Religions and Regimes in China
In his classic analysis of the political consequences of Chinese religion, C. K. Yang observed that religion might "ally itself with the state," "struggle against the state . . . to preserve itself or to gain political dominance," or "withdraw into seclusion" ( Yang 1961:105). Seclusion was rarely achieved. Yang's other two options were more common: alliance and struggle. Religious practitioners and state officials have struggled against each other in China for three thousand years and have exploited each other for almost as long. Officials, seeking authority and control, repressed some religious activities and sponsored others. Religious practitioners, seeking security and rewards, responded with appeasement, collaboration, or revolt. This chapter will describe some of the conflicts and accommodations that developed between religions and governments in China.
The religions native to East, South, and Southeast Asia are polytheistic. Gods sprout like mushrooms, and every kind of object and being has been a god somewhere in the region. In China, where control by an empire was prolonged and deeply affected the whole society, the gods developed as the result of a long struggle between government officials and religious leaders. What is especially interesting is that some gods came to look like rulers and officials. At the top of the supernatural hierarchy of Chinese god-officials was the Jade Emperor. Near the bottom was the City God, who functioned like a mayor or Chinese magistrate. Statues of these gods were dressed like mandarins and carried around their territories in sedan chairs each year like magistrates. They enforced social order with harsh punishments for miscreants in the afterlife, with courts and elaborate paperwork like those of their real-life counterparts, and it required the same kinds of formal petitions and diligent gift-giving to get their attention ( Yang 1961).