Academic journal article Western Folklore

Folk Belief and Its Legitimization in China

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Folk Belief and Its Legitimization in China

Article excerpt

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Defining Folk Belief

There are two terms in Chinese: "folk belief' (minjian xinyang) and "folk religion" (minjian zongjiao, which is also related to "folkloric religion" minsu zongjiao). The relationship between those terms, however, is subtle, complex, and difficult to clarify, but the bottom line seems clear: "religion" is what the government has recognized as legitimate, while "belief' is traditional or regional or illegal; the former has more foreign origin and the latter is indigenous. Early cultural anthropological studies in Europe regarded folk beliefs as "primitive religions" or "survivals." In general, folk beliefs are often separated from "religion" in academic discourse. To avoid lengthy dispute of the terminology, i summarize the characteristics of Chinese "folk beliefs" as follows:

1. Folk beliefs are neither recognized nor administered by the Chinese government.2 Chinese folk beliefs generally refer to different notions about gods and spirits, belief rituals, and related customs that common people steadfastly hold on to or maintain in their everyday practices. They are not the same as offi cial "institutionalized" religions that enjoy relative freedom of belief and legitimacy through their recognition by the state government. Nearly a century ago, a dichotomy between "religion and superstition" began to solidify in offi cial discourse, and many folk beliefs and practices were denounced as "superstitions" and targeted negatively by the institutionalized religions as well as the state government. However, the boundaries between localized "institutionalized" religion and folk beliefs are very diffi cult to draw as illustrated by the case of Daoism (Liu 2001), which is denoted either by "daojiao" (Daoism as religion) or "daojia" (Daoism as a philosophical thought).

2. Folk beliefs often have little systematic or centralized organization in the sense that they do not have defined teachings, doctrines, liturgy, nor do they have a known founder, prophet, or a religious organization/sect affi liated with them. In most cases, folk beliefs also do not have an offi cial (or fulltime) clergy and do not organize activities that intentionally convert people. However, within some folk beliefs there are often people who are deemed to be local "ritual specialists." There are also others who are involved in the practice of folk beliefs that are not restricted by any institutionalized organizations (Liang 2004). An example of this would be a Daoist priest involved in funeral rituals. Under certain circumstances, folk beliefs may also gain a "cultural space" in such rituals as activities at temple fairs. These folk beliefs have the characteristic of being non-organizational or under-organized. They are described by K. C. Yang as a "diffused religion" rather than "institutionalized religion" (Yang 2007: 35).

3. Folk beliefs are usually based in local societies, communities or clans. This phenomenon, based in a regional community, has evolved over time. For example, family clan temples (citang) in many parts of China consider ancestor worship as the core of their beliefs, which is a typical regional folk belief. It is typically known in China as the belief of the "non-believers (or atheists) (wuxinyangzhe)" (Li 1998). Folk beliefs are generally shared by the common people, where they usually do not require any kind of conversion or application to practice. This is different from new religions or secret religions that have missionary purposes. Folk beliefs are a result of local community practice, which is very different from the religions that emphasize redemption and personal salvation.

In China, some deities present in regional folk beliefs may extend beyond the local region. For example regional beliefs associated with mazu (a goddess and patron of sailors and fi shermen and popular among coastal communities in Fujian and Guangdong provinces) and Bixia Yuanjun (the Goddess of Mount Tai) have become widespread throughout the country. …

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