing 替神治病). Gods may also speak to people when they are asleep (tuomeng 托梦).
The Chinese folk religion suffered persecution in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many local temples were destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion and the Boxer Rebellion in the late 1800s; others suffered severe damage during the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. The Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 brought a third systematic effort to destroy folk religious devotion.
Since then, Chinese folk religion is exhibiting a dramatic revival throughout China, with millions of temples being rebuilt or built from scratch. Since the 1980s the central government moved to a policy of benign neglect or wuwei (无为) in regard to rural community life, and the local government's new regulatory relationship with local society is characterized by practical mutual dependence; these factors have given much space for popular religion to develop. In recent years, in some cases, local governments have taken an even positive and supportive attitude towards indigenous religion in the name of carrying on cultural heritage.
Instead of signing the demise of traditional religiousness, China's economic development has brought a spiritual renewal. The worldview of the Chinese indigenous religion is distinctive; its images and practices are shapen by the codes of Chinese culture, helping Chinese people to face the challenges of modernization.
Communal indigenous religion
Chinese local religion in its communal expression involves the worship of gods that are the generative power and tutelary spirit (genius loci) of a place or a certain aspect of nature (for example water gods, river gods, fire gods, mountain gods), or of gods that are common ancestors of a village, a larger identity, or the Chinese nation (Shennong, Huangdi, Pangu). This type of local religion has village temples or temples with a wider geographical importance (for example the Heilongdawang Temple in Shanbei).
Rituality expresses into large-scale festivals participated by members of the whole village or township community on the occasions of what are believed to be the birthdays of the gods or other events, or to seek protection from droughts, epidemics, and other disasters. Such festivals invoke the power of the gods for practical goals to "summon blessings and drive away harm". Special devotional currents within this framework can be identified by specific names such as Mazuism (Mazujiao), Wang Ye worship, or the cult of the Silkworm Mother.
Kinship congregational religion
Another dimension of the Chinese folk religion is based on family or genealogical worship of deities and ancestors in family altars or private temples (simiao 私庙 or jiamiao 家庙), or ancestral temples (citang 祠堂 or zongci 宗祠). Kinship or lineage associations, often congregating people with the same surname, are a major organisational unit of kinship religion: these lineage congregations build special congregational temples where the deified ancestors of a kin (for example the Chens or the Lins) are enshrined and worshiped. These temples serve as congregational centers for people belonging to the same lineage, and the lineage associations provide groundwork for mutual assistance.
Construction of ancestral temples of impressive sizes and elaborate decorations serves as a mean to represent a kin's wealth, influence and achievement. Scholar K. S. Yang has explored the ethno-political dynamism of this form of religion, through which people who become distinguished for their value and virtue are considered immortal and receive posthumous divine titles, and are believed to protect their descendants, inspiring the mythological lore and substantiating the memory of a family or kin.
If their temples and their deities enshrined acquire popularity they are considered worthy of the virtue of ling, "efficacy". Ancestor veneration in China (jingzu 敬祖) is observed nationally with large scale rituals on Qingming Festival and other holidays.
Derived organized religions
With the internal migrations and political turmoils in China between the 19th century and 1949, the cadre of Chinese folk religion and Taoism gave rise to a variety of new religious movements called "redemptive societies" by scholar Prasenjit Duara. Quite different from indigenous religion of devotion to local gods, these "disembedded" religious groups provided aggregation for mobile people that were uprooted from local communities and integrated into the cosmopolitan life of the cities.
Some of these religions call on ideas of transcendent authority to change the established order, recalling Axial Age religions, reorienting society towards a transcendent ideal as opposed to worldly power. They provide new variations of traditional practices, in the frame of a millenarian or utopian perspective, reconstructing society on orthodox Confucian-Taoist values mediated through folk tradition, often incorporating Buddhist themes. Other religions, often those produced by more recent waves of religious innovation, may downplay or miss the "redemptive" millenarian aspects and rather emphasize devotion to a specific deity, virtues, good deeds and other moral values.
These movements were banned in the early Republican China and later Communist China. Many of them still remain illegal, underground or unrecognised in China, while they operate freely in Taiwan since the late 1980s. This group of religions includes Yiguandao and other Xiantiandao sects, Yaochidao, Jiugongdao and the more recent De religion and the Tiandist movement, focused on the worship of Tian. Also, many Qigong schools may rely on the worldview of the Chinese folk religion.
Weixinism is a religion primarily based on the "orthodox lineages of Yijing and Feng Shui", the Hundred Schools of Thought, and worship of the "three great ancestors" (Huangdi, Yandi and Chiyou). The movement promotes the restoration of the authentic roots of the Chinese civilization and Chinese reunification.
The Weixinist church, which headquarters are in Taiwan, is also active in Mainland China in the key birthplaces of the Chinese culture. It has a contract with Henan government for building the "City of Eight Trigrams" templar complex on Yunmeng Mountain (of the Yan Mountains), and it has also built temples in Hebei. Xiaism is an organised folk religion founded in the 16th century, present in the Putian region (Xinghua) of Fujian.
Confucianism, Taoism and Faism
Confucianism, Taoism and Faism can be considered as both traditions embedded within the larger category of Chinese traditional religion, or as separate religions. In fact, one can practice certain folk cults and espouse the tenets of Confucianism as a philosophical framework, the Confucian system instructing ancestral worship, li (rite, right) and remembrance of the Tian.
Some currents of Taoism are interwoven with the Chinese folk religion, especially the Zhengyi school, developing aspects of local cults within their doctrines; however Taoists always highlight the distinction between their traditions and those which aren't Taoist. The daoshi (道士, "masters of the Tao") of the Zhengyi school, who are called sanju daoshi (散居道士) or huoju daoshi (火居道士), respectively meaning "scattered daoshi" and "daoshi living at home", because they can get married and perform the profession of priests as a part-time occupation, may perform rituals of offering (jiao), thanks-giving, propitiation, exorcism and rites of passage for local communities' temples and private homes. Local gods of local cultures are often incorporated into their altars.
Faism, also called "Redhead" or "Redhat Taoism", from the color of the headgear of its priests, is ingrained in the Chinese folk religion more deeply than Taoism. It is the tradition of the "masters of rites", fashi (法師), present especially in southern China, who have the same role of the sanju daoshi within the fabric of society. They aren't considered Taoist priests by the daoshi of Zhengyi Taoism, who wear a black headgear.
There are many controversial folk religious movements known as "secret religions" with different names and roots in imperial-period heterodox sects such as the White Lotus religion. They are not entirely bound to the Chinese folk religion and their category blur with that of the "redemptive societies" of the 18th and 20th centuries. Luoism is considered a sect belonging to the "secret religions" group.
There are hundreds of Chinese deities (local gods and goddesses) as well as demigods. After apotheosis, historical figures noted for their bravery or virtue are also venerated and honored as ancestral "saints", xians, or heightened to the status of shen, deities. The Song Dynasty enlisted many of them. Deities often reflect a hierarchy, and exemplify many characteristics of human officials, such as their fallibility. The following list represents some commonly worshipped deities.
- Guan Yu (关羽), also known with the templar names of Guandi and Guan Gong (literally 'Emperor Guan' and 'Lord Guan' respectively), the red-faced, bearded hero of Romance of the Three Kingdoms and symbol of loyalty. He is the patron god of policemen (and also gangsters), war, fortune, and law, as he shows forgiveness, and often also serves as Wu Sheng, the Martial Saint.
- Guanyin The goddess Miao Shan is generally thought to have influenced the beliefs about the Buddhist bodhisattva Guanyin. This Bodhisattva originally was based upon the Indian counterpart Avalokiteśvara. Androgynous in India, this bodhisattva over centuries became a female figure in China and Japan. Guanyin is one of the most popular bodhisattva to which people pray.
- Baosheng Dadi (保生大帝), a divine physician born in the Song Dynasty, whose powers extend to raising the dead. Worship is especially prevalent in Fujian and Taiwan.
- Caishen (财神 "God of Wealth"), who oversees the gaining and distribution of wealth through fortune. He is often the deified manifestation of certain historical personalities such as Zhao Gongming or Bi Gan. His shape is sometimes that of a black and fierce tiger.
- Shoushen (寿神 "Star Lord of Longevity"), who stands for a healthy and long life. He is portrayed as an old balding man with a walking stick in his right hand and a peach in his left.
- Fushen (福神 "Star Lord of Happiness"), he looks like a traditional Chinese feudal lord with red clothing. He symbolizes happiness and joy.
- Lushen (禄神 "Star Lord of Prosperity"), a god of success in work and life. In ancient times he was the patron god of success in imperial bureaucracy.
- Cheng Huang (城隍), commonly known as "City God" in English, a class of protective deities: each city has a Cheng Huang who looks after the fortunes of the city and judges the dead. Usually these are famous or noble persons from the city who were deified after death. The Cheng Huang Miao (城隍廟) or "City God Temple" was often the focal point of a town in ancient times.
- Tudi Gong (土地公 "God of the Earth"), a genius loci who protects a local place (especially hills), and whose statue may be found in roadside shrines. He is also the god of wealth, by virtue of his connection with the earth, and therefore, minerals and buried treasure.
- Wenchangdi (文昌帝), god of students, scholars, and examination. He is worshiped by students who wish to pass their examinations. Inept examiners in ancient times sometimes sought "divine guidance" from him to decide rank between students.
- Mazu (妈祖 "Ancient Mother"), the patroness, also considered as the goddess of sailors. Shrines can be found in coastal areas of Eastern and South-Eastern China. Today, belief in Mazu is especially popular in the South and South-East, including Fujian (福建), Guangdong (廣東), Hainan (海南), Taiwan (台灣), and Hong Kong (香港). She is also a significant deity where emigrants from the provinces have settled, including in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam.
- The Baxian (八仙), the "Eight Immortals", are important literary and artistic figures who were deified after death and became objects of worship. In Taoism they're worshipped as xians.
- Huye (虎爺), a guardian spirit, often found at the bottom of Taoist temple shrines. Worshipers revere the tiger spirit to curse spiritual enemies. Rituals include stomping an effigy of a spiritual enemy in front of the tiger spirit, as well as sacrificing meat offerings, paper gold, and others.
- The Jiuhuang Dadi (九皇大帝) refer to manifestation of nine stars of the Great Dipper of the North. Their manifestation festival is held over the first nine days of the ninth lunar month to celebrate the return from heaven to earth of the Nine Emperor spirits.
- Qiye (七爺) and Baye (八爺), two generals and best friends, often seen as giant puppets in street parades. 8 is black, because he drowned rather than miss his appointment to meet with 7, even though a flood was coming. 7 has his tongue sticking out, because he hanged himself in mourning for 8.
- Xi Wangmu (西王母), the "Queen Mother of the West", also known as Yaochi Jinmu (瑤池金母 "Golden Mother of the Jade Pond"), a mother goddess who reigns over a paradisaical mountain and has the power to make others immortal. In some myths, she is the mother of the Jade Emperor (玉帝).
- Yuexia Laoren (月下老人 "Old Man Under the Moon"). The matchmaker who pairs lovers together, worshiped by those seeking their partner.
- Zaoshen (灶神), the "God of the Kitchen", also Zao Jun (灶君), mentioned in the title of Amy Tan's novel, The Kitchen God's Wife. He reports to heaven on the behavior of the family of the house once a year, at Chinese New Year, and is given sticky rice to render his speech less comprehensible on that occasion.
- Songzi Niangniang (送子娘娘) or Zhusheng Niangniang (註生娘娘), a fertility goddess. She is worshiped by people who want children, or who want their child to be a boy.
- Lu Ban (鲁班), the legendary master craftsman from the 5th century BC; patron deity of Chinese craftsmen.
- Shangdi (上帝) is originally the supreme unknowable god, synonymous with the concept of Tian. All the other gods are seen as his hierophanies or intercessors. This title/name was later applied to the supreme deity of various religions, including Yu Huang Dadi and the Christian God.
- Pangu (盘古), the creator god in certain myths. He is usually depicted as a primitive, hairy giant with horns on his head and clad in furs. Pangu set about the task of creating the world: he separated Yin from Yang with a swing of his giant axe, creating the Earth (murky Yin) and the Sky (clear Yang). According to other sources, after Pangu died, his body became the land and other celestial bodies.
- Fuxi (伏羲), also known as Paoxi, a divine patriarch reputed to have taught to humanity writing, fishing, and hunting. Cangjie is also said to have invented writing.
- Nüwa (女娲), also Nüwa, an ancient mother goddess, attributed for the creation of mankind. In later traditions she is described as the twin sister or/and wife of Fuxi. It was said she used rainbow coloured stones to mend the sky when it opened a hole.
- Shennong (神农), also identified as Yandi (炎帝), a divine patriarch said to have taught the ancient Chinese the practices of agriculture. He is often represented as a human with bull horns.
- Huangdi (黃帝), or "Yellow Emperor", the divine patriarch of the Huaxia culture lineage. He is regarded as the founder of China.
- Lei Gong (雷公 "Lord of Thunder") or Leishen (雷神 "God of Thunder"), with an eagle-face and a hammer, he is the spirit of thunder punishing evil-doers in Heaven's behest.
Forms of worship and practices
Most of the temples of the Chinese folk religion emphasise the formula "if there is an entreaty, there will be a response" (you qiu bi ying 有求必应) or "if the heart is sincere, god will reveal his power" (xin cheng shen ling 心诚神灵), since the relationship between the gods and humans is one of exchange of effervescence and favour. The formula explains that in exchange of their favour and protection the gods require a certain type of conduct from their faithful. Once the power of the deity (ling qi, xian ling) is attested, it is the responsibility of humans to prove their religious fervor and deserve/merit of divine protection.
Through rituals of worship, people acquire and maintain a sense of stable world order, peace and balance (in philosophical-cosmological terms expressed by the concepts of Tian, Qi and bao ying). Violating rules may insult a god and hence, undermine the balance and open the doors to chaos. The attitude of the people towards their deities is of awe and apprehension. Through devotional practices a person strives to secure balance and protect himself and the world he is located into from the power of unfavorable forces. In this sense, the Chinese traditional view of human life is not fatalistic, but one is a master of his own life through his relationship with the divine energies.
The core idea of individual worship is the display reverence/respect (jing shen 敬神) for the gods. Believers fear offending the deity and wreaking havoc. Honouring the deities means the fulfillment of vows (huan yuan 还愿). In most of cases, vow-fulfillment is expressed in material forms: for example jingxiang offering rituals.
Many people repay vows to the gods by contributing with incense, oil, and candles, as well as money. Religious devotion may also express in the form of performance troupes (huahui), involving many different kinds of groups of performers such as stilt walkers, lion dancers, musicians, martial arts masters, yangge dancers, and story-tellers.
Some gods are considered carnivorous, for example Heshen (河神) or the Longwang (龙王), and offering to them requires animal sacrifice (shengji 生祀), while other deities, for example Zhenwu, do not ask for animal sacrifice.
A deity may also require in exchange, for his or her help through divine effervescence, that people act morally and perform good works, virtuous deeds (shanshi 善事), and practice self-cultivation (xiu xing 修行). For this aim, some forms of local religion develop clear prescriptions for believers, such as detailed lists of meritorious and sinful deeds in the form of "books of virtue" (shanshu 善书) and "ledgers of merit" (guogong ge 过功格). Involvement in the affairs of communal or intra-village temples are perceived by believers as ways for accumulating merit (gongde 功德). "Doing good deeds to accumulate virtue" (xing shan ji de 行善积德) is a common formula for religious practice. Virtue is believed to accumulate in one's heart, which is seen as energetic centre of the human body (zai jun xin zuo tian fu 在君心作福田).
Practices of communication with the gods comprehend different forms of Chinese shamanism, such as wu shamanism and tongji mediumship, or fuji practice. On the community level, religious services are organised and led by local people themselves. Leaders are usually selected among male heads of families or lineages, or on the village level they may be the village heads.
Places of worship
Shen temples can be distinguished into miao (庙), "temples", family altars or private temples (simiao 私庙 or jiamiao 家庙), or ancestral temples (citang 祠堂 or zongci 宗祠). The terms have often been used interchangeably. However miao is the general Chinese term for "temple" understood as "place of worship", and can be used for places of worship of any religion. In Chinese folk religion it is mostly associated to temples which enshrine nature gods and patron gods. Instead ci is the specific term for temples enshrining ancestry gods, human beings apotheosized as gods.
Shen temples are distinct from Taoist temples and Buddhist monasteries in that they are established and administered by local managers, village communities, lineage congregations and worship associations, and don't have professional priests, although Taoist and Faist priests may perform services within these temples. Shenist temples are usually small and decorated with traditional figures on their roofs (dragons and deities), although some evolve into significant structures. Other terms associated to templar structures of Shenism and other religions in China are 宫 gong ("palace"), often used for large temples (mostly for Taoist ones) built by imperial officials, and 院 yuan, a general term for "sanctuary", "shrine".
Chinese folk religion followers and temples make use of different symbols, from symbols with cosmological or generative significance to symbols peculiar of specific deities, lineages or areas.
As in Taoism, also in the Chinese folk religion the yin and yang concept can be represented through the taijitu symbol, but also in pairs of complementary figures such as the dragon and the phoenix, heaven and earth, or water and fire. The taijitu is often represented in the hands of creator deities such as Pangu, who represent the originating principle separating into heaven and earth. The bagua of I Ching is also a symbol used in Chinese folk religion.
The Chinese dragon (long 龙) is a very important symbol in Chinese indigenous tradition: it is a positive creature representing yang, and thus the life-giving creative force, the power of generation, ultimately the kin lineage.
China and Taiwan
The Pew Research Center has collected numbers saying that in China 22% of the population adheres to the Chinese indigenous religion. Another estimate puts it at over 30% of the total population. A survey conducted in 2010 by the Purdue University's Center on Religion and Chinese Society has found that 56.2% of Chinese practice some form of ancestral veneration, but only 16% believe in the existence of ancestral spirits, and 13% adopt Taoist practices on a level which is indistinguishable from the Chinese folk religion. In Taiwan, Chinese folk religions are mostly subsumed under the label and the institutions of "Taoism", which is the religion of 33% of the population.
Scholars have studied how Chinese folk religion-inspired society, elastic and polytheistic in spirit, provided the groundwork for the development of dynamic grassroots capitalism in Song Dynasty China and modern capitalism in contemporary Taiwan. Chinese folk religion with its ritual economy is also a key in the contemporary economic development in rural Mainland China.
Being the Chinese folk religion an ethnic religion and indigenous to the soil of China, Chinese people who emigrate tend to lose their connection to ancestral rites and local temples. The overseas Chinese settled in Southeast Asia have mostly adopted Buddhism and, to a lesser extent, Christianity. However, some of them have succeeded in preserving the Chinese folk religion, often adapting it to the new environment developing new cults and incorporating elements of local traditions. Southeast Asia's Chinese folk religions are particularly ready to adopt Buddhist bodhisattva (fo, enlightened beings) as gods, and even Hindu gods such as Hanuman, Ganesha and Brahma, into their pantheon. Some of the organised folk religions, such as Yiguandao and Deism, have also succeeded in spreading amongst Southeast Asian Chinese communities.
In Singapore about 11% of the total population is Taoist, composed by a 14.4% of the Chinese Singaporeans identifying as Taoists. In Malaysia, around 3% of Chinese Malaysians practice Chinese folk religions, corresponding to around 1% of the whole country population. In Indonesia, Taosu Agung Kusumo, leader of the Majelis Agama Tao Indonesia, claims there are 5 million Taoist followers in the country as of 2009.
The Chinese folk religion of the Chinese Indonesians is named "Confucianism", and officially recognised by the government as Agama Khonghucu or religion of Confucius, which was chosen because of the political condition in Indonesia before the end of Suharto rule in 1998, which saw the Chinese religions forbidden and the Chinese forced to convert to Buddhism or Christianity. The Chinese Indonesians had their culture and religious rights restored only after the fourth president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, issued a regulation that recognised "Confucianism" among the legal religions of the country. He said that:
All religions insist on peace. From this we might think that the religious struggle for peace is simple... but it is not. The deep problem is that people use religion wrongly in pursuit of victory and triumph. This sad fact then leads to conflict with people who have different beliefs.
The first precept of Pancasila (the Five Basic Principles of the Indonesian state) stipulates belief in the one and only God. The Confucian philosophy is able to fulfill this, for Confucius mentioned only one God in his teaching, the Heaven or Shangdi. The Heaven possess the characteristic of Yuan Heng Li Zhen, or Omnipresent, Omnipotent, Omnibenevolent, Just.
The Master said, "Great indeed was Yao as a sovereign! How majestic was he! It is only Heaven that is grand, and only Yao corresponded to it. How vast was his virtue! The people could find no name for it. How majestic was he in the works which he accomplished! How glorious in the elegant regulations which he instituted!" (VIII, xix, tr. Legge 1893:214)
Another movement in Indonesia is the Tridharma (Sanskrit: "religion of the Three"), syncretising elements of different religions, the Chinese three teachings amongst others. After the fall of Suharto rule it is undergoing a process of systematisation of doctrines and rituals. Tridharma temples always consist of three main rooms: the front room for Tian or God, the middle for the main deity of the temple, the back room for the three teachers and their pantheon: Confucius, Laozi, and Buddha.
In Malaysia the Malaysian Chinese constitute a large segment of the population, mostly adherent of Mahayana Buddhism. The Chinese traditional religion has a relatively significant following in the states of Sarawak (6%) and Penang (5%). A prominent cult is that of Tua Pek Kong (大伯公 Dabo Gong), and it has incorporated the cult of the Na Tuk Kong (拿督公 Nadu Gong) of local Malay origin.
Thailand has a large population of Thai Chinese, people of Chinese or partial Chinese origin. Most of those who follow Buddhism have been integrated into the Theravada Buddhist tradition of the country, with only a negligable minority having retained Chinese Buddhism. However, many others have retained the Chinese folk religions and Taoism. Despite the large number of followers and temples, and although they are practiced freely, these religions have no state recognition, their temples are not counted as places of worship, and their followers are counted as "Theravada Buddhists" in officially-released religious figures. Chinese temples are called sanchao in Thai language.
The Chinese folk religion of Thailand has developed local features, including the worship of local gods. Major Chinese festivals such as the Nian, Zhongqiu and Qingming are widely celebrated especially in Bangkok, Phuket, and other parts of Thailand where there are large Chinese populations.
The Chinese in the city of Phuket are noted for their nine-day vegetarian festival between September and October. During the festive season, devotees will abstain from meat and mortification of the flesh by Chinese mediums are also commonly seen, along with rites devoted to the worship of Tua Pek Kong. Such traditions were developed during the 19th century in Phuket by the local Chinese with influences from Thai culture.
- Other similar national traditions
- Other Sino-Tibetan ethnic religions
- Other non-Sino-Tibetan ethnic religions present in China
- Other articles
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