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Magazine Volume 2, Issue 3 (October 2000)
Daoist Art Table of Contents

How Do We Come to Terms with Folk Religions in Feudal Times?

Ma Xisha
Department of Qing Studies
People's University of China


Han Bingfang
Department of History
Central Academy of Social Sciences

This is the text-only version.

Click here if you wish to see Chinese-language annotations.

First, it was a component within the infinitely complex and multifaceted Chinese cultural system. It was part of an organic structure of Chinese religious beliefs. Eastern and Western definitions of "religion" are often inconsistent, but regardless of which criteria we use, what was practiced at grass-roots level was religion, and not simply a cultural phenomenon. Even the feudal government conceded this, albeit viewing it as heresy. Heretic religion was nevertheless religion even if it fell out of official recognition. From their standpoint, folk religion was absurd, vulgar, and subversive. But from our standpoint, not only was it rational, it deserves our understanding.

Undoubtedly, it is not difficult for people today to see its vulgarity and irrationality. However, it was a creation of humanity - the realities of life both gave rise to it and preserved it. That is to say that hardships bred the necessity of religion, ignorance triggered vulgar beliefs, and barbarity generated strange worship practices. Chinese feudal society had, over a span of more than 2000 years, seen production dwindle and the intrinsic value of societal life and energy weaken, while class distinction became more severe and the wealth gap more distinct. For the masses, the government hierarchy represented an axe, a whip, a jail, and shackles that cut, threatened, locked, and bound both mind and spirit. It did not revitalize. Indeed, it repulsed. Meanwhile the number of folk religions escalated. The lower echelon of society sought out a form of religion that met their needs, psychology, and predilections. The subsequent reliance on folk religion was also a form of silent defiance against the established system of feudalism. Folk religion was a child of hardship and established systems - systems that had caused a chasm in society, hardships that created a need for comfort.

Although folk religion followed the ideology and structure of feudalism, it belonged almost entirely to the ideology and structure of the oppressed. This produced two different trends. And they were both reflections of the patriarchal nature of feudalism. Thus, it is easy to see how a person who experienced long-term hardship and lacked learning would be unable to respond to the cultivated religion of their betters. The reason why there was a profusion of Chinese folk religions spreading amongst the lower class of society was the result of the dark and oppressive structure of feudalism. Religion had a hierarchy, divided between the cultured and the non-cultured, the refined and the vulgar. For academics, the biggest fear is that with different subjects, one puts on different spectacles: viewing the vulgar through spectacles of the refined, and vice versa. It is a practice that should not be encouraged.

Secondly, from the perspective of history, folk religion with almost 2000 years of practice was nevertheless a dynamic, lively, and paradoxical world. Within this world, religious prophets, under their banners of faith, consistently sapped cultural vivacity and the ideologies offered by folk and orthodox religions. With the premise of gathering together what their believers needed, they openly elevated, actively conjured and established, one after another, a series of religious beliefs. They established underground religious realms, set up vis-à-vis the religions of the elite. Within these mutations, some sects faltered, others rose, while believers flitted from one to another, choosing the most advantageous. This was precisely a symptom of lower class dissatisfaction with feudalism. Therefore, we believe that the rise of folk religion was a challenge against feudalism.

There were many sects that attacked feudalism in their sermons, internal structures, and even in their lineage. Nevertheless, they could not hide the fact that during feudal times the sects worked as a collective movement. Not only this, at various historical moments, a surge in folk religious support coupled with agricultural insurgence meant that religious powers had political and military implications that could coalesce into a large-scale movement, overturning the existing power structure. This was especially true during the last 1000 years, when there were many such movements from the Song to the Qing dynasty. Anti-authoritarianism was a byproduct of Chinese feudalism.

Thirdly, folk religion is, historically, a feudal product of hereditary transmission, complete with its multi-layered hierarchy. Although it met the demands of the lower class, and brought about different kinds of progressive and cogent ideologies, in fact, the hierarchy of folk religions was that of the feudal, where spiritual and secular power went hand in hand. Thus, folk religions neither have the ability nor the strength to actually change what was unjust and irrational about the actual world.

Their otherworldly utopias were illusory and uninformed. This is particularly true of their dark and obscure sutras that were mind-numbing indoctrination. Such obtuse beliefs not only dampened new hopes, but also affected the consciousness of the lower class. We should be aware of the negative impact on the character and ideology of the common Chinese person. Throughout history, folk religions would partake in the "creation of god," where an ordinary person or even an ancestor was elevated to the spiritual throne. It created bonds and dependency deep-rooted in clans and kinship. This has become a big obstacle for contemporary Chinese and the liberation of thought. The depravity of today's Chinese can be seen, in part, as a reflection of this history. For orthodox religions, they cannot underestimate the powerful persuasion of folk religions. However, most folk religions were regionally based and could not coalesce into one overall establishment. Their many and variable objectives, shortsighted actions, and fragmented ideology could never truly challenge orthodoxy and become the dominant form of religion. These folk religions encouraged freedom from the fetters of orthodoxy, but could not overcome the tragic harshness of feudalism. This is a brief account of the lower class's burden.

The content of this book encompasses over 2000 years, from the Han to the Qing dynasties, and covers tens of different folk religions. Historical leaders saw heretic beliefs as a widespread menace that should have their roots cut, their organizations destroyed, and their books burnt. There are few references to folk religions in history books; they were erased or marginalized. Only during the Ming and Qing dynasties have relevant materials survived in the forms of official books, local gazetteers, personal jottings, records, and collective religious texts. This inconsistency of extant materials has added to the difficulty of research. By necessity, this books weighs heavily towards the later periods. As such, from a strictly academic perspective, it may be found lacking as it can only express what it was like and not the whys and hows. The great Han historian Sima Qian (ca.145-86 BC) once said, "Explore what lies between Heaven and Man; understand the changes from past to present." In other words, not only should one explore the changes of history, but also try to comprehend these changes. This was ultimately what history was about. However, we do not have the ability to answer the whys. This would require greater commitment and research. Given the sensitive and complicated dilemma in the relationship between folk religion and today's society, the hows too await further meticulous research. YK

This excerpt appears in the introduction to the authors' History of Folk Religion in China (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1992), pp. 10-13, available through

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