Religion in Qing society
Talks / Lecture
Dr Nathan Woolley, curator of Celestial Empire, introduces the religious landscape under the Qing dynasty, and some of the texts it produced.
Transcript of Religion in Qing Society
Speakers: Cathy Pilgrim (C), Dr Nathan Woolley (N)
Location: National Library of Australia
C: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the National Library of Australia this evening, it’s lovely to see you all here with us. My name’s Cathy Pilgrim, I’m the Assistant Director General of the Executive and Public Programs Division here at the Library. As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call home.
Tonight we continue with a series of lectures we are presenting in partnership with the Australian National University’s Centre on China in the World as part of our public programs for the exhibition, Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644 to 1911. Celestial Empire and its public programs would not be possible without the support of a tremendous group of partners. It’s been an extraordinary collaboration between government, between corporate partners and also individual donors. First and foremost I’d like to take the opportunity to thank the National Library of China for sharing its extraordinary, extraordinary collection with us and with all of you and I hope you will take the opportunity tonight to pop into the exhibition if you haven’t already but if you have been and seen it please feel free to pop in again. I thank our commercial partners, Shell in Australia, Seven Network, Wanda One, Optus, Huawei, Cathay Pacific, TFE Hotels and our event partners, ANU Centre on China in the World and Asia Society Australia. I’d also like to thank our government partners, the Australian Government, for support through the National Collecting Institutions Touring and Outreach Program and the Australia China Council and the ACT Government has provided wonderful support through the Visit Canberra program.
I thank you for joining us tonight to hear from Dr Nathan Woolley as he introduces religious landscape under the Qing dynasty and some of the texts that it produced. As many of you would know Nathan is the curator of Celestial Empire and we are delighted that he has been working here with us to curate this wonderful exhibition, write the accompanying exhibition publication and also play a major role in our public programs. Since 2013, Nathan has also been a postdoctoral fellow at the Australia Centre on China in the World at the ANU. His research interests are Chinese religion, Chinese political and intellectual history, traditional Chinese historiography and national and regional identity in northeast Asia. They’re my favourite things too, Nathan.
As well as writing the Celestial Empire publication Nathan has had his academic research published in a range of scholarly journals, he has presented papers at conferences in Australia and around the world including the international conference for young scholars of Chinese medieval history. As well as assessing items from the National Library of China for inclusion in the exhibition, Nathan has spent a significant amount of time researching and learning more about the items from the Qing dynasty that we hold in our own collection here at the Library. The National Library houses the largest and most actively developing research resource on Asia in Australia with more than half a million volumes. Our Chinese collection is also the largest in Australia focusing primarily on contemporary China. For the Celestial Empire exhibition Nathan has identified rare items that provide a unique view of early impressions of China from the West. So please join me in welcoming Dr Nathan Woolley.
N: Thank you, Cathy, for that kind introduction and thank you all for coming. If any of you have come to other lectures we have in this series you might have noticed that one of the ongoing things we have in all the talks is the idea of change. One idea that we want to get through with the exhibition and with these lectures is the idea that traditional China, life in imperial China wasn’t unchanging but it was a constant flux of different ideas and different practices which were changing over the millennia of imperial rule. Religion, of course, is very much a part of this change and so tonight I want to paint in some very broad brushstrokes what religious practice was like under the Qing dynasty, drawing some parallels with what it was like earlier in Chinese history while also drawing attention to what it’s like in China today.
One thing I like to start with this is this quote from Lu Xun. Lu Xun is probably the most significant author in twentieth century China. He’s now upheld as an important figure in the development of intellectual thought in modern China. I’ll just read this quote. I’m not saying it’s necessarily correct but it certainly gives us food for thought. He writes, ‘generally speaking Chinese hate Buddhist monks and nuns, they hate Muslims and they hate Christians but they do not hate Daoist priests. Whoever understands the reason for this has understood half of China.’ I’m not sure I’m going to answer that question in the 40 minutes I have this evening, but we’ll definitely see how we go.
One thing I’d point out at the beginning is that each statement you make about practices in China can often only be true for one place and one time. There is a very wide range of things that happen within China’s religious sphere. And to sort of start investigating this I thought we’d have to start with some of these figures. This is information taken from the CIA’s World Factbook for the Modern World. It’s a very useful place I often go for my research and I’ve taken figures for the religious population in three countries of interest. So first looking at China, if you look at religion in China ... this is China today ... what this factbook says is that 18% of the population is Buddhist, 5% Christian, folk religion amounts to 20% of the population and then there’s 0.7% includes Daoist and other things. That’s a very curious way of looking at it as we’ll see. And what exactly folk religion is of course ... isn’t exactly clear.
Now religion in Taiwan, you’d expect religion in Taiwan to be similar, of course they belong to the same cultural sphere, but we get something quite different. Religion in Taiwan, mixture of Buddhist and Daoist, 93%. What does that mean? And Christian 4.5%. So just with these two figures we’re getting something very different coming out of the same two places which we’d expect to have a very similar sort of religious landscape. Of course their political history in the twentieth century has taken them on different trajectories.
But let’s look at a third country ... again it’s useful to have a comparison ... religion in Japan. Shintoism 79%, Buddhism 66%. And you think how many people are there in Japan? But of course there’s a little note here. I didn’t put it really small so you couldn’t read it but I’ll read it out. It says total adherence exceeds 100% because people ... actually I can’t read it myself ... people practise both Shintoism and Buddhism.
The figures we have in these three different accounts of these three different nations are different ways of looking at the same sort of phenomenon. Because the categories that we have to us in English and in the west don’t necessarily map onto China very well, it makes it very complicated to talk about China and what religion is like there. So some people when they talk about religion in Chinese society they talk about Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism but that is a very unhelpful way I think of thinking about religion in traditional Chinese society.
If you asked someone under the Qing dynasty whether they were a Daoist or a Buddhist the only people who are going to say yes are probably going to be clerics, so Daoist priests or Buddhist monks, or occasionally some very devout lay Buddhists perhaps. Most people ... for most people under the Qing dynasty that’s a nonsensical question, it doesn’t make any sense because it’s not how you see your place in the world and your relationship with these different types of religion.
It’s also problematic I think to see Chinese religion and Chinese religious practices in society as syncretic in that it’s a mix of these three religions. That’s also leaving out what most of the people are doing with most of their time and when you move through China and you see the different gods and different culture and different practices many of them, perhaps the majority, cannot be easily and should not be affiliated with any of those three different labels. And so this other thing in China, which is of vital importance, people try to give it a name. Names that people come up with are as we see it, folk religion, popular religion, common religion, vernacular religion. Basically they mean everything else which happens to be the majority of what’s going on in traditional Chinese society.
So instead of dwelling on these different labels what’s more useful is to think of the repertoire of ideas that’s available in traditional Chinese society. What are some common themes that people can look towards and use in different situations? And so if we just take a step back from all the different types of religious practices in China and we try to think about what are some common ideas that can be found in all of them. We can identify a few different types of ideas which are a useful starting point but only as a starting point.
One very fundamental idea in cosmology in China is that the entire world is in balance, that every part has to be balanced by some other parts and that every action you engage in is going to have some sort of response. So if you do something good there’ll be a good response, if you do something bad there’ll be a bad response. This is on the level of the individual and possibly on the level of the state so if an individual does something bad or good they would receive good or bad retribution to their own individual circumstances. If the emperor or state officials do something bad or good then the state will receive something bad or good. So the bad or good thing could be ... for an individual it could be wealth, it could be sons, it could be something that benefits your particular situation. For the states it could be good harvest, it could be earthquakes, it could be some sort of famine or some sort of thing of benefit to wider society.
Another idea that’s very common is that the other world interacts with this world. So there is a realm in which there are spirits of some sort ... these can be gods, deities, ghosts ... and they will have their own realm to be in but they can also interact with people in this realm. And we can try and control our relationship with them through worship or sacrifice. And so one other key important idea in Chinese religion is the idea that we can give offerings to these other worldly beings in order to attain some benefit. And these types of ideas are common across all different types of religious ideas in China.
So I thought we might start by moving through one landscape in China just to get an idea of the types of things that you might see under the Qing dynasty so this is the map from the exhibition. It’s one of a set of 10. This is actually the key one from the set of 10. It’s the 10 counties of Luoyang. This is actually the prefectural seat of Luoyang so this is actually the most important of the 10. It’s one of two we have in the exhibition. So in this first map I have here, what I’ve done is I’ve circled all the religious sites. Now as you can see, in addition to the geographical landscape ... sorry, the mountains and the rivers ... and also in addition to the city walls the main thing which is giving meaning to the landscape are actually religious sites.
And if you want to be a little bit more generous in our definition of what a religious site would be ... so these all ... so here are all what we can loosely call shrines, temples, abbeys, monasteries ... we can also identify some tombs. Tombs are also associated with religious practice in China. And so you can see there’s a huge number here throughout this landscape. If we go in a little bit closer I thought I’d give you a bit of a view of what some of these are. So this is the prefectural seat and you see there’s a row of shrines just outside so if I can get this to work ... there we go ... inside the city walls there are two main temples we can talk about. These are government offices, these two. This one is the ... a temple to the city god, a god which is responsible for maintaining the balance within the city. Down here we have the prefectural temple to Confucius, a state cult to the model of learning. That’s not going very well.
So going outside the city here we find another city god temple but this city god is the city god of the county and so the gods are organised long government bureaucratic lines. Now here, this one and this one ... these two are related ... this is actually a shrine to Zhu Xi. Zhu Xi was a philosopher of the twelfth century, very important for development of neo-Confucianism in China so it’s a very orthodox Confucian place for engaging in sacrifice. As is this one, this is for the Cheng brothers, Cheng Yi and Cheng Hao who developed philosophical ideas that Zhu Xi based his own ideas on. These two are both ... that one and this one are shrines to officials of the northern Song dynasty so again we have people who are being given sacrifice who were officials within the bureaucratic apparatus.
And the final one again is a person who we would expect to receive sacrifice in the bureaucratic apparatus and this is the Duke of Zhou, Duke Wen of Zhou. He was a figure from about 1000BC and he was instrumental in the consolidation of what is considered the classical period of Chinese rule in which all Chinese officials look back to which is the Zhou dynasty. He served to consolidate the Zhou dynasty after they overthrew the Shang dynasty when his nephew who should have received the throne was too young to rule so he ruled as a regent and when this nephew came of age he stepped back so he ruled as regent and when this nephew came of age he stepped back, so the Confucian classics go. Modern historians ... something else happened there but in any case so he ... again he’s a model of Confucian service. So in fact what we’re getting here is a whole bunch of bureaucratically orthodox accepted representatives of the state so this map isn’t actually perhaps showing us what we might expect within your average Chinese landscape. What we’re seeing is in fact all the shrines and temples which are very much closely affiliated with orthodox Confucian ritual.
If we move to another part of the map we do actually find two representatives of other types of religious practice. One is for a cult, which by the time of the Qing dynasty was one of the foremost important cults in the state, and the other is a Buddhist temple. Only one Buddhist temple appears on this map. If you look at a gazetteer for this region at this time you will find that the most common temple in this entire region is Buddhist however for the people making this map Buddhism isn’t important, it doesn’t represent what they want to show on this map and so they didn’t include it but there was one temple they had to include because of its importance in the history of Buddhism in China and it’s a white horse temple there. That is traditionally considered the first Buddhist temple in China established in the first century AD.
And down here you have the cult of Guandi. Guandi will be one of four gods I introduce this evening to sort of explain how these cults gain importance into the Chinese state. So we have to go somewhere else if we want to find better representative sampling of the types of gods we’ll find in society. Luckily we have one. This is another map we have in the exhibition, comes from a ... late nineteenth century, the map of Chongqing. Chongqing is on the Yangtze River, it’s in Sichuan. Recently it’s been administratively portioned off from Sichuan because for the population but traditionally its part Sichuan. Let’s just zoom in a little bit so here we can see the city a little bit more clearly, you can see all the streets quite well. Some of these larger buildings which are sort of darkened, they’re sort of administrative offices either for prefecture or the county and other types of important family clan buildings but what I’ve done is I’ve circled on the next map all the religious sites I could find.
Now two things I’ll say about this, one I wasn’t trying very hard, there are a huge number of buildings that I also found on the map but I wasn’t sure whether they were a religious site or not, exactly what their affiliation was so I left them off. Furthermore this map’s not going to include every single religious site in Chongqing, it’s just some of the more important ones. But you can see ... if you start to walk around Chongqing you can’t go more than half a street before you run into one of these temples. So in fact the entire city landscape is dominated by temples to one god or another.
Now to start the complex journey we have I thought I might just identify, just give you a brief feel for what some of these gods are. And how they relate or do not relate to each other. So starting down here this temple and that one are both temples to Guanyin, a Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, of miracles, of saving people, so that’s why it’s a very popular Buddhist cult. This one is a Daoist abbey so resident Daoists were there. This one is to Wenchang, the god of learning but we’ll find out more about him later on in this talk. This one is to Wutong, Wutong are a lascivious cult which was ... had a very difficult relationship with the state but also because of its demonic power also gave people wealth. But they could also ... if you crossed these gods they could also make life very difficult for you and so they had a very interesting trajectory in the development of institutional China.
This one’s actually a ... what’s called a ... literally it’s a temple of pure perfection, it’s a mosque, Qing dynasty that’s a mosque. That ... these two are also two ... oh that’s to the Dragon king, that is a Buddhist temple. Down here is ... oh the god of wealth and in fact this god and that god are sort of avatars of the same one but they have different titles depending on how people who used these temples wanted to recognise them and what position they wanted to have in society so gods played a different role and different titles. And you can see within that you have Daoist, Buddhist, popular Buddhism, sometimes a popular Daoism, things that are moving in and out of these different relationships but also separate individual cults which operated on their own.
So religious life in China for your average member of society was organised around temples, they formed the focus point of your religious activities during the year. In a small village you can expect to have one ... you’ll always have one temple [unclear 20:34] one, two or three and these will perform the focal point of communal activities in the calendar. So when you had a gods’ festival there would be an opportunity for people to engage in socialising, engage in different forms of entertainment and to engage in the selling of their goods. People in the local ... in other communities nearby would know when your local temple had their fairs and when they had their fetes and so they would know when to come to your village and you’d know when to go to their village, it would be separated out throughout the calendar.
If the temple didn’t have a clerical affiliation so if it’s not a Daoist temple or a Buddhist temple chances are it was run by local clansmen or local elites. They would be the people who had the financial and ... financial standing in society to take the lead in organising the events of the year. Also in order to organise these cult activities you need to have some sort of understanding of accountancy so you can organise funds, you need to ask entertainers to come so you can perform and do all these types of things so you can see there’s a certain level of education and so this is of course restricted to the elite. Also as a member of the elite you gain standing in your community by taking on these roles. Everybody in the community in some circumstances would be required to take part in these activities. As you’re a part of this community you were expected to take part however the financial donations you made to these activities would be determined by your own financial standing but of course by donating more money to the activities you would also raise your standing in the community so it was in your interests to do so and of course sociologists and anthropologists point towards this as being a way for wealth to be distributed throughout the community.
In addition to this cults ... these different temples, local temples or these different gods could be involved in education, in support of the poor, in different types of evangelical sort of activities where they’d want to spread the ideas of the cult further but in a general sense the local temple was tied to its location. So while you might get gods ... similar gods in neighbouring villages the god of one particular ... the activities of one temple were restricted to the local area. This gave them a very strong identity with the people living in that place. There were other types of activities which I’m not going to go into in great detail which did not require your participation and they were voluntary. These were things like pilgrimage cults where people from a different community could organise funds and different people every year would be sent to visit some particularly important sacred mountain or some other temple in another community but for the most part the main thing that would be the focus of everyday life were these local temples as individuals.
And of course the religious calendar is tied to the agricultural calendar. This is one of the items we have in the exhibition, it’s called Illustrations of Tilling and Weaving. It has pictures of the entire process of rice production and the process ... and the entire process of silk production. This image we have here is the last image in the images which talk about the production of rice. And the preceding images show the people packing them away, rebuilding storehouses so that people would have enough rice until the next harvest and after you’ve done that, you’ve ensured the continuation of community through the harvest, what you do is you go and give thanks to the local tutelary deity, the deity of the local area. And this one here is actually a grain ... they’ve got a grain, they have to be thanked for bringing in good harvest and so of course this particular activity would be one that you would engage in at the end of the agricultural year.
Now in a larger city with a large number of different temples you can expect that the entire calendar is filled with a range of different activities and so I’m just going to talk very briefly about information taken from a guide to Peking in 1758, it’s sort of a guide for visitors to Peking and it explains the entire calendar by telling you which temples you might like to go to at different times of the year, what you might buy, what things are going to be available and what everything means.
So ‘round the lunar new year people would visit different temples ‘cause all the temples would be engaged in different types of celebrations for the New Year. Then between the New Year and Lantern Festival which is sort of in the second week of the New Year further temples would hold rites, often Buddhist and Daoist ones. On the 19th day of the second month ... that’s Guanyin’s birthday, the bodhisattva of compassion would just fall then later on in the second month you have the Qingming Festival. Then later on you would have the Festival for the God of the Eastern Peak. This is a god associated with Taishan which is associated with the underworld. Then later on you’d have the celebrations for the birthday of the medicine king. Starting in the fifth month there would be ... in Peking at least ... would be the city god temple. What might happen at some city god temple festivals is that the city god is brought out from the temple and he goes on tour of his domain. So a small village if you have local ... what’s called a city god but towns and villages have them too ... they would be brought out on these sort of palanquins and carried around the city. And often carried around the domains. Oftentimes they offered to go and meet gods out of the temple so they’d be brought in to say hi to these other gods and then they’d go back home again and this is all part of community-building in the local communities.
Going further through the year in the fifth month you’d have the birthday of Guandi who we’re going to meet in a minute. Seventh of the seventh, that’s when these two constellations in the sky on either side of the Milky Way, the weaver girl and the cow herd meet so it’s the day for when girls can honour female deities. Then you have the ghost festival in the seventh month. This is a time when you have to avoid being out at night because all the ghosts of the underworld are let out and those who are hungry and not receiving sacrifices or rites try to find sustenance in the local community and it was also ... so it was a very dangerous time. At the end of the seventh month there would be the birthday of Dizang, another bodhisattva who saves beings from hell. We’ll meet him a little bit later on.
And then you have the Mid-Autumn festival, the birthday of Confucius then you have Manjusri’s birthday, another bodhisattva. Then just before the final ... the end of the year, you’d have ... every family would have the celebration of the stove god. Every New Year the god of everybody’s stove would ascend to heaven and report on the goings-on during the year. In order to prevent him saying anything bad often people would have a picture of the stove god and they’d paint his lips with some sort of sticky, gooey glutinous rice substance so when he gets up to report to the emperor of heaven he can’t say anything because his lips are stuck together. And then he’d return again in the New Year. So they’re just some of the things that people engage with over the year and there’s a wide array of different things that would be happening but all the individual’s community would go to these different things. Some are very clearly Buddhist, some are very clearly Daoist and some are very clearly neither but they might have Buddhists and Daoists engaging in some of these activities which makes it more confusing to work out what exactly’s going on.
Oh these are just ... image of the dragon boat festival which is held in the fifth month. If you ask a modern person about what dragon boat festival mean they would say oh it’s to celebrate the life of Qu Yuan who threw himself into a river in the third century BC, and so the dragon boats are sort of searching for his body before the fish can eat it, that sort of Confucian mode of understanding dragon boat festival. It’s actually probably related to the fact that the dragon boat festival took place in the time of the year which was hottest and so it’s when you have pestilence and disease and so it was about making sure the gods who control pestilence don’t think badly of you and so you’re not affected. But it has a Confucian ... a veneer which has been placed on it over time to make the festival more acceptable. And you’ll find that when you go through all the different gods and religions in China you find that you get ... everybody has a say in how that god is interpreted and so you get different veneers happening, placed there by different communities and different individuals for their own purposes.
Now within all these different temples and all these different gods there are some common practices which were available for you to engage with the cults. And I’ll just go through some of them briefly. One of them is obviously going through some sort of ritual and sacrifice so you might read some text, engage in some incantations and you might present offerings to provide sustenance for the god. Then you can also ask the god about your future so you can engage in different types of divination either with divining blocks or pulling out a number on stick and you’d go and read what the different number means for you. Also some cults would have healing practices so if you were unwell you could go and find out why you were unwell, maybe you’d be healed, maybe there would be a ... attempt to speak to gods in the other world about, why you’re sick and they might provide you with the means of getting well.
Another possibility was that the gods might speak to you and so you have spirit possession and spirit writing so the gods might speak through the mouth of an individual who’s possessed or he might ... he, she might speak through the written word either in a planchette style affair where you have people writing in sand or perhaps ink on paper. All the different means that the gods could use to communicate with people in this world.
And also of course you get people promoting different types of good deeds so if you were a Buddhist follower you might want to avoid the consumption of meat. However these are the gamut of different things which are used in different ways among all the different cults so if you go to see in these cults you’ll find different ones engaging in these in different ways and so the same idea can appear slightly different in each different role.
So the next question is where do gods come from? As you saw in Chongqing there was a range of different gods which all have a very specific role to play in the society. Within a particular set of ideas cults could develop along a wide variety of different lines. Now people who studied the different cults try to find out the source of the cults but as they find it’s not always ... can be clear how these cults evolved because the material just isn’t there. But what you can find is traces of early appearance of the cult, these can be text or writings on stele and from these we can start to piece together where the cults appeared from. However away from an academic point of view every cult of course has its own story about how it appears and the same god in different temples, even the same town can have different stories associated with it.
One of the most important things to note is that when we’re talking about the other world and when we’re talking about the dead, and most of the cults for these individuals are people who are deceased and they become gods after, the way that the human world engages with these gods can influence their trajectory. And so very famously several years ago one academic put forward the idea that the dead can either become gods, ghosts or ancestors so you’d be probably familiar with clan cults and worship of ancestors and so when your paternal ... also maternal ... parents, grandparents are deceased then they would receive offerings from people surviving in the family. That means that they would have sustenance and also it would be a way to maintain the position in the other world.
People who died without descendants don’t receive that, they’re not held anywhere in any alter, in any particular space. These people can become wandering ghosts and so they can be in the community bringing harm to individuals and so that’s way in sometimes the during the ghost festivals particular time to make sure that those particular souls are receiving sustenance. But you can also have gods. If you have an individual who in life was particularly notable and sometimes not even particularly notable but something happens to them, the understanding of that individual after death, they can be launched on this trajectory and become a god through different means. And what’s interesting to note about gods, ghosts and ancestors is they’re not discrete, something which is a ghost can become a god, something which is a god through the interference of the state can become a ghost or classified as such. So an ancestor, if you’re not careful or if you want to, could become a ghost or a god as well. Depending on how people in the community engage with them and how they understand them and how they seek to engage with them.
If a god ... if a member of the deceased is receiving sacrifice and then stories grow up around that particular god that this is beneficial to individuals in this world then other people might be encouraged to follow that deceased individual so sometimes ... who was an ancestor can transition to becoming a god or alternatively a ghost can go around threatening people, saying if you don’t feed me, if you don’t give me a temple I'm going to rip up your community. And so you hear stories of this as well and so then the local community say we’re not going to do anything but then people start to die or bad things happen or there’s a flood and they say oh we better do something and so then that ghost can become a god.
Now once you have a small following, if the god is deemed to efficacious, if the god is deemed to be ling then more people will follow and that is the way you get the growth of gods. If it’s particularly effective then people in another community might see it and they say well we like that god too, we’ll have some of that so they move the god over there and so the temple can be split in this ritual called a fenxiang where you take sort of the burnt offerings and you put them in another place and so this is a way a cult can grow into other situations.
And so within the religious landscape of China you have this continual hubbub of the other world, always communicating with this world in different ways and very occasionally gods will start to rise out of the general milieu and there’ll be ... some of them will be launched on a trajectory which will take them into the state cult or state ritual but others will start that journey and then fall back down and so as a journey as the centuries go on, they might not reach the level of the state cults and state recognition, they might become less effective, what they stood for might become less relevant and so they start to fall away. And what we find is that the further you go back in time the more gods there were. This is because particularly of the policy of the Ming and the Qing dynasty because as we’ll get to into a minute gods always have a very difficult relationship with the state because they represent a separate form of power which people can appeal to if they’re not getting what they want from the administration.
Now beyond these gods of communities I’ll just talk briefly ... very briefly about other types of gods which you might have. Some gods might be particularly related to different types of organisations so not a community but people engaged in the same type of activity so it might be merchants, it might be some sort of benevolent society, people want to do good, it might be vegetarian groups who are engaged in some sort of Buddhist activity who find the need to have some sort of representative god or it might be some sort of guild. Now one of the items we have in the exhibition is this Wood Classic of Luban. It .. as you can see it’s all about carpentry but when you build a house you have to make sure that you don’t unduly upset the spirits of the local area so when you’re building the foundations, before you do that you have to make sure that you perform sacrifices and this book provides a guideline for the different documents and the different sacrifices which need to be performed on the different types of the things that you do when you’re building a house. So when you’re building the foundations, when you’re putting up the beam, when you’re about to live in it, these different types of things and so through this particular ... the carpenters, these ... knowledge of these types of gods spreads. And so you get ... in addition to the gods of particular areas you get a web laid over that of other types of gods which are moving through the community by virtue of these different groups.
Another important thing that you have is that as China develops through the Tang and the Song dynasties you know great ... a great development of economic activity, trade begins between all these different parts of society. And so you have large amounts of people from Zhejiang going to Jiangsu, people from Shanxi going to Sichuan and so on and so forth. Now these people, often when they are far from home, would seek to gain help from other members of their community. And so this is back at the map of Chongqing, there are actually guild halls for the people of Jiangnan and the people of Guangdong so people from Jiangnan and people from Guangdong who are visiting Chongqing would know that if they wanted help from the people from back home they could go to these two places so they get like letters of credit, they can have places to store their goods and all these different types of things so it’s very practical for merchants. But with this movement of merchants they also bring with them gods which are important to them and through the movement of people you start to get gods which are very specifically related to one area moving into a different area. And that’s how you start to get the growth of cults which tend to be more ling, more efficacious than others and some of these start to rise out of the hubbub and gain national prominence.
So the first one of these gods I want to introduce very, very briefly is Guandi, often called the god of war but in many respects, many translations of terms of Chinese origin aren’t helpful, that is also unhelpful. Guandi is Guan Yu, Guan Yu was a general from second, third century AD from the Three Kingdoms period and so when the Han dynasty fell and the country split into three he was one of the generals who was involved in the fighting in that period. He had a very important role in the defence of the south against the north but he also had problems with the allegiances and so all of the three states were fighting against each other. After some various notable successes fighting Cao Cao from the north and Cao Wei, he was caught and killed. His head was sent north and it was buried outside Luoyang and just behind this temple you will see that there’s a tomb; that is the tomb where Guan Yu’s head was buried.
Okay so we’ve got a dead general. What happens then? Well it’s not exactly clear but if you have somebody who is very powerful in life and who died in an unnatural way what generally happens is they have some residual power. And this power gives these people’s souls if you like access to different levels of the other worldly bureaucracy and they can interact with this world and you can appeal to them to gain benefit in this world. And so we start to see from the Tang dynasty that there was a temple in Hubei, not here, miles away in south China which seems to have been giving offerings to Guandi as a god. Just in one location and then as we go through the Song dynasty this spreads and goes to other parts of the country. Under the Song dynasty the state began to recognise this but the state also wanted to control all these cults so the Song dynasty, as an effort to control the development of the cults, would start to give these gods titles. It’s one way of giving them recognition but it’s also a way of controlling them ‘cause if you give it a state title which ... what you’re doing is you’re putting it in a hierarchy and so first Guandi became a duke then he was given the title of king.
Under the Mongol Yuan dynasty he was given a longer title for king and so the number of characters you have in your title shows your rank and the longer it is ... it can be 64 characters sometimes in your entire title ... that shows how important you are. And finally under the Ming dynasty it became di or emperor because of the benefit that he was bringing to the state. And so in some ways this was a bit like Catholic saints, they have to perform some sort of miracles but it’s not ... that’s regulated but it’s basically if they’re in the local community and they have power, the state has to make a decision. Do we engage with it or do we seek to suppress it?
So while the Qing dynasty and the Ming dynasty were seeking to suppress some cults they also picked some which they would give greater status to so [unclear 41:27] Song dynasty, eleventh, twelfth century, you’d find a huge number of gods throughout the entire community. When you come to the Ming and the Qing, actually what’s happening is you get what’s been called the standardisation of the gods. The number of different gods has been greatly reduced but the range of particular gods have been greatly expanded. This of course makes it easier to control. If you’ve only got a few gods around the place, it’s much easier for the state apparatus to control how they’re understood and how they’re imagined.
So this is two representations of Guandi and this one’s from the Qing dynasty and that one’s from modern day. If you go through a Chinese temple, obviously very distinctive, often has a long beard and a red face. Because he was a military deity he’s often associated with qualities of loyalty, uprightness, justice, military power, strength, so he’s a god to go to in particular circumstances.
So I was talking about hierarchy. People imagined the other world just like they imagine this one, it was like a bureaucratic hierarchy and so all the gods can report to other gods within the state imagining of it but you don’t ... as a member of the community you don’t have to believe in it in that particular way and so the god can either be totally independent or be within this hierarchy depending on who’s doing the describing. And the god we have here actually became the centre of the other world pantheon, it is the Jade emperor. Very briefly the Jade emperor seems to have appeared around the third or the fourth century in strictly Daoist texts. This is hard core Daoism, third, fourth century, not popular religion but then because of his popularity, because of the rise of Daoism under the Tang dynasty and further on, he entered the local imagination, local community’s and then he entered the local pantheon. So in the imagining now of the Jade emperor it’s very much part of what the CIA calls folk religion. It’s not part of Daoism strictly per se.
Now just before I go on to some of the other gods which I’ll just go through briefly I just want to point to some of these other religious things and I would like to suggest that other things like getting in touch with different nations, geomancy, physiognomy, these different types of ... let’s loosely call them Tai Chi exercises just for brevity’s sake. These are all different types of things you can do on the arc of religious activity, they all belong to the same sphere. Some of these might have a patron god, some of them might not, some of them ... you might want to appeal to them, sometimes these books are brought into the world by a god and so they often exist in association with templates, sometimes temples might have diviners living around them and so it creates this whole world where people could engage with these activities to their own desire. So you could follow the cult in the temple, you could read cult books at home or you could engage in these different types of activity which may or may not have a direct relation to some type of religious organisation. But I would argue they’ll all part of the same sphere.
Furthermore just as today when we’re thinking about oh what did the world look like in the 1940s, in the 1930s, we get most ... I get most of my imagination from films. Just automatically you think gee, what was Britain like in the 1930s, it’s from some film that was set there, that’s your imagination. Similarly for people’s popular imagination of how gods spoke and behaved came from popular forms of entertainment. Some of it came from operas, plays, books which they’d be reading and of course many of these things were performed during temple festivals quite deliberately. And so when there’s a celebration for a particular god you would invite a performance troop to come to your temple and they would perform some show and there would be maybe a ... gods would be acting in it but of course the two worlds interact. And so this is two pages from the Peking Opera Book we have the exhibition. Peking Opera is of course the refined form which developed over the course of the nineteenth century but again we find these local gods appearing in the stories so here we have the city god, appears in one of the plays and there we have the god of the underworld which appears in one of the other books in the exhibition on punishing people engaging in infanticide. So again they’re all part of the popular imagination and these plays reinforce to the community the role these gods have to play.
Of course at the levels of state they ... the state and the emperor and the official bureaucracy was responsible for some state ritual. We might loosely want to call that Confucianism but it’s a highly problematic term but indeed the sacrifice is to the benefit of the state so this is the temple of heaven, people would sacrifice ... the emperor, only the emperor was allowed to sacrifice of heaven. But beyond that all the local officials in local society had to in some way engage with the cults they found around them so they basically had three different ways of doing it, probably more. One is to give it official recognition and then they could do it openly, not give it official recognition but still give it patronage anyway, just sort of so you can just sort to engage with it so you don’t upset the local people but you don’t want to give it official recognition ‘cause you don’t know if it’s a good god or not, you’re not really sure what’s going on. Or you just ignore it and let the common people just get on with it or you can try and suppress it.
And these are the possibilities that you have as an official as an ongoing problem for all officials in local society about how you deal with gods that you find around you in local communities ‘cause of course the officials were sent to an area they weren’t familiar with and so there’d be gods and practices they didn’t know. Sometimes they’d seek to suppress them, they’d say ... they’d give it the label of heterodox and seek to suppress it. At other times they would say it was not possible to recognise it. But the local people had their possibilities as well. If they had a god in a temple which wasn’t orthodox they could give the temple the name of an orthodox god, Guandi for example but inside you wouldn’t find Guandi, you’d find some other god and so the label and the reality didn’t match and this is the way that local communities could use to protect cults which were important to them. And so within China you find this whole gamut of different possibilities existing as all communities negotiated with other powers, the state and others, to give meaning to these different gods. That’s Guandi again.
So I just ... before I go onto the last three gods I want to talk about I’ll just very briefly say a few words about Daoism and Buddhism. Has anybody here read the Daodejing, or the Laozi? Okay, that’s often held up as the quintessential Daoist book. Forget that, it’s terribly misleading for understanding what Daoism is actually like and to hold that up as a model of Daoism is very unhelpful, it’s actually a book which predates Daoism proper, it was adopted into Daoism later. Daoism appeared in the second century, it went through different revelations, different types of sects, third, fourth century before it came to power. Daoism is ... presents a way ... it presents a range of new gods, it brought a new bunch of gods to China but what Daoists under the Qing dynasty did was provide people with a means for engaging with both the new Daoist gods but also for the normal gods in community. And so basically the sort of religious practitioners which people could go to. It doesn’t mean that a follower ... a particular individual in the community is a Daoist, it’s just well if you have the need to talk to these particular gods you might go to a Daoist and say hey, I’ve got this problem, can you talk to the gods for me? They go sure and the ... go to their manual and they produce these talismans and they’d go through these little practices and they’d provide you with a solution to your problem perhaps.
Buddhism was a little bit different, Buddhism of course is an Indian, came to China early centuries AD. It caused a lot of confusion when it arrived in China but of course it arrived, was translated into Chinese, was a very sophisticated body of thought which Chinese people got ... took a little bit of time to work out what exactly was going on, they thought it was some sort of local cult until they realised mm, it was actually something different. But in any case it brought into China a new range of different ideas and vocabulary and ways of thinking about religion. But similar ... in similar ways to Daoism. What you do in Buddhism is very different from what you do in Daoism because you have very different views of what you’re trying to do, you’re trying to follow the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha and so remove yourself from society and realise that life is suffering and so on and so forth so you can achieve rebirth in the pure land. However Buddhists would also perform rituals for protection of the dead and also perform other rituals in society. But generally again people’d only engage with Buddhists on temple festivals, if they had a deceased in the family so they needed to have a funeral so again these people, outside the normal community structures.
And so just to finish I just want to talk about three gods which developed in traditional China but were very important under the Qing dynasty, the four which became very important. The first one’s Mazu, Mazu can be found all along the Chinese coast from Jinjiang down to Guangdong. It is a god ... she is a god of the sea. She protects wayfarers, merchants, people travelling on water, fishermen. Now the story goes, and again this is just a story which is useful for understanding how the cult is, she was a girl who lived in the tenth century and on one occasion when her two brothers were out at sea fishing they came across a storm and she dreamt that she protected them and her brothers came back and said yes, actually we saw you come and protect us. She died young, unmarried ... important ... and then was developed into this cult of a god which can protect individuals travelling at sea so of course it proved to be very affectacious, people accepted this and so the god begins to spread.
And so the god slowly rises in rank through the official pantheon. And significantly different ... significant individuals in China have given her a recognition at particular times. One of the most important ones is Zheng He. You’d probably be familiar with Zheng He, the Muslim official who under the Ming dynasty exported ... took Chinese naval forces out to ... as far as Africa. He thanked Mazu for the protection that he gave the fleet and so it’s of course a very serious recognition and so throughout this period she was slowly raising in rank. By the Shenlong reign period of ... middle of the Qing dynasty, she was raised to the level of celestial empress, Tianhou and that’s the name that’s she known as pretty much today on mainland China, Tianhou, because it’s the official title that the Qing dynasty court gave her and so this is an example of how you can see the state can deeply influence how these are understood. But of course this is also a period when Taiwan is being settled and of course to get to Taiwan you need to go by sea. So if you go to Taiwan today you’ll see that there are Mazu temples all over Taiwan because deeply involved with people who were travelling across and she stayed with them when they put their communities.
Wenchang. I’ve spoken about Wenchang previously. Wenchang started out in Sichuan as the god of a mountain who produced thunder and would bring rain to the local community. Again a local tutelary deity who would bring rain to produce the harvest. But he had a good location. He was located in a mountain on the road between Sichuan and the capital. Two times under the Tang dynasty the emperor had to flee to Sichuan for protection from rebellion. On those two occasions these two emperors gave thanks to Wenchang for his protection as he entered Sichuan. That launched him on his trajectory to national prominence and so as the years roll on we find him slowly rising in rank and slowly changing what he represented ‘til finally while he started out as a snake viper, this snake god, he becomes the god of learning. Bit of a twisted route. But he becomes a god of learning and so people who would want to go to these official examinations would sacrifice to him before they sat the examinations.
And just finally Guanyin. Guanyin’s a little bit different in that she’s a Buddhist deity. She was originally a he in India but when he came to China she became ... he became a she. That’s difficult to say. But it represents in some ways a popularisation outside the Buddhist sangha, the monks, of a Buddhist deity because she is a Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, bodhisattva, people who are achieving Nirvana to stay in this world to make sure everybody achieves Nirvana before they depart into rebirth in the pure land. And so she became somebody you could go to in an hour of need if you’re suffering from ... if you’re in a battle and you’re under threats or if you are suffering from hunger or if you are falling off the mountainside, she’s somebody who could give you immediate succour in these particular instances in time so she became very popular after the arrival of Buddhism in China and developed a sort of separate role beyond Buddhism so she often appears in temples by herself. But because she was recognised by the state ... not officially but she was allowed to do her thing in China ... you would find her today when you go to China because there you have these particular gods which are given particular recognition and the other gods sort of fell away. And then you would find these other gods dominate the landscape now in China, very different to what it was a thousand years ago. And so if you go to a Daoist temple you might Guanyin lurking in a corner, be right there or if you go to some other sort of ... for a local cult, Guanyin might be somewhere around there. She’s often lurking in all sorts of different places unexpected or to be expected, I should think.
And of course this is one ... and she had different avatars as well so this is a particular avatar we have in the exhibition. One thing that she wanted to do in helping people was to bring children and so Songzi Guanyin, the Guanyin of childbirth so again she’d bring people benefit in different situations.
I won’t talk about this to great detail but just ... I’ll just skip through this. So this is a popular text that was produced under the Qing dynasty we have here at the National Library, it’s in the exhibition but what you see in this text is all these different things being brought together in this text for popular religion, popular consumption. So on the first two pages we have two Daoist emperors who were brought in to China under the Shangqing revelations of the fourth century. Then on the next page we have Dizang bodhisattva. He is a bodhisattva for Buddhism who goes through hell saving souls so ... that’s okay, they’re all working together, they all do their own thing within this religious landscape. And then we go through all the different courts of hell, this is brought in by Buddhism but then we get Wenchang, Wenchang appears, our god of learning. He’s in there. And also you get Guanyin, Guanyin of course is there as well and so all these gods appear in the same text, they’re all coming from different places, comes from local cults, some from Buddhism, some from Daoism but they’re all within the popular pantheon and so they’re all respected and revered for the common people. And there’s no need ... I would say please don’t make a distinction too much by saying this one’s Buddhist, this one’s Daoist, they’re just all there mixing it up together.
And so when you look at other books of popular narratives in China which encourage people to do good ... this one encourages people not to kill infant children ... you find little bits of these gods coming in at different places so you might get Kim Yama coming in here, you might get Guanyin coming in there, you might get some other god coming in here, they all enter into the story at different points with no background information because of course everybody knew who these gods were.
I think I’ve run out of time but the last thing I would say was of course that within this cultural milieu and this ... what I call this religious hubbub, this gods rising and falling all the time through the procession of Chinese history, occasionally you also get other groups forming. You might be formed around a particular charismatic leader who has particularly interesting revelations who encourage people to act, they might encourage people to form some new form of society by breaking away from old social systems and build new social systems, they might be bringing in a new god who demands this action but be drawing on all these different tools which exist in society but they will form around a set which demands action now and demands action in everyday life which is very different from how the other things operate but they’re using the same repertoire of religious possibilities. And so you get throughout Chinese history ... also these other things appearing along with the cults is these different ... what we might call sectarian movements where they seek sometimes to form paradise on earth, sometimes to form a society, sometimes to evangelise in different ways and they can do a range of different things. Sometimes they can form dynasties, ie the Ming dynasty was brought to power by relying on one of these strings. At other times they can be very viciously suppressed. This is one reason throughout Chinese history the court always has a very wary eye on how these religious things develop.
And so the last thing I’ll just finish on is of course so when we see under the nineteenth century Christianity coming into China and just becoming part of the popular milieu and then leading to its own ... what turned out to be a vicious uprising under the Taipings we shouldn’t be too surprised because China has this amazing ability to adopt and adapt different types of practices coming in. We saw it with Buddhism, we saw it with Daoism, and they’re all brought into the cultural milieu and used in different ways. And so through these different processes sometimes you can rise up quite quickly to the top but of course some of these cults that rise too quickly, they can be suppressed by the state so if you want to have a very long-lasting cult you want to rise slowly in association with the state. But again other things can happen as well, all part of the possibility of religious practice under the Qing dynasty. I think I’ll finish there, thank you very much.
[End of recording]