One eye open, one eye closed

See Changing ritual artefacts.

A new draft regulation for Shanxi province (Chinese version here), propounding a ban on producing and selling funeral supplies such as paper artefacts, seems to have adverse implications for ritual activity and funeral shops. But it’s not so simple.

Official attempts to restrict “feudal superstition” and traditional funerary observances have a long history—not just under Maoism but through imperial and Republican eras. Indeed, temples have been destroyed and religious activity controlled throughout the 20th century, notably since the Communist takeover, and campaigns continue today.

But in my post on local government interference in Shandong I pondered the gap between rules and practice at local level. Often-heard phrases like “there’s a policy, but it isn’t implemented” and “one eye open, one eye closed” suggest the dilution of state policy as it works its way down to the grassroots, a long chain elegantly encapsulated in the expression yitiao long, “the whole dragon”.

Li Bin’s first funeral shop in town.

While state surveillance of the larger temples and their clerics has escalated since 2016, recent campaigns aimed at folk practice meet with resistance on social media even as they are diluted locally (for another instance, see here). Ritual specialists, their patrons, and local cadres take such official measures in their stride; campaigns blow over—this blog features several examples. Spirit mediums are a regular target of campaigns, but remain popular; and sectarian groups that are still officially proscribed can maintain activity discreetly (for Yanggao, see here).

Earth burial, long targeted, remains standard throughout rural areas like Yanggao, despite the government’s long propounding of cremation. So since “earth burial supplies can still be sold to ethnic minority residents who observe the custom”, it’s unclear if this rider will also apply to the Han Chinese—in which case, there’s nothing new here. And though a renewed attempt to enforce cremation also appears to be on the cards in Yanggao, a local observer reckons earth burial is safe for at least a dozen years yet—by which time the depletion of the rural population will have escalated yet further.

Over the first few years there after the reforms, officials made some attempts to contain the religious revival; but since household Daoists like Li Manshan’s son Li Bin and his colleagues took up the trade in the early 1990s they have practised without interference (see under The Li family Daoists: a roundup).

In my other main fieldsite of Gaoluo south of Beijing, we can see such manoeuvering in the stories of Shan Fuyi’s wedding in 1966 and the 1997 New Year’s rituals after Deng Xiaoping’s death.

Since the 1980s’ liberalisations, both household Daoists and amateur ritual associations have remained largely unaffected by any official prescriptions/proscriptions. More significant in the modification of ritual behaviour are factors such as migration, the changing tastes of local patrons, and the spread of pop music.

So it remains to be seen if the new draft directive for Shanxi will have any practical impact on local activity. While the destructive effects of state policy need to be reported, they may also serve as clickbait that obscures the maintenance of ritual life, which is stressed in detailed field reports from south China (see e.g. here).

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