Huangshan, China

Chinese History & Culture

The Sinister Way: The Divine and the Demonic in Chinese Religious Culture

Richard von Glahn. The Sinister Way: The Divine and the Demonic in Chinese Religious Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. ISBN 0-520-2308-1 (cloth). 384 pages, including notes, bibliography, glossary, and index.

H
ave you very noticed a brightly-colored picture of a man in traditional costume, flanked by electric red candles, in your favorite, Chinese restaurant, perhaps somewhere near the cash register? Well, that’s a shrine to the god of wealth, the patron deity of millions of Chinese business people.

By conferring his blessing on the acquisition of riches, this popular god helps to express, and also to drive, the capitalistic impulse that has enriched China in recent years, at nearly everyone else’s expense.

Despite its foreboding title and evident academic audience, von Glahn’s treatment of Chinese religion offers a wealth of information and insight to students of Chinese culture. To explain the rise and transformation of only one cult – that of Wutong, a precursor to the smiling face we see today - the author ranges widely throughout Chinese history. The end product is a general overview of popular Chinese religion from earliest times to the present.

After a succinct and critical review of recent theories of traditional Chinese religion, von Glahn traces the development of Chinese “vernacular” religion fro the Shang Dynasty up to the 20th century. Such a survey complements the usual treatments, which neatly separate Confucian, Buddhist, Daoist, and “popular” beliefs and practices.

In particular, he traces the vicissitudes of what he terms “the sinister way.” This menacing phrase refers to the “dark side” of Chinese religion. While some objects of worship, like the Goddess of Mercy (Guanyin) represent nothing but benignity and kindness, others, like Wutong, display a propensity for malice.

Centuries ago, Wutong was feared as a demonic deity who would promise fabulous wealth, but at a price – usually the sexual possession of one’s wife or daughter. Fickle and mean, he would then usually deprive one of the riches he had once bestowed.

Lacking a firm concept of fixed moral absolutes at the “center” of the universe (after all, they stress the complementary interplay of yin and yang), the Chinese world of divinities is populated with beings who might, for no cause, assail “innocent” folk with calamity. Rituals of all sorts have been designed to gain some sort of control over, or at least protection from, these dangerous beings,

Christians will be struck by the contrast between traditional Chinese religion and the faith of the Bible. For example: Rather than a single canon of Scripture, the Chinese possess a vast assortment of texts in an array of genres, all of which purport to represent the truth about the relationship of humans and the gods.

These gods, moreover, do not remain the same “yesterday, today, and forever.” Depending upon the place, the time, and the perceived needs of the people and of the government, they can rise or fall in popularity and position. Humans can enter the pantheon, and established deities can be expelled. In one notable case, a masculine god is transformed into the goddess of mercy, Guanyin.

Although the Confucian patrician class and the government, often in concert with Buddhist and Daoist clergy, tried to inculcate faith in a moral order that rewarded good and punished evil, cults like that of Wutong expressed a profound anxiety felt by common people who saw themselves at the mercy of capricious and often malevolent gods – spirits who mirrored the unpredictability and random rule of magistrates and emperors.

To confuse matters further, local traditions modify both faith and practice, so that no one orthodoxy prevails across the Chinese religious scene – again despite official statements to the contrary. The creative and sometimes controlling influence of popular piety on the development of official doctrine and cultus reminds at least this reviewer of the role of the laity in the gradual transformation of the status of Mary in the Roman Catholic Church.

Quite fascinating to me was von Grahn’s description of how the demonic Wutong changed into a very different deity, the current god of wealth who has no dark side. Gone is the insight that a lust for riches can poison the heart and pervert the family. Chinese today are totally comfortable with the single-minded drive to make money.

One stark continuity with modern China strikes those who have heard about persecution of house church Christians: Government leaders have always feared popular religious movements. Not only because Buddhist- and Daoist-inspired uprisings have on several occasions nearly toppled the throne, but because local religion resists government control.

Chinese rulers have usually tolerated “orthodox” religious groups. They register the clergy, recognize certain authorized shrines and places of worship, and regulate religious practices. Not so with “cults,” by which they mean any group outside their control. These they usually try to suppress them, and almost always by accusing them of a variety of “sinister” and socially-disruptive practices, like healing and exorcism.

Chinese communist strictures against house churches, and the justification they offer for brutal treatment of them, are couched in the type of language von Grahn quotes to describe imperial Chinese edicts against the Wutong cult and others like it.

Traditional Chinese religion, driven underground for a while by Mao and his minions, has resurfaced in a remarkable resurgence. For the first time in their long history, however, Chinese have an alternative: As David Aikman’s Jesus in Beijing has shown, the spread of Christianity now offers hope of deliverance from demons and from the dominion of greed, rather than the domestication of the former with rituals and the latter by a sanitized god of wealth.

This elegantly-written, well researched, tightly-argued, and amply-documented treatment will richly reward those who persevere past the title, the sub-title, and the ostensibly academic nature of what is almost a survey of Chinese popular religion.