Introducing Chinese Religions (2): Popular Religion

We continue our review (Part 1) of Mario Poceski’s excellent Introducing Chinese Religions, picking up the story at his chapter on popular religion. With the publication of Redeemed by Fire, by Li Xian, with its demonstration that much of house church Christianity in China draws upon, and reinforces, powerful themes and trends in Chinese popular religion, understanding this growing phenomenon is all the more imperative.At the outset, we need to realize that Chinese popular religion is hard to define precisely, since it is without fixed beliefs, recognized clergy, a set canon of scriptures, or clear organizational strcutures. Widely diffused throughout Chinese society and marked by immense local variation, popular religion is “highly adaptable and responsive to local conditions… Accordingly, popular religion is characterized by abundant variety.”Nevertheless, it “encompasses key values and outlooks that are characteristic of Chinese civilization in general.” Furthermore, it is not only practiced by uneducated common folk, but there has always been participation by elites in rituals and other practices. “Therefore, popular religion constitutes a rich substratum of religiosity that is shared by most Chinese people and reflects prevalent norms, values, and worldviews.”Historically, it has served to preserve normative values and validate “hegemonic sociopolitical order.” At other times, however, it has been de-stabilizing, and has been used “to challenge the status quo.” Bookmark that last statement, for we shall return to this as a factor in the legal place of unregistered churches today.


Popular religion is syncretistic, borrowing from a variety of traditions, none of which is seen to exclude the others. It incorporates Confucian moral norms; Buddhist notions of hell and the afterlife, “as well as… prevalent ideas about merit and karmic recompense,” along with “the inclusion of Buddhist deities as objects of worship.”The connection with religious Daoism is even closer, and includes “the arrangement of the pantheon” and “the structure of key rites and other prevalent modes of worship.” Daoist priests are often called on to officiate at rites held in temples, especially in Taiwan and other parts of South China. As a result, official statistics often class practitioners of popular religion in the category of Daoists in Taiwan. You can see this sort of syncretism in temples, where images to Buddhist deities like Guanyin can be found next to statues of Mazu or even Confucius.Another manifestation of syncretism shows up in the idea that the three teachings (Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism are considered to be essential one, with each highlighting important truths and with none in direct competition with the others. It is formally embodied in the so-called Three-in-One Teaching (Sanyi jiao), especially in Southeast Asia and the Chinese diaspora. It can be seen also in the Falun Gong and Yiguan Dao, the latter being especially popular in Taiwan.

Gods, ancestors, and ghosts

“Much of popular religious practice in China revolves around the supplication and worship of various divine or supernatural beings,” usually divided into the categories of gods, ancestors, and ghosts. For believers, “the supernatural and the mundane worlds, as well as the realms of the dead and the living, are not radically disjoined.” The living and the dead can affect each other’s well being: The living feed and honor the dead, who are expected to extend protection and blessing in return. Here we find the core beliefs underlying ancestor worship.When they are not properly attended to, ancestors can become hungry – and angry – ghosts, who return to the earth to inflict all sorts of harm, even calamity, until they are appeased. To avoid this, one offers food and incense on regular occasions. Of course, some spirits are intrinsically malevolent, and must be honored in order to prevent trouble.Gods are ranked according to their distance from ordinary people. The higher ones are more aloof, and can effect relatively little good or harm; the closest ones receive more attention, for their connection with their worshipers is more intimate. There are the kitchen god, the local earth god, city gods, and regional patron deities, like Mazu in southern China and Taiwan. City gods serve as spiritual magistrates, and go on regular inspection tours of their locale in parades featuring firecrackers, incense, offerings of food, dancing, and general joy.Higher deities include the Jade Emperor (Yuhuang or Yudi), who presides over a sprawling heavenly bureaucracy resembling the imperial government. His counterpart in the underworld is Yanluo (or Yanwang). Other popular deities are Guandi, the god of war, and Mazu, a goddess who grants protection to those in danger. As with other deities, these two were originally human beings who became deified after death.

Utilitarian practices

“The main objectives of the vast majority of worshipers are unabashedly pragmatic and geared towards the procurement of this-worldly benefits.” Sacrifices and rituals are offered in order to gain “wealth, good health, long life, happiness, and worldly success.” There is a definite quid pro quo to this relationship. If a god does not deliver the goods, he can be replaced.“The same pragmatic orientation also carries over into other practices… , such as divination, mediumship, exorcism, and geomancy” [feng shui], all of which are well described in the book. Mediums convey messages from the dead and, along with Daoist priests, cast out evil spirits. Specialists in feng shui enable one to place buildings and tombs in propitious locations.

Millennarian movements, heterodox sects, and secret societies

As we noted at the beginning, popular religion has not infrequently spawned revolutionary activity, as adherents respond to adverse economic or social conditions by organizing armed revolts, like the Daoist Yellow Turbans movement, various Buddhist millenarian sect such as the White Lotus Teaching, and the semi-Christian Taiping movement – all of which caused immense turmoil and suffering. Secret societies, especially the Triads, have sometimes also been involved.Thus, we can understand why “successive Chinese governments, all the way to the present, have been highly wary and suspicious of religious groups or teachings that espouse millenarian [sic] or messianic ideas. Often such worries have led to the active pursuit of public policies aimed at control or repression of millenarian groups and heterodox sects, a recent example of which is the suppression of Falun Gong.” And, we might add, the government’s continuing restrictions upon unregistered churches.Alert readers will have noticed just how much popular religion influences Chinese Christianity, especially in its pragmatic focus. We often hear that someone has “believed in” Christ in response to receiving, or in order to gain, some earthly benefit. Evangelistic preaching, more often than not, holds out the promise that things will go well with you if you just follow Jesus.Likewise, the fantastically high attrition rate found in Chinese churches can be traced at least partly to the same cause: The benefit having been obtained, one no longer has to attend worship or submit to the disciplines of the Christian life. Or, if one’s prayers for some material blessing have not been answered, the Christian God is abandoned in disappointment and perhaps disgust.There is much food for thought here.(To be continued)

ReviewsJason Truell