AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 34

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Session 34: Local Cults and Communal Rituals in Imperial China

Organizer: Qitao Guo, University of California, Irvine, USA

Discussant: Mark Halperin, University of California, Davis, USA

Religion and ritual in imperial China was deeply local and infinitely adaptive. This understanding informs these four papers, which use new sources to develop fresh interpretations of local cults and communal rituals in Tang through Qing times. Edward Davis, focusing on the Five Penetrations (Wutong), who historically have been described as evil, presents new evidence from the Tang offering positive identification of the pentad spirits. On this basis, he rewrites the later evolution of this “demonic” cult in the Jiangnan region. Moving farther south, Natasha Heller considers hitherto unexplored Buddhist manuals concerning rainmaking rites in Jiangxi and Zhejiang during Song-Yuan times, showing that some small cloisters competed with other social and religious institutions in controlling rituals of enormous communal importance. Based on a large ritual handbook printed in southern Anhui during Ming and Qing times, Qitao Guo demonstrates how mercantile lineages patterned prayers in concert with local ritual needs and the market imperatives of a flourishing commercial print industry. Finally, David Johnson, based on years of research on large village temple festivals in late imperial southern Shanxi, argues for a distinctive “northern” style of communal rituals that were led by local specialists who were neither monks nor priests and that, along with the staging of historical plays, were sponsored not by lineages but by alliances of villages. Together, these papers stress the importance of local agency as a central element in the practice and articulation of cultic worship and communal rituals.

The Origin and Development of the Cult to the Gods of the Five Penetrations (Wutong shen)
Edward L. Davis, University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA

The temple cult to the Gods of the Five Penetrations (Wutong shen) emerged in the Tang dynasty in Jiangnan, spread along the Yangzi and its southern and northern tributaries in the Song and late-imperial periods, and persists today along the Yangzi basin from Zhejiang to Yunnan. For almost 1000 years Chinese scholar-officials have been attracted to and repulsed by this popular cult and have tried to explain its origin and development and account for its ostensibly demonic nature. In recent years, historians and scholars of Chinese religion in North America, China, Japan, and Europe have again been drawn to these spirits, in part because they head the list of Daoist demonologies since the Song dynasty and are thought to have wrecked the lives of countless devotees, male and female. I too have been drawn to these gods, but increasingly because of a dissatisfaction with recent scenarios, which necessarily leave too much of the evidence unexplained or unexplainable. Drawing on newly uncovered folklore, I will offer the first positive identification of these divinities and the first accurate description of their early development, which paradoxically pre-dates the first descriptions in written sources. This new explanation, I argue, has the advantage of accounting for all the evidence and should alter as well how scholars interpret the temple cult in the late-imperial period.

Chan and the Art of Making Weather
Natasha Heller, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

Rituals to control the weather are the very definition of local religion: their effects are circumscribed in both space and time. They were also sites of religious competition, with Daoist ritualists, Buddhist monks, and local officials all engaged in their performance at various times, and with different understandings of its underlying meaning. While Buddhists had long performed rainmaking rites, the rise of the Chan school led to their incorporation in new contexts. This paper will focus on agricultural rites within the Chan tradition across a range of textual sources. The Yuan-dynasty monastic manuals Imperially Decreed Revision of Baizhang’s Pure Rules (Chixiu baizhang qinggui) and Pure Rules of the Hermitage of Illusory Abiding (Huanzhu an qinggui) together show that weather-making rituals were an extension of Buddhist liturgical acts for the benefit of the state, and that local monasteries served as centers for communal ceremonies. Further, anecdotes related to agricultural rites comprised their own section in the Qing dynasty Summary Record of the Lineage of Ancestors (Liezu tigang lu), and these stories demonstrate the ways in which these leading monks sought to combine this local rite with Chan teachings. Finally, rites included in monastic gazetteers, such as that for Linggu Chan Temple, show how they formed part of institutional memory. Through an examination of these sources, this paper will provide a new view of how local rites were incorporated into the late imperial Chan tradition.

Patterning Local Rites: New Evidence from Late Imperial Huizhou
Qitao Guo, University of California, Irvine, USA

This study examines Qishen zouge (Patterned Prayers to the Deities), a newly discovered ritual handbook from Ming Huizhou. The six-volume handbook, attributed to the famous scholar-official Cheng Minzheng (1445-1499), contains near-encyclopedic information about local cults and communal rituals. The paper focuses on the prayers to deities within the local pantheon headed by Wang Hua, the apical ancestor of Huizhou’s most populous and prestigious descent line, who had since the Song emerged as the region’s patron deity. Like the pantheons of the state and institutional religions, the Wang Hua pantheon was hierarchical, but it incorporated local figures and it was built into the communal ancestor worship of regional lineages. Patterned Prayers presents new evidence of the localizing trend that re-emerged in the mid-Ming. It further points to the general "patterning" of local rites in Huizhou, evident not only in this ritual handbook but also in the Wang Hua pantheon invoked in later ritual opera performance. The social agents who “patterned” local rites were not, I argue, the state or religious specialists, but rather local mercantile lineages, abetted by a flourishing commercial print industry. The marks of both lineage and commercial interests are inscribed on the text. The handbook, first printed in the Ming, and then reprinted in the Qing, projected authorship onto a famous statesman with strong local ties, with the likely intent to increase sales of the book. Patterned Prayers demonstrates that a dialectic of ideological and secular, local and extra-regional forces worked to shape Huizhou rituals.

A “Northern Style” in Village Temple Festivals in Late Imperial Times?
David Johnson, University of California, Berkeley, USA

My work on very large village temple festivals in southern Shanxi has persuaded me that it is at least possible that the style of rural communal ritual in north China (minimally, southeastern Shanxi, southwestern Hebei, and northern Henan) was quite different from that of southeastern China and Taiwan, which we have come to know from Daoist-centered studies published over the past twenty years or so. In the temple festivals I have studied the rituals were led by local specialists who were neither priests nor monks and who used liturgies that were not found in the Buddhist or Daoist canons but had been handed down in their families for generations. Operas almost entirely on historical themes were performed as offerings in the temples by a debased hereditary caste of ritual entertainers or else by villagers themselves as a hereditary privilege; this genre of drama was quite separate from what is commonly called “local opera.” Local officials appear to have exercised virtually no control over these rituals; on the contrary, in some cases they even sponsored their own versions. Lineages do not seem to have played an important role. Rather, villages, and especially alliances of villages, were the social formation on which the entire communal ritual structure stood. These village alliances will receive special attention in my paper, for they suggest that ritual and its performance was a central element in the ordering of rural society on the supra-village level.