Taoist Ritual and Popular Cults of Southeast China

Taoist Ritual and Popular Cults of Southeast China

by Kenneth Dean

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Most commentators imagine contemporary China to be monolithic, atheistic, and materialist, and wholly divorced from its earlier customs, but Kenneth Dean combines evidence from historical texts and extensive fieldwork to reveal an entirely different picture. Since 1979, when the Chinese government relaxed some of its most stringent controls on religion, villagers in… See more details below


Most commentators imagine contemporary China to be monolithic, atheistic, and materialist, and wholly divorced from its earlier customs, but Kenneth Dean combines evidence from historical texts and extensive fieldwork to reveal an entirely different picture. Since 1979, when the Chinese government relaxed some of its most stringent controls on religion, villagers in the isolated areas of Southeast China have maintained an "underground" effort to restore traditional rituals and local cults.Most commentators imagine contemporary China to be monolithic, atheistic, and materialist, and wholly divorced from its earlier customs, but Kenneth Dean combines evidence from historical texts and extensive fieldwork to reveal an entirely different picture. Since 1979, when the Chinese government relaxed some of its most stringent controls on religion, villagers in the isolated areas of Southeast China have maintained an "underground" effort to restore traditional rituals and local cults.

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"This excellent study, among its other virtues, makes one outstanding contribution to religious studies: it provides ethnographic reporting of local religious practices in the People's Republic of China (PRC). . . . Probably the most sophisticated study of contemporary popular Chinese religion that has yet appeared."--Alan Hunter, Sociology of Religion

"This excellent . . . book breaks new ground in several interrelated areas: its combination of fieldwork with the collection and study of texts and inscriptions, the inclusive, community-wide base of local religious practices, the role of Daoist priests in a community religion, detailed case studies of the development of popular deities, and the revival of religious festivals in China in the mid-1980s."--Daniel L. Overmyer, Pacific Affairs

"Dean has made a major contribution to our understanding of Chinese religion. . . . As an expert tour-guide, eyewitness reporter, archivist, historical interpreter, textual translator, and semiologist, he constructs a valuable multifaceted view of some old and continuously developing religious phenomena."--Scott Davis, The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs

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Taoist Ritual and Popular Cults of Southeast China

By Kenneth Dean


Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07417-7



Historical Background

The three cults discussed in this book are located in the Minnan area of Southeast Fujian. The time frame takes up developments in the cults beginning at the end of the Five Dynasties period and continuing up to 1990. The coastal province of Fujian is largely made up of mountains, crossed by rivers flowing to the sea, four major coastal plains, and a large number of isolated narrow mountain valleys that have preserved a great diversity of local dialects and subcultures. Inland communication with the rest of China is difficult; one must cross over one of a small number of hazardous mountain passes (see Rawski, 1972, map 3, p. 58).

Skinner (1985) has mapped out the four principal geographically defined economic systems of the Southeast Chinese coast, each organized around river valleys linking inland mountainous hinterlands to coastal greater-city trading systems. To an astonishing degree, these areas have preserved distinct regional subcultures, marked by differences of dialect, local theatrical traditions, architecture, food, and musical traditions. Within each of these regional subcultures there can be a considerable variety of social forms and usages.

The three cults discussed below all originated and flourished within the Minnan "Zhang-Quan" economic region as shown in Skinner (1985, map 2, p. 277). They have since spread beyond Fujian to other areas of coastal China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. The Zhang-Quan region forms a triangle that is made up on the western side by the Daiyun Mountain range. The great Jiulong River flows to the sea through the center and the southern portion of the region (Zhangzhou), and the smaller Eastern and Western streams flow to the sea in the north (Quanzhou). The mountainous interior half of this region relies on transportation routes along riverbeds to the two interconnected coastal plains around the two greater-city systems of Zhangzhou and Quanzhou. Xiamen and Jinmen Islands rest in the deepwater bay in between these two systems.

Han Chinese emigration to Fujian began slowly in the Han and began to accelerate in the Tang. The spread of Han settlements in Fujian over this period has been mapped out by Bielenstein (1959). Schafer (1954) has chronicled the short-lived empire of Min at the end of the Five Dynasties period. Skinner (1985) has charted the principal economic macro-cycles of the Fujian area beginning with the Song dynasty. Briefly, the periods of rising and falling economic development are: (1) the period of economic expansion centering on Quanzhou up to 1300; (2) the period of bans on overseas shipping beginning in 1371 and the decline of the Quanzhou economic cycle which reached its lowest point around 1500; (3) the rapid increase in trade with Portuguese and Spanish leading to the establishment of Haicheng as an open port in 1567 culminating in the last years of the Ming (1646–58); and (4) the coastal evacuation in response to the Zheng regime on Taiwan from 1661 to 1683 which broke the upward cycle. The ensuing downward cycle was further accelerated by restrictions on overseas trade in 1717, the designation of Guangzhou as the only open port in 1757, and by rising population pressures and emigration.

Ng (1983) has argued that the region saw a marked expansion in coastal trade and in trade with and development of Taiwan centering in Xiamen from 1683–1735 but the impression remains that higher levels of commercial activity were still inadequate to support growing demographic pressures. Finally, in 1840 Xiamen was made an open port, and another upward economic cycle began under increasing foreign influence (Skinner, 1985). This cycle got off to a shaky start due to major local uprisings in the 1850s and the intrusion of the remnants of the Taiping armies in the early 1860s.

The social history of Fujian since the Song dynasty has been characterized by the growth of single-lineage villages and higher-order lineages (Freedman, 1958, 1966), increasing commercialization propelled by overseas trading, smuggling, and the establishment of an interregional network of Fujian merchant associations (Rawski, 1972; Ng, 1983), growing population pressure and large-scale emigration to Taiwan and Southeast Asia, and an ominous escalation of the level of militarization of local society and social violence, particularly lineage-feuding (Freedman, 1966; Lamley, 1977b). I argue that another central feature in the social history of this period was the development of local cult networks structured by the Taoist liturgical framework.

The development of lineages has been of crucial importance in Fujian. Post-49 land reform figures indicate that jointly owned lineage lands accounted for a hefty proportion of cultivatable land in Fujian: 75.8%–77.98% in Minbei, 50% in Mindong, and 20%–30% in coastal Minnan. (Zheng Zhenman, 1992). Such commonly held property was considered by Freedman to be a necessary condition for a lineage (Freedman, 1966). Recent studies in other parts of China reveal the Southeastern case to be rather the exception than the rule (Ebrey and Watson, eds., 1986). Nonetheless, in Fujian one can still find a very large number of single-surname villages or higher-order lineages spread over several nearby villages. Geographic conditions and agricultural requirements of the area facilitated the evolution of complex lineages.

It is difficult to overemphasize the central importance of territorially based lineages in every aspect of Ming and Qing Fujianese society. In order to understand the cultural forces that enabled lineages to expand into wider arenas of cooperation and conflict, one must examine the role of local and regional cults. And in order to understand the processes by which a cult transcends localism and becomes a vehicle for wider social action, it is necessary to explore the role of Taoism in Fujian.

Taoist Traditions in Fujian

The history of Taoist traditions in Fujian is still largely unexplored. The name of the god of Wuyi Mountains in northwest Fujian appears on early earth contracts found in graves dating from at least the Six Dynasties period (Seidel, 1987; Kleeman, 1984). The same god appears on similar documents in funerals conducted by Taoists in Fujian and Taiwan today. The Wuyi Mountains have long been a center of Taoist traditions. Legends link the mountains with Pengzu, the Chinese Methuselah, and with Taimu, a mother goddess. In the Tang the mountain was listed as the sixteenth of the thirty-two grotto heavens, superior to the seventy-two blessed lands. These grotto heavens were believed to be linked together underground and accessible only to Taoists. A Taoist guan temple was established in the Wuyi Mountains in the Tianbao period (740). The mountains were a hotbed of religious activity in the Song when the great neo-Confucian Zhu Xi befriended the estimable Taoist Master Bai Yuchan (White Jade Toad). Six Taoist temples survived in the mountains until the end of the Qing dynasty (Wuyi sbanzhi, 1981 [1751]:j.3). A separate study could be devoted to the rise and decline of Taoism in the Wuyi Mountains.

With the exception of certain Quanzhen monastic centers in Northern Fujian, including some in the Wuyi Mountains, Taoists in Fujian have always been Zhengyi (Orthodox Unity) Taoists, otherwise known as Tianshi (Celestial Master or Heavenly Master) Taoists. Their ritual tradition is ultimately based on the early Celestial Master Movement of the late Han. Essential elements of their cosmology and their liturgy took shape during the Maoshan revelations of the fourth century, the Lingbao revelations of the fifth century, the Tang codification of Taoist traditions, and the Song Taoist renaissance. This ritual tradition differs from that of the Quanzhen Taoist tradition, founded in the Song, with its emphasis on internal alchemy and its monastic organization and Buddhist-style daily worship schedule. In contrast, the Orthodox Unity Celestial Master tradition, as it was revived in the Song dynasty on Longhushan (Dragon Tiger Mountain) in Jiangxi, is primarily a tradition of huoju (hearth-dwelling) Taoists. These ritual specialists work out of their homes, and provide ritual services to temples, families, and individuals within a large area determined by local traditions and the extent of their own reputations. This is a hereditary priesthood, which generally selects one son in each generation to act as the chief priest, Master of High Merit, while others in the family serve as acolytes. The temples to which they are invited to perform rituals are for the most part dedicated to local gods. Taoists perform rituals in such temples on many occasions, such as the birthday of the local god, or in commemoration of the restoration of a temple, or to consecrate a new god statue. In many areas, Taoists can also perform funeral services and conduct individual rites including exorcisms and prophylactic rites.

The Celestial Master movement was founded in Sichuan in the late Han, as the result of a new revelation by Lord Lao (the deified form of the putative author of the Daodejing) to Zhang Daoling. The revelation involved the transfer of registers of the gods and talismans. These materials outlined the early Taoist pantheon and conferred control over many deities to the Zhang family. Many elements of earlier Taoist tradition were integrated into the new theocratic order established in Sichuan. Twenty-four parishes were established, with regular contributions of five bushels of rice from the adherents. Ritual traditions centered on the confession of sins and the administration of talismans to cure disease. Recent research has explored the ritual traditions and scriptural background to the movement (Seidel, 1969, 1970, 1978, 1990; Kaltenmark, 1979; Cedzich, 1987).

The influence of the early Celestial Master movement on the subsequent development of Taoism was profound. The leaders of the movement capitulated to the Wei commander Cao Cao, bringing their ritual traditions into his court and leading to a compromise with secular authorities that positioned Taoism to oversee the spiritual realm. Such arrangements are reflected in the elaboration of Taoist ceremonies of Imperial investiture in the Northern Dynasties and Six Dynasties period (Seidel, 1983).

The loss of north-central China to the Toba and other groups led the court to move south to Jianyang (Nanjing), bringing with them the Celestial Master ritual traditions. These traditions were absorbed into and altered by existing southern occult traditions. Southern aristocratic families sponsored Taoist revelations that confirmed the spiritual primacy of their ancestral lines and local ritual and alchemical traditions. The most significant of these revelations centered on Yang Xi (fl. 365), a visionary in the service of the Xu family. The series of revelations of new deities, visionary and meditational techniques, alchemical recipes, Taoist poetry and song, etc., lasted for several years. These revelations were reverently and scrupulously collated by the great polymath and Taoist master Tao Hongjing (456–536). These writings are known as the Maoshan revelations (Strickmann, 1977, 1979a, 1981; Robinet, 1984).

The importance of Fujian to the Maoshan revelations can be seen in Tao Hongjing's search for the divine headquarters of Wei Huacun (251–334), the divine instructress of the Maoshan revelations, and Mao Ying (145–1 B.C.), Director of Destinies and Minister of the East, in the Daiyun Mountains north of Nan'an in Fujian between 508–512 (Strickmann, 1979a).

The Maoshan revelations were primarily concerned with visionary, meditational, and alchemical techniques suitable for aristocrats convinced of the imminent end of the world. A major turn in the evolution of Taoist ritual traditions occurred in the Lingbao revelations of Ge Chaofu (fl. 415). These took place some fifty years later in the same milieu as the Maoshan revelations and largely in response to them. However, they are distinguished by a greater degree of borrowing from Buddhist traditions and pantheons (Bokenkamp, 1983; Zurcher, 1980). These revelations were codified and worked into ritual texts by Lu Xiujing (406–77). Lu Xiujing's ritual codification would provide the basic framework for subsequent developments in the evolution of Taoist ritual over the centuries (Bell, 1988).

Imperial efforts were also underway to systematize Taoist doctrine, as evidenced by the early Taoist encyclopedia, the Wushcing biyao, compiled in the Northern Zhou (Lagerwey, 1981). The Tang dynasty furthered the Imperial promotion of Taoism. The Imperial family claimed direct descent from the deified Lord Laozi, and claimed divine aid in the establishment of their dynasty (Seidel, 1970; Benn, 1977). The Tang marked a period of systematization of the various Taoist traditions that had emerged over the preceding five centuries. Adherents were initiated into progressively higher levels in the religion, beginning with the basic texts and pantheon of the Orthodox Unity tradition. Each initiation involved the conferral of a Iu register of gods, a set of scriptures central to a specific revelation or ritual tradition, a list of related prohibitions, vestments, talismans, spells, and sacred charts (Schipper, 1985b; Benn, 1991).

As mentioned in the introduction, the end of the Tang marks a watershed in the social and religious history of China. The great aristocratic clans lost their grip on bureaucratic office, local centers of power began to emerge, especially in the Jiangnan region, and newly prominent lineages adopted strategies to consolidate local economic power while promoting access to bureaucratic office (Hartwell, 1982). This was also, not surprisingly, a period of proliferating local cults.

Schafer (1954) has stressed the importance of Taoism in the court of the Emperors of Min in Fuzhou, Fujian, at the end of the Tang during the Five Dynasties period. Schafer mentions the extremely influential role of the Taoist Chen Shouyuan in the court of Wang Yanjun, First Emperor of Min. In 932 Emperor Wang received a Taoist ordination complete with talismans and registers of the Taoist gods (see Ordination Certificate below). He built Taoist temples for the Taoist Master Chen, and for Tan Zixiao, whom he dubbed Celestial Master. Berthier (1988) has recendy analyzed the mythological connections between Taoist Master Chen Shouyuan and his "cousin," Chen Jinggu, the goddess Linshui Furen, the Women by the Side of the Waters. Her cult is closely linked with the myths of the founding and fertility of Min. Her legend is still very much alive in the minds of northern Fujianese. Her cult was the source of a set of rites and ritual techniques associated with the dangers of childbirth and the difficulties of childhood that combine shamanistic and classical Taoist elements. These rites, sometimes referred to as Sannai (Three Maidens), or Lushan rites, have spread across Fujian and southern China, and represent one of the most significant regional Taoist movements in Fujian.

The Song dynasty was a period of a renewed outburst of Taoist revelation. Many of these new Taoist movements sought the support of the Imperial court. The best known of these movements was the Shenxiao revelations of Lin Lingsu. Other movements included the Tongchu (Youth's Incipience); Tianxin zhengfa (Orthodox Methods of the Heart of Heaven) movement; the distinct Lingbao movements (Spiritual Treasure) on Longhu Mountain and on Tiantai Mountain; and the Qingwei (Pure Tenebrity) movement. Each of these movements has left its mark on the contemporary Taoist ritual traditions of Fujian (Strickmann, 1979b; Boltz, 1987). As will be seen below, many of these traditions have left an echo in the ritual tides of contemporary Taoist priests in Fujian.

During the Southern Song, the great Taoist Master Bai Yuchan (fl. 1209–24), considered the sixth patriarch of the Southern branch of Quanzhen Taoism, based himself in the Wuyi Mountains of Northern Fujian. Through the work of Taoist Masters like Bai, the Thunder Rites of Shenxiao Taoism made their way into Fujian. Bai commented on many of the variant local movements of Fujian Taoism in his (CT 1307) Haiqiong Bai chenren yulu (The Recorded Sayings of the Realized Being Bai Haiqiong). There are many disparaging references to rival Taoist traditions as well as detailed discussions of sectarian religious rituals and doctrine. His own activities in Fujian are described in his Wuyiji (Anthology from the Wuyi Mountains) included in CT 263 Xiuzhen shishu (Ten Writings on the Refinement of Perfection). Further information on the evolution of Taoist traditions in Fujian in the Song dynasty can be found in Hong Mai's (1123–1202) Yijianzhi. Several anecdotes refer to the strong traditions of mediumism of the Minnan region. Other anecdotes relate the zealous exorcistic efforts of Tianxin Taoists in Northern Fujian. These Taoists often joined forces with government officials to suppress local cults.


Excerpted from Taoist Ritual and Popular Cults of Southeast China by Kenneth Dean. Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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