Changing Gods in Medieval China, 1127-1276

Changing Gods in Medieval China, 1127-1276

by Valerie Hansen

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In her study of medieval Chinese lay practices and beliefs, Valerie Hansen argues that social and economic developments underlay religious changes in the Southern Song. Unfamiliar with the contents of Buddhist and Daoist texts, the common people hired the practitioner or prayed to the god they thought could cure the ill or bring rain. As the economy rapidly developed,


In her study of medieval Chinese lay practices and beliefs, Valerie Hansen argues that social and economic developments underlay religious changes in the Southern Song. Unfamiliar with the contents of Buddhist and Daoist texts, the common people hired the practitioner or prayed to the god they thought could cure the ill or bring rain. As the economy rapidly developed, the gods, like the people who worshiped them, diversified: their realm of influence expanded as some gods began to deal on the national grain market and others advised their followers on business transactions. In order to trace this evolution, the author draws information from temple inscriptions, literary notes, the administrative law code, and local histories. By contrasting differing rates of religious change in the lowland and highland regions of the lower Yangzi valley, Hansen suggests that the commercial and social developments were far less uniform than previously thought. In 1100, nearly all people in South China worshiped gods who had been local residents prior to their deaths. The increasing mobility of cultivators in the lowland, rice-growing regions resulted in the adoption of gods from other places. Cults in the isolated mountain areas showed considerably less change.

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Changing Gods in Medieval China, 1127â"1276

By Valerie Hansen


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05559-6



The 150 years between the Jurchen invasion of north China in 1127 and the Mongol conquest of south China in 1276 witnessed many changes. The majority of China's population settled in the south for the first time, a national market came into being, and local elites began to concentrate their activities in their home counties. Accordingly, the Southern Song (1127–1276) is widely viewed as the the final phase of China's medieval transformation, a process which had begun some six centuries earlier. Although little studied, religious change reflected — sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly — these other developments. Among the most important of many religious changes was the formation of the popular pantheon.

Temples dedicated to popular deities studded the medieval Chinese landscape. Contemporary writers pointed out that even the smallest villages contained more than one temple, while temples in the large cities numbered in the hundreds. The laity asked the gods to bring rain, to clear the skies, to drive out locusts, to expel bandits, to suppress uprisings, to cure illnesses, to enable them to conceive, to prevent epidemics, and to help them pass the civil service examinations. If literate, they recorded the gods' miracles in response to their prayers. Many of these gods had been humans before their apotheoses. In previous centuries, most local gods were not recognized by the central government; most were worshipped only within the confines of the communities where they had lived, died, or served as government officials. At the end of the eleventh century the central government began to award name plaques and official titles to deities who in earlier centuries would have gone unrecognized. In the commercial revolution of the time, gods who had formerly controlled only natural forces acquired a command of market forces. And, unlike the gods of earlier periods, some came to be worshipped not just in their own communities but across all of south China. This book is about those developments and what they reveal about medieval Chinese society.

The 1127 loss of north China to a non-Han people, the Jurchen, forced the Song imperial government to abandon the capital in Kaifeng (Henan) and to flee to the south, where, in 1138, it established a temporary residence for the emperor at Hangzhou (Zhejiang) in the Lower Yangzi valley. The transfer of the Song capital from the north to the south made official what had occurred two centuries earlier: the southward shift of China's center of gravity. In 742, 60 percent of the population had lived in the wheat and millet regions of the north, 40 percent in the rice-growing south; by 980, the proportions were reversed, with 38 percent in the north, 62 percent in the south (Hartwell 1978:5). Because of underregistration, official population figures cannot be trusted completely, but a census in 1160 gave the population of south China as 11,375,733 households, and in 1223, as 12,670,801 households, or somewhere between sixty and one hundred million people (Wenxian tongkao 11:4b–5a).

The period from 1127 to 1276 is called the Southern Song, because the capital was located in and because the central government ruled over the south. This book focuses on the changes of the Southern Song — and not those spanning both the Tang (618–910) and Song (960–1276) dynasties — for two reasons of method: the coverage of the sources remains constant, and the geographical area is unchanged. Many of the generalizations about the Tang-Song transition may in fact reflect the vast differences in the source base at the beginning and end of the period. In the seventh century, before the invention of wood-block printing, all books had to be copied by hand. During the ninth and tenth centuries books were printed on wood blocks for the first time. At the end of the thirteenth century, the widespread use of printing and less expensive paper lowered the cost of books considerably. Accordingly, many more books survive from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries than from earlier periods. Alternatively, these generalizations about the Tang-Song transition reflect the vast differences between north China, where most people lived at the beginning of the period, and south China, where they lived at the end. We have almost no information about south China in the seventh century, because so few people of note lived there then; we have equally scant information about north China in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, because it was under the rule of the non-Han Jurchen people. This study uses the plentiful sources from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to analyze the popular religious changes taking place in the south. Of course, when necessary, it will touch on certain developments that predate the Southern Song, but only to provide background.

With the move to Hangzhou in 1127 came an influx of 20,000 high officials, tens of thousands of clerks, and 400,000 soldiers and their dependents (Shiba l975a:19). Between 1170 and 1225, Hangzhou's population increased at a rate of .30 percent annually, reaching 391, 300 households (containing perhaps two million people) in 1225 (Hartwell 1982:392–93). It was probably the biggest city in the world at the time. Prior to the commercial development of the Song, government-regulated markets lay within city walls and were clearly distinguishable from the outlying villages. But in the Song, cities burst out of their walls, markets sprung up in villages, and city and countryside did not develop different cultural identities as they did in Europe (Shiba 1968:309–12). Because the distinction between urban areas and villages was a blurred, highly permeable one, it is impossible to estimate rates of urban versus rural population growth. We do know that medieval China contained four other major urbanized areas besides Hangzhou: Kaifeng (in Jin territory after l 127), Fuzhou and the big towns of northern Fujian, Nanchang and the cities near Lake Boyang (Jiangxi), and Chengdu and the surrounding area in Sichuan (Hartwell 1978:13).

In premodern China, where the imperial capital constituted the largest market for consumer goods, Hangzhou's transfer had an immediate and positive effect on the economy of the surrounding area. For the region of the Lower Yangzi transport costs to the capital fell after 1127 simply because Hangzhou was closer than Kaifeng had been. Those living nearby also benefited from government subsidies for grain transport to the capital (Hartwell 1982:386). Moreover, instead of the man- or horse-drawn carts that had dragged their loads overland to Kaifeng, boats plied their way along the many streams crisscrossing the region of the Lower Yangzi valley to the new capital. Travelers also used man-made (sometimes said to be god-dug) canals: the Grand Canal ran north-south, and an east-west spur linked Huzhou (Zhejiang) with Suzhou (Jiangsu). No sharp technological breakthroughs occurred in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but techniques of ship construction steadily improved: most of the flat-bottomed, small boats used in the Lower Yangzi were propeled by punting, occasionally by oars. They were well-suited to the shallow rivulets of the area (Shiba 1968:64–70). Freight charges, calculated on the basis of distance, were surprisingly low.

Two other changes, both predating the Southern Song, paved the way for the growth of markets in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: an increase in the money supply and the introduction of double-cropped rice. During the Tang dynasty China had primarily a natural economy, supplemented by long-distance trade in luxury goods and salt. With the exception of the aristocratic stratum, most people lived in self-sufficient villages where they raised whatever grains they ate. But, between the eighth and eleventh centuries, the output of currency quadrupled while the population stayed almost constant (Hartwell 1978:3). By the eleventh century, paper money and other instruments of credit supplemented the bronze coins, gold, and silver already in use. Much of China's economy subsequently became monetized. In addition, new strains of Champa rice entered China in the eleventh century (Ho 1956). Because these seeds permitted two crops a year, they created a surplus, allowing regions to specialize in different crops. Some areas concentrated on rice production while others grew fruit and other agricultural commodities or engaged in the production of handicrafts. Further increasing rice production was the improvement of dam technology, which made it possible to reclaim low-land swampy areas as polder fields. While recent scholarship has called into question the rosy economic picture painted here, it is nonetheless clear that considerable economic growth occurred during this period. Throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, certain innovations in agricultural technology, deep-ploughing, dams, sluice gates, and treadle water pumps allowed gradual increases in rice production and made specialization within certain areas possible (Elvin 1973:113–30).

Hangzhou proved to be a market for the entire empire. In addition, the capital's residents bought fruit, meat, medicine, wine, and cloth shipped along the Grand Canal from the surrounding towns north and south of the Yangzi valley, medicine and cloth sent via the Yangzi River from Sichuan, and fruit, rice, and medicine brought by sea from Fujian and Guangdong (Quan 1972b:323; Shiba 1984b:6–61). This trade, stretching at times even across the Jin border, created a national market (Shiba 1968). Prices were not, however, uniform across China, and different currencies continued to be used in different places. Because trade routes did not reach up into the mountains, those living in remote villages were neither exposed to market networks nor able to buy goods from other places. While they remained firmly embedded in self-sufficient villages, the commercial revolution lifted others out of their village economies into an empirewide market. As consumers in different regions bought more and more goods produced in other parts of the empire, merchants traveled farther and farther from home. People began to hear of life in other parts of the empire and even had occasion to visit these other places in connection with trade.

The national market took shape at the same time a national curriculum for the civil service examinations did. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed an enormous increase in the number of people taking the exams in any given year: from 79,000 in the eleventh century to an estimated 400,000 in the thirteenth. Because the number of available posts did not change, a given individual's chances of passing the examinations plunged in some places to as low as 1 out of 333; in 1275, the legislated quota was 1 out of 200 (Chaffee 1985:35–36). Those who chose to defy the ever-increasing odds against success in the civil service examinations followed a standardized course of instruction and were drawn into the developing culture of the examinations. All candidates hoped to become officials, and the lucky few who actually took office served all over the empire in the course of their careers.

Yet other literati turned away from national politics to focus on local affairs. In the Northern Song (960–1127), a professional elite of approximately a hundred families had concentrated exclusively on national service, devoting their energies to employing all their sons in the bureaucracy. Several mechanisms had given these families an enormous advantage over others; most important were preferential examinations held for those who, by virtue of their officeholding kin, were protected by the yin privilege. Because these bureaucratic families could use the yin privilege to place not just their own relatives but even their in-laws in the bureaucracy, marriage played an important role in ensuring their continued success in securing government posts. Following the factional conflicts of the late eleventh century, when entire families were barred from taking the exams, these elites began to devote themselves to commerce and their own estates. As they did so, the scope of their marriage alliances constricted; gone were those unions that had extended across the empire (Hartwell 1982; Hymes 1986a, 1986b). The rise of organized lineages coincided with the shift away from national politics. No longer bent on careers in the bureaucracy, these elites found it more advantageous to marry locally, often within their own counties. They became the local gentry.

The oft-quoted advice of Yuan Cai (c. 1140–1190) suggests the extent to which these families diversified their activities in the Southern Song:

If the sons of a gentleman (shidaifu) have no hereditary stipend to maintain and no permanent holdings to depend on, and they wish to be filial to their parents and to support children, then nothing is as good as being a scholar. For those whose talents are great, and who can obtain advanced degrees, the best course is to get an official post and become wealthy. Next best is to open one's gate as a teacher in order to receive a tutor's pay. For those who cannot obtain advanced degrees, the best course is to study correspondence so that one can write letters for others. Next best is to study punctuating and reading so that one can be a tutor to children.

For those who cannot be a scholar, then medicine, Buddhism and Daoism, agriculture, trade, or crafts are all possible; all provide a living without bringing shame to one's ancestors. (Yuanshi shifans 2:17b–18a; Ebrey 1984:267; Hymes 1987a:58; Shiba 1968:495)

Although government office offered the fastest and most prestigious route to wealth, the alternatives could be pursued locally and did not require residence in the capital. Most sons devoted themselves to commerce or to agriculture, while a selected few studied full time. For example, Lu Jiuxu managed the family apothecary while his brother, the famous Neo-Confucian Lu Jiuyuan, prepared for the civil service examinations (Hymes 1987a:16–17). The spread of genealogy writing and generational naming practices testify both to the anxiety of some of these families about sustaining their position in the flux of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and to their awareness of the advantages of a larger family unit (Ebrey 1986:45–46). In short, the expansion of the civil service examinations brought some into the national arena for the first time, while the decision of many powerful families not to take the exams and the limitations of the transportation network kept others firmly ensconced in the local level.

This was an age, then, when elites chose between national service and local estates, when merchants traded locally, regionally, and nationally, and when small producers entered regional markets for the first time. Popular belief reflected these developments in devotees' lives: regional, even national, gods joined local ones by the end of the thirteenth century. At the beginning of the twelfth century, local pantheons consisted largely of formerly human gods, who came from or had visited the districts in which they were worshipped. Many had lived centuries earlier and had been aristocrats, generals, or emperors. They performed agricultural miracles, bringing rain, stopping floods, expelling locusts, or preventing blight. The elite families who turned away from national service and the villagers who remained unaffected by the commercial revolution continued to worship these local gods throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

They also incorporated low-born but still local gods into their pantheons. These were people whose lives were cut off in accidents or who died prematurely. Once they died, their tombs gave off auras or they appeared in dreams to tell their followers about their powers. Because the central government, besieged by non-Han peoples in the north and plagued by inadequate tax receipts, turned to the gods for help, it instituted more and more comprehensive policies to recognize the achievements of local gods. Previous dynasties had rewarded the accomplishments of a few gods by granting them titles, but, starting in the eleventh century, the Song took this practice to new heights. In their enthusiasm to identify powerful local gods, bureaucrats awarded many honors to these commoner deities.


Excerpted from Changing Gods in Medieval China, 1127â"1276 by Valerie Hansen. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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