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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)[note 2], is the collection of grassroots ethnic religious traditions of the Han Chinese, or the indigenous religion of China. Chinese folk religion primarily consists in the worship of the shen (神 "gods", "spirits", "awarenesses", "consciousnesses", "archetypes"; literally "expressions", the energies that generate things and make them thrive) which can be nature deities, city deities or tutelary deities of other human agglomerations, national deities, cultural heroes and demigods, ancestors and progenitors, and 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 3] especially referring to its intrinsic metaphysical perspective.[note 4]
The Chinese folk religion has a variety of sources, localised worship forms, founder backgrounds, ritual and philosophical traditions. Among the ritual traditions, notable examples include Wuism and Nuoism. Chinese folk religion is sometimes categorized inadequately 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"), inhabits the boundary between Taoism and folk religion. Confucianism advocates worship of gods and ancestors through proper rites, which have an ethical importance.[note 5] Taoism in its various currents, either comprehended or not within the Chinese folk religion, has some of its origins from Wuism. Chinese religion mirrors the social landscape, and takes on different shades for different people.
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 source of moral meaning, the utmost god and the universe itself; qi (气), the breath or substance of the universe; jingzu (敬祖), the veneration of ancestors; bao ying (报应), moral reciprocity—, and two traditional concepts of fate and meaning—ming yun (命运), the personal destiny or burgeoning; and yuan fen (缘分), "fateful coincidence", good and bad chances and potential relationships. Yin and yang is the polarity that describes the order of the universe, held in balance by the interaction of principles of growth (shen) and principles of waning (gui), with act (yang) usually preferred over receptiveness (yin). Ling (numen or sacred) is the "medium" of the bivalency, and the inchoate order of creation.
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 forms of official recognition by the government of China, such as Mazuism and Xiaism in southeastern China, Huangdi worship, and other forms of local worship, for example the Longwang, Pangu or Caishen worship. The Vietnamese folk religion is similar to the Chinese folk religion practiced in the south.
Chinese folk religion is very diverse, varying from province to province and even from a village to another, for it is bound to local communities, kinship, and environments. In each setting, institution 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 preserves aspects of natural beliefs such as totemism, 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.
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 Chinese folk religion was subject to 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 wu wei (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.
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 source of moral meaning; qi (气), the breath or substance of which all things are made; the practice of jingzu (敬祖), the veneration of ancestors; bao ying (报应), moral reciprocity.
Tian is usually rendered as "Heaven", but a philological translation would be "Great One", "Great Whole", "Great All". At a point in history he was equated with the concept of Shangdi: during the Shang dynasty, which gave prominence to the worship of ancestral gods and cultural heroes, the fountain of the universe was named Shangdi, meaning "Earliest Patriarch", "Earliest Ancestor", "Highest Emperor", and identified as the imperial power. With the Zhou dynasty, that preferred a religion focused on gods of nature, Shangdi was regarded as a more abstract and impersonal concept, as Tian. Another equivalent concept is that of Taidi, the "Great God". Di (帝) is a term meaning "deity" or "emperor" (Latin: imperator, verb im-perare; "generating, making from within"), used either as a name of the primordial god or as a title of natural gods.
The Tian is the absolute reality, the source of moral meaning and of all creativity inherent to the natural world. This creativity or virtue (de), in humans is the potentiality to transcend the given conditions and act wisely and morally. Tian is therefore both transcendent and immanent. Various interpretations were developed by Confucians and other schools of thought.
The qi is the breath or substance of which all things are made, including inanimate matter, the living beings, thought and gods. It is the continuum energy—matter. Neo-Confucian thinkers, among whom Zhu Xi, developed the idea of li, the "reason", "order" or pattern through which the qi develops, that is the polarity of yin and yang.
Yin and yang, which etymological roots mean respectively "shady" and "sunny", or "dark" and "light", are modes of manifestation of the qi. Yin is the qi in its dense, dark, sinking, wet, condensing mode; yang denotes the light, and the bright, rising, dry, expanding modality. Described as Taiji (the "Great Pole"), they represent the polarity and complementarity that enlivens the cosmos. They can also be conceived as "disorder" and "order", "activity" or "passivity", with act (yang) usually preferred over receptiveness (yin). In Neo-Confucian terminology this polarity is li, the natural order.
The concept of 神 shén (cognate of 申 shēn, "expansion, growth") is translated as "gods" or "spirits" (from Latin spiritus, "insufflation"), as they are the essences or energies that generate and grow the different things and phenomena. In poetic speech "they draw out the ten thousand things"; they make phenomena appear and things extend themselves. As forces of growth the gods are regarded as yang, opposed to a yin class of entities called 鬼 guǐ (cognate of 归 guī, "return, contraction"), chaotic beings. The dragon is a symbol of yang, the principle of generation. There are gods of nature, gods of the place, and ancestral gods (zu or zuxian).
In Taoist and Confucian thought, the Tao and the multiplicity of shen are identified as one and the same. In the Yizhuan, a commentary to the Yijing, it is written that «one yin and one yang are called the Tao [...] the unfathomable change of yin and yang is called shen». In other texts, with a tradition going back to the Han period, the gods and spirits are explained to be names of yin and yang, forces of contraction and forces of growth.
While in popular thought they have conscience and personality, Neo-Confucian scholars tended to rationalise them. Zhu Xi wrote that they act according to the li. Zhang Zai wrote that they are "the inherent potential (liang neng) of the two ways of qi". Cheng Yi said that they are "traces of the creative process". Chen Chun wrote that shen and gui are expansions and contractions, going and coming, of yin and yang—qi.
Like all things, also humans are enlivened by a spirit: hun and po are respectively the yang soul or mind, and the yin soul that is the body. To extend life to its full potential the human shen must be cultivated, resulting in ever clearer, more luminous states of being. In man there's no distinction between rationality and intuition, thinking and feeling: the human being is xin (心), mind-heart. With death, while the po returns to the earth, the hun is thought to be pure awareness or qi, and is the shen to whom ancestral sacrifices are dedicated.
The shen of men who are properly cultivated and honoured after their death are upheld ancestors and progenitors (zuxian 祖先 or simply zu 祖). When ancestries aren't properly cultivated the world falls into disruption, and they become gui. Ancestral worship is intertwined with totemism, as the earliest ancestors of an ethnic lineage are often represented as animals or associated to them.
Ancestors are means of connection to the Tian-Taidi, the primordial god which does not have form. As ancestors have form, they shape the destiny of humans. Ancestors who have had a significant impact in shaping the destiny of large groups of people, or even the entirety of the Chinese nation (cultural heroes), are exalted among the highest gods.
The Chinese traditional belief of bao ying ("reciprocity", "retribution" or "judgement"), is inscribed in the cosmological view of an ordered universe, 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 Tian maintains balance rewarding everyone according to the quality of their actions.
The cosmic significance of bao ying is better understood by exploring other two traditional concepts of fate and meaning:
Ming yun and yuan fen are linked, because what appears on the surface to be chance (either positive or negative), is part of the deeper rhythm that shapes personal life based on how destiny is directed. They are shapen by bao ying through moral actions. 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 contributes to social harmony.
These three themes of Chinese indigenous spiritual heritage—moral reciprocity, personal destiny, fateful coincidence—are completed when a fourth notion is explained:
In Chinese religion the concept of ling (灵) is the equivalent of holy and numen. Ling is the state of the "medium" of the bivalency (yin-yang), and thus it is identical with the inchoate order of creation. At times shen is used as a synonym. Everything inspiring awe or wonder because it is not measured by yin and yang, because it crosses the polarity and therefore can't be conceptualised, is regarded as numinous. These entities possess unusual spiritual characteristics, and possess the power to disrupt the balance of yin and yang.
The notion of xian ling (显灵), variously translated as "divine efficacy, virtue" or simply the "numen", 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 "effervescence"), the evidence of the holy. Within the framework 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).
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.
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, or also zumiao 祖庙). Kinship associations or churches, congregating people with the same surname and belonging to the same kin, are a major organisational unit of kinship religion: these lineage societies build temples where the deified ancestors of a kin (for example the Chens or the Lins) are enshrined and worshiped. These temples serve as congregational centres 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.
Within the Chinese folk religion, worship may draw upon dedicated ancient ritual traditions. Many of these ascend to Wuism, the indigenous shamanic tradition of China. The wu 巫, "shamans" or "wizards", are men who can mediate with the gods. According to philosopher Ulrich Libbrecht, some of the origins of Taoism can be traced to Wuism. Different from Wuism is the practice of tongji mediumship, where the medium is imbued by a divine power, yet can't control it.
Nuoism is a variety of the Chinese folk religion practiced by most of the Tujia people, but also by a number of Han Chinese and other ethnic groups of China. Nuo religion revolves around the worship of gods and ancestors represented by characteristic wooden masks and idols. Ritual performances (Nuo opera) carried out by circles of ritual masters wearing masks of the gods are central to this type of religion.
Confucianism and Taoism—which are formalised or institutionalised, doctrinal or philosophical traditions—can be considered as both 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 folk religious societies may adopt a strictly Confucian doctrine. An example is the Yidan xuetang (一耽学堂), a Beijing-based Confucian church.
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. The Zhengyi sanju daoshi are trained by other priests of the same sect, and historically received formal ordination by the Celestial Master, although the 63rd Celestial Master Zhang Enpu fled to Taiwan in the 1940s during the Chinese Civil War.
Faism, also called "Folk Taoism" or "Red Taoism", refers to the grouping of many orders of ritual mastery that operate within the Chinese folk religion, but outside institutional or official Taoism. It is the tradition of the "masters of rites", fashi (法師), 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 that trace their lineage to the Celestial Masters.
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.
This group of religions includes Yiguandao and other Xiantiandao (先天道, "Way of the Ancient Heaven") sects, Jiugongdao (九宮道, "Way of the Nine Palaces"), Zhenkongism, Luoism, and the more recent De religion and the Weixinist and Tiandist movements, the latter focused on the worship of Tian. Also, most of the qigong schools are developments the same religious context. 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 others—specifically Deism, Tiandism, Weixinism, and Yiguandao—have developed cooperation with mainland China's academic, non-governmental organisations, and even governmental units. Xiaism is an organised folk religion founded in the 16th century, present in the Putian region (Xinghua) of Fujian where it is legally recognised. In Taiwan, virtually all of these religions operate freely since the late 1980s.
Tiandism (Chinese: 天帝教; pinyin: Tiāndìjiāo; literally: "Religion of the Heaven God") is a religion that encompasses two branches, Tiandi and Tiande (天德, "Heavenly Virtue"), emerged from the techings of Xiao Changming and Li Yujie, disseminated in the early 20th century. Tiandi is actually a later sprout of Tiande, established in the 1980s.
The religions focus on the worship of Tiandi (天帝), the "Heavely God" or "Heavenly Emperor", on health through the proper cultivation of qi, and teach a style of qigong named Tianren qigong. According to scholars, Tiandism derives from the Taoist tradition of Huashan, where Li Yujie studied for eight years. The Tiandi church is very active both in Taiwan and mainland China, where it has high-level links.
Weixinism (Chinese: 唯心聖教; pinyin: Wéixīn shèngjiào; literally: "Holy Religion of the Only Heart" or simply 心聖教; Wéixīnjiào) 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.
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" (zu), xians, or heightened to the status of shen, deities. The Song Dynasty enlisted many of them.
They are conceived as "constellations of qi", which is so vibrant in certain historical persons that, upon the person's death, this qi nexus does not dissipate but persists, and is reinforced by living people's worship. The energetic power of a god is thought to rebound on the worshipers influencing their fortune.
Deities reflect the pattern or structure of development of the universe, in a sort of hierarchy in which each one has tutelage of a specific sphere of reality. All the gods and reality are interconnected in the all-encompassing source of the universe—Tian (the "Sky"), also represented as Shangdi (the "Highest Emperor") or the Jade Emperor. The following list represents some commonly worshipped deities.
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.
Temples of the Chinese folk religion can be distinguished into miao (庙) or dian (殿), meaning "temple"; family altars or private temples (simiao 私庙 or jiamiao 家庙), or ancestral temples or shrines (called citang 祠堂, zongci 宗祠 or zumiao 祖庙). The terms have often been used interchangeably. However miao is the general Chinese term for "temple" understood as "sacred space", "worship place". 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, deified virtuous men.
Shen temples are distinct from Taoist temples 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 daoshi, Faist fashi, and also Wuist wu and tongji, 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"), referring to a templar complex of multiple buildings, and 院 yuan, a general term for "sanctuary", "shrine".
Ancestral shrines are sacred places in which lineages of related families, identified by shared surnames, worship their common progenitors. These temples are the "collective representation" of a group, and function as centers where religious, social and economic activities intersect.
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 universal generating power (Tian-Shangdi) and qi, from which also the kin lineage.
The Pew Research Center has collected statistics saying that in China 22% of the population practices the Chinese indigenous religion. Another estimate puts it at over 30% of the total population. Kenneth Dean estimates a higher proportion.[note 9]
A 2010 survey has found the following numbers: 754 million (56.2%) people practice Chinese ancestral veneration, but only 216 million people (16%) believe in the existence of ancestral shen (spirits).[note 10] The same survey says 173 million (13%) adopt Taoist practices on a level which is indistinguishable from the Chinese folk religion.
Scholars have studied the economic dimension of Chinese folk religion, with its ritual and templar economy that constitutes a form of grassroots capitalism, that produces well-being among local communities through the circulation of wealth and its investment in the "sacred capital" of temples, gods and ancestors.
This groundwork, which was already there in imperial China and plays an important role in modern Taiwan, is seen as the driving force in the rapid economic development in parts of rural China, especially the southern and eastern coasts. It is an "embedded capitalism", which preserves local identity and autonomy. The drive for individual accumulation of money is tempered by the religious and kinship ethics of generosity in sharing wealth for devotion, ritual, and the construction of the civil society.
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. There are also many Taoist associations in Indonesia.
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 negligible 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. In Thailand, Chinese temples are called sanchao (Thai: ศาลเจ้า).
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.
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