Academic journal article China Perspectives

Temples and Daoists in Urban China since 1980

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Temples and Daoists in Urban China since 1980

Article excerpt

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The expansion of religious practices in public spaces in the People's Republic is just as spectacular in the urban world as in the rural world, but differs markedly in its modalities. While the rural world is characterised above all by the renewal of communal forms of religion (such as the temples of local saints, lineages, pilgrimages, etc.), these communal forms are heavily constrained in the big cities for reasons of both politics (the laws forbidding religious activities outside the duly recognised "places of religious activity" are more strictly applied there) and urban planning. In the cities, we are witnessing rather an expansion of new forms of religiosity organised in dynamic networks that are largely de-territorialised (Confucian movements, lay Buddhism, house churches, new religious movements centred on body techniques), and are developing outside fixed visible structures such as temples.(l) While in some rural areas (especially in the province of Fujian) the number of temples has returned to the level that prevailed before the devastations of the twentieth century (an average of one temple per hundred families), the proportion remains infinitely lower in the big cities.<2) This separation between city and country is one of the most significant results of Chinese modernity.

However, two factors are tending once again to favour the activity of temples in the large contemporary cities: the expansion of the cities, whose suburbs constantly absorb numerous villages along with their temples, and a political shift, irregular and strongly variable from one place to another, but nonetheless perceptible everywhere, which tends to favour "Chinese" religions (Buddhism and Daoism, as opposed to the various forms of Christianity) in the framework of the integration of a religious component into Chinese nationalism. Previous research on this increase in urban temples has mainly dealt with Buddhist temples;<3) here we focus on the place occupied by Daoist temples in urban religious life. We use a wide definition of the notion of "Daoist temples," which includes all the temples that continuously or regularly call on the ritual services of members of the Daoist clergy. As we shall see, this category can be analysed in two clearly opposed types, the contrast between which enables a clearer understanding of the different directions in which contemporary Daoism is developing.

This article is a result of the "Temples, Urban Society, and Daoists" project,(4) which combines a modern historical approach with field studies in various big cities in order to understand the evolution of Daoism in urban areas since the end of the nineteenth century. While using the data gathered by other members of the project in cities such as Wuhan or Guangzhou, and also referring to the published literature, we have focused on temples in Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou, and the majority of the examples we will mention come from these cities. The historical approach of our project leads us to introduce this article with a brief picture of the situation prior to 1949, in order to understand the contemporary split between the major temples directly managed by the Daoist Association on the one hand, and on the other, the communal temples that maintain complex links with the Association. By contrasting the social role and ritual services of these temples, we will outline the various forms of Daoism in urban areas. It is a question here of grasping the complexity and tensions peculiar to contemporary urban Daoism rather than exploring contemporary Daoist culture itself, which will be the topic of other publications by our project.

he situation prior to 1949

The organisation of urban temples was profoundly shaken by the extremely aggressive religious policies carried out by the succession of regimes following the end of the empire.(5) And yet, the essential elements of this organisation were still to be seen in 1949. …

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