Studying “old customs” in 1950s’ Wenzhou

Left: Mei Lengsheng, 1950s;
right, yankou ritual, Baiyun guan temple, Wenzhou, 2015.

Further to research under Maoism on ritual life in China, I appreciate

The work of local scholars in China striving over this difficult period to legitimize their religious cultures continues to impress me.* Katz’s article astutely discusses the

  • Wenzhou jiusu shiliao 溫州舊俗史料 [Historical materials on Wenzhou’s old customs]

on ritual life in the late Qing and Republican periods, a report of over 100,000 words compiled in 1960.

Katz traces the identities of the elites who composed the monograph, as well as their agendas in doing so (such as the new dichotomies promoted since the late 19th century, particularly that of “religion” and “superstition”).

Among the main compilers of the 1960 study was Mei Lengsheng (1895–1976), whose fortunes Katz describes. He notes study sessions apparently linked to the 1956 Hundred Flowers Movement, euphemistically known as “immortals’ gatherings” (shenxianhui ), when elders and other elites were encouraged to reminisce freely about the past, including local culture and customs—information that often ended up being used against them during the following “anti-rightist”movements, and then the Cultural Revolution, when Mei and others were punished. Still,

China’s elites did what they could to create at least some room for creative accommodation in which they could preserve valued facets of local culture. Intellectuals and other elites strove to the utmost to survive in this tricky environment; including (like Mei) performing acts of self criticism when necessary, but also relying on personal connections while attempting to use state rhetoric to their own advantage.

Noting that such works exploited CCP rhetoric against local customs to serve the cause of preserving them, Katz reads between the lines of the Preface. The main contents that follow are subdivided thus:

  • 1) Annual ritual calendar (suishi 歲 )
  • 2) Peasant proverbs (nongyan )
  • 3) Birth (shengzi )
  • 4) Marriage (hunjia 婚嫁)
  • 5) Birthdays, anniversaries (shengri, zhushi he zhushou )
  • 6) Mortuary rituals (sangzang )
  • 7) Prayers (qidao 祈禱)
  • 8) Miscellany (zazu 俎),

with temples and their festivals included in categories 1 and 7. Indeed, the “prayers” rubric subsumes rituals performed by Daoist and other ritual specialists, such as rituals for rain and to repay vows. Katz goes on to discuss some of these in detail, such as the plague expulsion rituals of Marshal Wen (on which he has written extensively), noting the continuity of the compilers’ disparaging language (however obligatory) with that of their elite imperial forebears as shown in county gazetteers.

But what we can hardly expect of such material under Maoism is a detailed account of religious life at the time of writing. Though the work is inevitably framed as “historical”, with current practices downplayed, Katz considers change over the period, outlining the relatively laissez-faire approach of the Communist authorities towards folk religious life from 1949 until the 1958 Great Leap Backward; and he cites a 1957 survey by the Rui’an county [1] Buddhist Studies Association of some 340 temples, and ritual specialists, there.

As he notes, while some of these traditions have disappeared, many others have revived since the liberalisations of the late 1970s—one starting point might be the Anthology for Zhejiang province, notably the lengthy section on “religious music” in the instrumental music volumes. [2] Katz concludes by suggesting that the delicate accommodation since the late 1970s with the power of the state may partly be traced back to such writings from the 1950s.

 

* I’ve always been most partial to such research—see my Folk music of China, pp.52–4; for more, see e.g.

A further perspective is that of fictional films like The blue kiteevoking the personal stories behind the tensions of the era.

For Katz’s work on ritual in Hunan, see here; and for his article on temple fairs in Taiwan in a recent book on doing fieldwork in China, here.

 

[1] On Rui’an county, I look forward to reading Xiaoxuan Wang, Maoism and grassroots religion: the Communist revolution and the reinvention of religious life in China (2020).

[2] I also look forward to reading Mayfair Yang, Re-enchanting modernity (2020).

 

Buddhist ritual of Chengde

*For main page, click here!*
(in Main menu > Themes > Local ritual)

As part of my extensive series on local ritual, I’ve just added a page about an early salvage project on the shengguan wind ensemble of Buddhist temples in Chengde in northeast Hebei, summer retreat of the Qing emperors—where I made a little fieldtrip in 1987, with comments inspired by a passage from Bruce Jackson’s wonderful book Fieldwork.

Chengde 4

 

 

Bhutan: a tongue-twister, archery festivals, and teasing cheerleaders

Bhutan

Not a Lot of People Know This, but the popular tongue-twister*

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

is a modern American adaptation of an ancient ritual in Bhutan.

Really?—The Plain People of Ireland.
No—SJ.
Begob! You had me there.

The woodchuck song (cf. More stammering songs) dates from 1902—here’s the popular version by Ragtime Roberts, recorded in 1904, just as Mahler was conducting the premiere of his 5th symphony:

I like this 1946 Glenn Miller version, with the follow-up “How many cats would a catnip nip…”:

cartoon
To answer the question, apart from the song’s decidedly surly “A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood”, there have been some hilarious scientific attempts
(cf. Stewart Lee’s pedantic research on “the tip of the cesspit” under The c-word).

* * *

The word woodchuck, first recorded in 1674, is an English rendition of the Algonquin wejack or wuchak. And by way of the etymology of wang in whangdoodle (cf. schlong), I note, with the greatest respect, the many illustrious bearers of the name Wangchuk in Bhutan—which inspires me to

How much wang would a Wangchuck chuck if a Wangchuck could chuck wang?

In translation this may not quite match the elegance of the woodchuck version, with its euphonic “wood” and “would/could”—but I like to imagine that it works even better in the original Middle Bhutanese (just the kind of wacky topic that Sir Harold Bailey might have relished: “Indeed I’d say there’s hardly a line that could not have been understood by any Persian of the fourth century”)—perhaps

Wonga wang wunga Wangchuk chuka wangka Wangchuk wunga chuka wang?

wangsDare I surmise [Yes, I’m afraid you probably do—Ed.]** that wang-chucking festivals were once a major part of the ritual calendar in Bhutan, with ornately decorated wangs,*** assembled from monasteries throughout the region, to be hurled towards a distant target, or tôs-pöt? The arcane sentence might thus be the pious request of a courtly petitioner, curious despite the ineligibility of the royal family to participate in an event of which they were the main patrons.

Indeed, phallic symbols, representing Avalokiteśvara, are common in Bhutan and Tibet, as documented in this substantial (and for once, real) article. One of the names of Shiva is Wangchuk chenpo; and the phallus was a major part of the symbolic repertoire of atsara jesters.

* * *

Perhaps [sic] we may find the modern descendant of the Bhutanese wang-chucking ritual in its archery festivals (cf. Zen archery). OK then, so far this post has been Rather Silly, but now that I come to seek material on archery in Bhutan, I am full of genuine admiration.

Via the splendid community website bongopas.com, I find several videos of archery festivals (do consult the original posts, under bongop videos). Here’s a lovely short documentary from 2015, showing the ritual sequence, with vignettes from flag-bearer and storekeeper as well as the women of the chorus, and—for anyone who likes to think of Bhutan as “unspoilt”—a final comment on the decline of the “old rules” (cf. China, e.g. here):

Women play a major role as cheerleaders [sic], singing songs to tease the archers with their nicknames (cf. French taunting):

Whose forehead is bulging and swollen like a wine-serving spoon, in aimless flight his shaft will drift to hit the mark not even once.

Lips sheltered in a black beard, in aimless flight his shaft will drift to hit the mark not even once.

Here are some more instances (“Forehead is like wine sieve??”, “Dried ears!!!”, “Sneezing carpenter??”, “Pumpkin wine container”, “Polished stone head”):

And some more choral songs:

So while I’m encouraged by their own delight in jocular wordplay, ethnography makes a fine counterpart to my earlier frivolity.

Archery festivals are also common in Ladakh and Sikkim, and, with very different modern histories, in Tibet, Kham, and Amdo—as in this documentary, filmed in Lo khog village, Qinghai:

Returning to Bhutan, all this should encourage us to explore the riches of diverse soundscapes there, through sites such as this—not least monastic rituals, such as this 2-CD Lyrichord collection recorded by John Levy in 1971 (liner notes for download here):


The research for this project was
not made remotely possible by a generous grant from SPICE, the Society for the Promotion Prevention of International Cultural Exchange; and believe it or not, no ice-cubes were “educated” with Bombay Sapphire during the creation of this post.

 

* For an operatic tongue-twister, click here; and for a Chinese tongue-twister of mine, here.

** In such exegesis I may be inspired by Mots d’heure, gousses, rames; for other spurious excursions in cultural and linguistic history, see my series on the faqu (“French pieces”) under this roundup of posts on the Tang dynasty.

*** Cf. Dud ‘n’ Pete’s illumination of the lyrics “Mama’s got a brand new bag yeah, gonna groove it the whole night long baby“. More recently, Miranda Vukasovic has amassed an impressive collection of gaily-coloured phallic bottle-openers from Bali.

 

 

Religious life in 1930s’ Fujian

The film footage of Harry Caldwell

Fujian province in southeast China remains one of the most vibrant regions for folk religious activity (see this introduction).

Harry Caldwell (1876–1970), a Methodist missionary from the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee, first travelled to China in 1900, inspired by his brother’s missionary work there, making a base in Fujian with his family until 1944. An avid hunter and naturalist, in his book Blue tiger (1924) he showed how hunting with the locals for man-killing tigers paved the way for effective missionary work [file under fieldwork techniques—SJ], and he discussed the delicate diplomacy required to negotiate peace between soldiers and bandits in his attempts to spare villagers caught amidst the fighting (cf. the Italian Catholic mission in Gaoluo).

Apart from filming agricultural, military, and daily scenes in Fujian, he also paid extensive attention to local religious life there—and now, in an enterprising project (click here) by the Department of Religious Studies of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK) under the direction of Megan Bryson, ten clips on religious ritual that Caldwell filmed in the 1930s have been restored and made available online, with extensive annotations by UTK students.

The evocative clips (alas silent!) comprise:

  • an opulent deity procession
  • a divination session, with a Buddhist monk presiding
  • a fertility ritual, with Daoist masters wielding ritual swords and horns at an elaborate altar
  • a Daoist healing ritual to protect children (cf. Crossing the Passes, e.g. Gansu and Shaanxi), with exuberant ritual dancing and the burning of a paper boat
  • an apotropaic ritual: pasting a talisman, a fishing net, and cacti at the family lintel
  • a Bathing the Buddha procession, and women offering at small shrines
  • Methodist church activities—including the distribution of baby chicks to the congregation
  • “Hell puppets”
  • plague-dispelling rituals, with paper boats sent off
  • a grand Buddhist funeral at the Yongquan si temple in Gushan.

Watching such footage, one always wonders what became of all these people over the turbulent decades to come. While the project offers precious glimpses of ritual life in Fujian before the 1949 revolution, all such practices still thrive in the region; with the addition of colour and sound, one might almost suppose many of these clips to come from Ken Dean’s wonderful 2010 film Bored in heaven (among many films listed here). I hope to see comments on Caldwell’s footage from scholars working on ritual life in Fujian—perhaps providing some more precise locations.

For Daoist ritual in Fujian and elsewhere in south China, see here.

Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing

huapencun

Mural, Lord Guan Hall, Huapen village, Yanqing district, Beijing, c1809.

Quite beyond my area of expertise, I was inspired by reading the brief yet suggestive article

  • Liu Lingcang 劉淩滄, [1] “Minjian bihuade zhizuo fangfa” 民間壁畫的製作方法 [Techniques of making folk murals], Yishu yanjiu 1958.2, pp.52–6.

As Hannibal Taubes divined when he sent it to me, slight as it is, it links up nicely with my taste for scholarship under Maoism documenting the customs of old Beijing just as they were being dismantled. It’s not so much the quality of the research that attracts me here—rather, the delicate nature of studying the topic just as collectivisation was escalating, painfully evoked in films like The blue kite. As ever, we need to read between the lines. Moreover, we can always learn from accounts of the nuts and bolts of creativity.

I’ve already introduced the work of the great Yang Yinliu at the helm of the Music Research Institute, along with the ritual traditions of old Beijing represented by the Zhihua temple. For more on old Beijing, see also Li Wenru, Wang ShixiangChang Renchun, and narrative-singing (here and here)—and in recent years a major project on the social history of imperial and Republican Beijing temples through epigraphy and oral sources.

* * *

From November 1955 to the autumn of 1956, the Central Academy of Fine Arts carried out a project documenting the work of ritual painters in Beijing. Rather than Liu’s gloss huagong 画工, the common folk term was huajiang 画匠 “artisan painter”, as in Yanggao, referring to artisans working for what had always been largely a ritual market—part of the whole network of ritual service providers upon whom Chang Renchun‘s work opens a window. They were apprenticed from young, often within the family.

Themes of their murals and paintings included the Seventy-two Courts (qisier si 七十二司) (cf. here, under “Buddhist-transmitted groups”) and the Ten Kings of the Underworld, depictions of Guanyin, the life of the Buddha, Yaowang Medicine King, and Water and Land rituals; and scenes from popular fiction such as the Three Kingdoms and the Water Margin. The article also hints at the market in the surrounding countryside for New Year’s lanterns and diaogua hangings, such as our own team found in Hebei (cf. the story of itinerant Qi Youzhi and his forebears, maintaining sheng mouth-organs for temples and village ritual associations). The themes of such hangings were closely related to historical subjects embodied in opera and story-telling.

Diaogua hangings adorning the alleys of Gaoluo village, 1989. My photos.

Just as our understanding of ritual is enriched by zooming in on the nuts and bolts of its vocal and instrumental soundscape, we can learn much by unpacking the techniques and vocabulary of religious painting. [2] In the end, ritual performers and ritual artisans are closely related.

The whole process of creating murals consisted of three stages (yixiu erluo sancheng 一朽二落三成):

  • xiu “draft”, known as tanhuo 擹活, creating a draft outline, drawn in charcoal
  • luo (lao, perhaps), “setting down”, known as laomo 落墨 “setting down the ink”
  • cheng “completion” (cheng guanhuo 成管活).

As with Renaissance artists in Europe, the laborious final stages depended on a division of labour, with the assistance of disciples.

Liu goes on to discuss elements in turn, with details on materials and tools, including this marvellous summary of the technicalities of preparing Water and Land paintings:

Shuilu details

Citing examples as far back as the Tang dynasty to illustrate techniques still in use, Liu goes on to discuss applying ground layers to the wall, templates (fenben 粉本), traditional methods of mixing and adjusting mineral pigments, the use of glues and alum, creating 3-D effects, and colour gradation. For pigments, while Liu notes the incursion of Western materials since the 1920s, among the team’s informants for traditional painting techniques was none other than Guan Pinghu, master of the qin zither! And in a detailed section on depicting gold, Liu consulted Wang Dingli 王定理 and Shen Yucheng 申玉成, working on the statuary of Tibetan temples in Beijing, as the best artisans then working in the medium.

An intriguing part of the final stages of mural painting is the addition of colours according to the master craftsman’s indications in charcoal, such as gong 工 for red and ba 八 for yellow—economical versions of the characters hong 红 and huang 黄, or liu 六, whose pronunciation stood for  绿 green. They even found such indications visible in the Ming-dynasty murals of the Dahui si 大慧寺 temple in Beijing. Liu notes that the custom was already dying out in Beijing, [3] but the shorthand reminds me, not quite gratuitously, of the secret language of blind shawm players in north Shanxi, and (less directly) the characters of gongche notation, which persisted.

Though again the ancient tradition of oral formulas (koujue 口诀) was dying out (at least in Beijing), Liu lists those that they could recover—just the kind of vocabulary that we seek from ritual performers, going beyond airy doctrinal theorising to gain insights into the practical and aesthetic world of folk society:

koujue

Just as the ritual soundscape still heard throughout the countryside in the 1950s (and today) contrasted starkly with the official diet of revolutionary songs, these traditions occupy an utterly different world from our image of propaganda posters of the time.

But—not unlike all the 1950s’ fieldwork on regional musical traditions (links here)— what the article could hardly broach was how the lives and livelihoods of such ritual service providers were progressively impoverished after Liberation, as their whole market came under assault and temples were demolished or left to fall into ruin. Even in the previous decade, through the Japanese occupation and civil war, the maintenance of temples can hardly have been a priority; new creation of murals was clearly on hold, and one wonders how much, if any, maintenance and restoration these artisans were still doing when Liu’s team visited them. Some of the artisans were doubtless already seeking alternative employment such as factory work or petty trade. We get but rare glimpses of this story, such as Zha Fuxi’s 1952 frank letter to the former monks of the Zhihua temple tradition. Later in the 1950s some official documents inadvertently provide further material on the period.

Of course, irrespective of their current circumstances, asking people to recall their previous practices is always an aspect of fieldwork, while one seeks to clarify the time-frame of their observations.

 

[1] Liu LingcangBy this time Liu Lingcang (1908–89) was already a distinguished artist and educator; but his early life qualified him well for the project discussed here. A native of a poor village in Gu’an county, Hebei, as a teenager he worked as an apprentice folk ritual artisan in nearby Bazhou before finding work as a restorer of temple murals in Beijing—so the 1955–6 project was based on his own former experience as a participant. Becoming a member of the Research Association for Chinese Painting in 1926, he went on to study at the Beiping National School of Art (precursor of the Central Academy of Fine Arts), taking up senior official posts after the 1949 Liberation. Some of his later paintings addressed religious themes: like Yang Yinliu over at the Music Research Institute, he clearly remained attached to his early background, despite his elevation. Again I think of Craig Clunas’s comment “The published curricula vitae of Chinese scholars often give a false idea of the continuity of their employment, and conceal the long periods of frustrating idleness caused by periodic political campaigning.”

[2] Craig Clunas kindly offers some further leads to “technical art history” in China, such as John Winter, East Asian paintings (2008), and (for the medieval period, notably for Dunhuang) Sarah Fraser, Performing the visual: the practice of Buddhist wall painting in China and Central Asia, 618-960 (2004). For technical details in the world of literati painting (such as mounting), see Robert van Gulik, Chinese pictorial art as viewed by the connoisseur (1981).

[3] As Hannibal tells me, a variant of this system is still used by folk ritual artisans in rural Shaanbei. For the anthropology of folk ritual art there he also directs us to a wealth of research, notably the insightful work of Huyan Sheng 呼延胜, such as his PhD on Water and Land paintings (Shaanbei tudishangde shuilu yishu 陕北土地上的水陆画艺术), and the article “Yishu renleixue shiyexiade Shaanbei minjian simiao huihua he kaiguang yishi” 艺术人类学视域下的陕北民间寺庙绘画和开光仪式, Minyi 民艺 2019.3; as well as a detailed article on painter-artisans in nearby Gansu by Niu Le 牛乐, “Duoyuan wenhuade yinxing chuancheng celue yu wenhua luoji” 多元文化的隐性传承策略与文化逻辑, Qinghai minzu yanjiu 2018.3.

Gosh—for such remarkable continuity in Chinese culture, despite all its tribulations, yet another reminder that “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”, and that “a starved camel is bigger than a fat horse”.

Temple murals: a new website

HT site

For aficionados of Chinese art and religion, to complement the fine website of Hannibal Taubes on north Chinese temple murals http://twosmall.ipower.com/blog/ (see my post here), we now have a related (and still evolving) site Temple Trash—the drôle title taken from the description of the murals by an unnamed professor! http://twosmall.ipower.com/murals/

Both websites are vast, and still only a selection from the archive deriving from his fieldwork. It’s a Herculean (or in this case Hannibalesque) task, that invites us to reassess the whole history of religious art—commonly assumed to have entered terminal decline since the Ming dynasty. Unlike the many glossy compendia of early temple murals and architecture protected by the state, these murals come mainly from minor village temples, and often suffer from neglect and pillage. And given the southern focus of religious studies, the focus on north China (mainly for Hebei, Shanxi, and Shaanbei), is itself original.

Categories

The wealth of images is meticulously documented. As Hannibal explains, the image scroll on the main page is in chronological order from c1500 to the present day, top to bottom. Click on the little squares to see the galleries. You can browse the images according to type by clicking on the “Categories” menu at the upper left—select the dropdown menu for a quick-list of categories (deities, genres and topics, locations, venues, periods, and so on, all extensively subdivided), or scroll down for more info. The murals are shown in context, with details of temple architecture and village topography.

To give a few examples of the wealth of the new site: apart from the temple focus, some interesting galleries show images depicted since the 1949 founding of the PRC. Some living traditions of ritual paintings are also included (cf. my modest contributions on this blog under Ritual paintings), such as pantheon scrolls for spirit mediums (Shaanbei, and Wutai in Shanxi). Among many topics, the theme of Women in murals supplements the Goddesses listed under the Deity category.

Of course (as I would say), like ritual manuals, material culture is both silent and immobile: temples are not mere repositories of artefacts, but sites for social activity. All such documentation should complement studies on religious life in north China; and (as I would say) funerals too have remained vibrant occasions for ritual life.

Exploring these sites is an edifying, eye-opening pleasure.

Religion in Chinese society

My reviews of two recent surveys of the Chinese religious world by Ian Johnson and Adam Yuet Chau reminded me to revisit a remarkable early sociological study, also accessible:

  • C.K. Yang, Religion in Chinese society: a study of contemporary social functions of religion and some of their historical factors (1st edition 1961; Chinese edition here).

The sociological approach to Chinese religion was slow to develop—partly due to the difficulty of access to mainland China after 1949, and partly because of the enduring scholarly bias towards discursive, doctrinal issues and early history.

Indeed, much of Yang’s analysis anticipates approaches since the 1980s’ reforms, including Chau’s “five modalities”. Yang already saw through the bias of the discursive/scriptural modality that still holds a particular allure for many in the West, at the expense of the other “diffused” forms.

This study is an attempt to answer the question: What functions did religion perform in Chinese social life and organization so as to provide a basis for its existence and development, and through what structural forms were these functions carried out?

Having trained at Yanching University in Beijing and the USA, Yang returned to China in 1948, carrying out fieldwork there before having to return to the USA in 1951, where he was to be based at Pittsburgh. Given that his book was published in 1961, it may seem understandable that, until the final chapter, it’s largely written in the past tense. In my book Plucking the winds I noted a similar lapse in accounts of the performance of baojuanprecious scrolls”:

During the years of Maoism, “armchair sinology” was the only option, as in many fields. Even by the early 1980s, Daniel Overmyer still found that “unfortunately there are very few materials available for a discussion of sectarian ritual”.

Soon after, there was a growing awareness of the persistence of ritual practice in mainland China, but lapses still occurred: “We know a certain amount about how baojuan were [my italics] performed, although there are all too few good first-hand descriptions.”

wentan004

South Gaoluo liturgists performing the Houtu scroll, 1993.

However, the vocal liturgists of the South Gaoluo ritual association were performing the Houtu precious scroll through the first fifteen years of the PRC, and they were still doing so in the 1990s.

While Yang’s focus is on the late Qing and Republican eras, and he surveys the early roots of Chinese cultural traits, he introduces major themes that later scholars have been able to elaborate with the benefits of detailed fieldwork since the 1980s’ reforms.

Yang makes extensive use of Republican-era sources such as Grootaers and county gazetteers, notably for Hebei (later explored further by scholars such as Naquin and Duara) and the Shanghai region.

In his Introduction he observes how early-20th-century urban scholars dismissed the role of popular religion in Chinese society, from Liang Qichao to Hu Shi (“China is a country without religion and the Chinese are a people who are not bound by religious superstitions”). By contrast, he notes the importance of temples in the collective life of local communities, going on to observe all kinds of religious influence. And despite the secular views of many intellectuals of the day, the Republican era also saw the beginnings of fieldwork on folklore.

In Chapter 2 Yang notes the place of religion in the integration of the family, including ancestor worship and mortuary rites. Chapter 3 goes on to discuss the religious bond in social groups, and Chapter 4 communal aspects of popular cults—notably temple fairs.

Chapters 5 to 8 explore the political role of religion over the long historical perspective. In his account Yang includes both official and popular cults, with notes on cults such as those of the deities Zhenwu and Chenghuang. Chapter 8 discusses the administrative control of religion, later elaborated by Vincent Goossaert; and the persecution of “heterodox cults”, which he pursues further in Chapter 9 on religion and political rebellion—again, while he cites pre-1949 material, the issue continued to fester under Maoism despite fierce campaigns.

As Yang’s manuscript was largely complete, the 1958 Great Leap Backward led to an appalling national famine, and religious sects rose in resistance over a wide area. The state’s partial withdrawal from extremist policies from 1961 produced a short-lived cultural and religious revival.

North Xinzhuang 1959

Former monk Daguang with village disciples, North Xinzhuang, Beijing suburbs 1959. For more images of Maoism, see here.

Yang was not to know of the maintenance of traditions among village-wide ritual assocations in Hebei through the first decade of the PRC, for instance, or the revival of “ghost operas” in Hunan and elsewhere; but his conceptual framework allows ample room to accommodate such grassroots activities.

In Chapter 12 Yang (inspired by Joachim Wach and Emile Durkheim) makes an important distinction between diffused and institutional religion, with the former dominant and the latter weak in Chinese society. In Adam Yuet Chau’s summary (Miraculous response, pp.143–5) he goes further:

C.K. Yang (1961) famously proposed that in China elements of popular religion are diffused into core secular social institutions such as the family, socioeconomic groups such as trade guilds, communities such as villages and native-place associations, and the state. He argued that the diffused religious ideas and practices provided an air of sanctity to, and thus helped uphold, these core institutions. I suggest that the symbiosis between secular institutions and religious life is even more intimate, that the same principles and mechanisms for organizing ordinary social life are used in organizing popular religious life.

Yang’s chapter concludes:

The lack of a powerful priestly religion did not mean the weakness of religious influence in social life. The Chinese common people, especially the women, hardly passed a day or faced a crisis without resorting to religious assistance. Burning incense to the house gods in the morning and evening, going to the temples to pray on numerous public and private occasions, visiting a classical priest for guidance on big or little problems, attending temple fairs and religious festivals, consulting the religious sections of the almanac for an auspicious time for making a major or minor move, and reflecting on the supernatural influence on life and the universe—all these added up to an intimate relationship between religion and life under the traditional social order. Yet all these activities proceeded without the organized direction of any priesthood. People visited a particular temple, worshiped a particular spirit, called on a particular priest, all in accordance with the practical function of religion for the particular occasion. To what religion a temple belonged might be a puzzle to many academicians, but such questions had no functional significance in the religious life of the common people. Hence, weakness in the structural position of institutional religion was not synonymous with the functional weakness of religion in social life.

See also the festschrift

  • Wenfang Tang and Burkart Holzner (eds), Social change in contemporary China: C.K. Yang and the concept of institutional diffusion (2007).

In Chapter 13 Yang uses detailed material to show the changing role of religion through the Republican era, noting the limited impact of the secular views of urban intellectuals and state campaigns. I’m happy to see him citing the maxim attributed to Confucius “When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”, which later became a popular refrain with my fieldwork colleagues.

In Yang’s final chapter he looks beyond “Communism as a new faith”. While analysing the secular rituals of the new Party-state, he takes into account the coexistence with both diffused and institutional theistic religion in both policy and practice. He notes the radical assaults on “superstitious practices” and the destruction of religious properties, but always takes a nuanced view—such as this account setting forth from Wudangshan:

On this scenic mountain were eight palaces; thirty-two temples; twelve shrines; a “golden palace”, the largest existing bronze structure in China; and thousands of bronze Taoist images, many of which were unsurpassed works of art. In 1955 and again in 1956, county officials broke up hundreds of “scattered, damaged, or duplicate” bronze images and sold them as scrap metal to help provide funds for the county budget. Over 50,000 catties (about 65,000 pounds) of bronze were collected. In the 1956 campaign it took forty-eight days to destroy the images, one of which weighed over 3,000 catties or nearly two tons, and a large number of which had been preserved in good condition. Leading Taoist priests, some even with limited political status, could only watch the heart-rending destruction helplessly. Afterwards, as news of the wanton destruction reached the provincial authorities, several of the county officials responsible were given demerits as punishment, which seemed to be an insignificant gesture to placate the rising popular protest. Although the Wutangshan case was brought to public attention because of its prominence as a national religious center, the destruction or selling of the properties and sacred objects of innumerable obscure temples in villages remained unnoticed or unrecorded.

Although antireligious riots and destruction on temple property and images were partly inspired by the anti-supernatural attitude which characterized the Communist ideology, they were nevertheless scattered local occurrences without organized direction from the central Communist authorities. Furthermore, such actions were largely restricted to the destruction of religious properties without direct harm to believers. But when religious beliefs formed an active part of a “reactionary” social system, such beliefs became the object of drastic and systematic elimination in order to overthrow the social system which the religious beliefs supported. In such cases, professional practitioners of these beliefs would face persecution.

Yang also unpacks the state policy of preserving the art and architecture of major temples (cf. Wutaishan):

It should be kept in mind that the restoration work is limited to large, well-known temples in each locality, while innumerable humble ones are left to deteriorate or converted to nonreligious uses. The wholesale impressing of priests into secular production work and the conversion of most temples into secular quarters would seriously reduce the already weak foundation of Chinese institutional religion, an effect not canceled by the restoration of large temples.

Of course, worse was to come, but Yang must have welcomed the revival after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and the new tide of research.

Even while describing campaigns against sectarian groups (on which we now have much more material), he suggests that

it is probably incorrect to assume that the Communists, although they have recently won success by their mastery of underground techniques, possess fully effective countermeasures against the underground sectarian societies. While the Communists can infiltrate into any of the known societies at will, they may not be able to penetrate into every one of the numerous isolayed small units in a highly decentralized organizational system. Furthermore, as one society is suppressed, others continued to rise spontaneously. The root of the matter lies in the popular belief in the gods and their magic to bring deliverance from suffering, and in the popular tradition or organizing religious groups to offer resistance to an oppressive ruling power against which the individual seems helpless.

His conclusion is prophetic, yet largely free of simplistic flag-waving for the supposed triumph of eternal, sacred values which some Western reviewers read into the more recent revival:

Communism’s probable inability to cope with all social and personal crises that may arise in the future would compel the people, when subjected to extreme distress, to continue to reach beyond the finitude of empirical experience and rational thought for relief. Should this be the case, even if the Communist ideology were to endure as a sociopolitical doctrine, it would have to develop permanent tolerance of theistic religion so that theism could perform the moral integrative function of stabilizing the new social order. The gods might then emerge from their eclipse to play a familiar role under the dominance of a disbelieving political orthodoxy, a situation reminiscent of the long and often stormy co-existence of theistic religion and Confucianism, whose excessively earthly quality invited the development of theistic faiths.

* * *

Through the 1950s few scholars were able to undertake fieldwork on the survival of local ritual traditions—with the laudable exception of considerable projects under the cloak of music studies.

But despite the paucity of material then available on the contemporary situation, Yang didn’t see the 1949 revolution as the end of the story. Though he was writing at such a traumatic time for Chinese society, when it would have been easy to take a black-and-white view, his book contains mature insights.