Popular Religion in China
Stephan Feuchtwang

Seminar Introduction

imageReligious life in China is complex, personal and political. The main textual traditions associated with Chinese civilisation are those of Buddhism, Daoism and the ancestral calendrical rituals written by court officials and centrally approved scholars: a tradition associated with Confucianism. Mastery of these textual traditions was the key to gaining respect, authority and entry into the imperial bureaucracy. However, popular religion--that is the household cults, local rituals and supplications--is what has dominated the lives of many ordinary people.

In this seminar Stephan Feuchtwang, senior research fellow in Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, examines popular religion in China from the importance of textual traditions to the elaborate and spectacular rituals, festivals and temples. In Session 1 he explores the many forms of religion in China, going on to investigate, in Session 2, the establishment of orthodoxy and Chinese imperial rule through compiling canons and teachings. Feuchtwang stresses the importance of an orthodoxy of rites as a system to maintain balance and prevent things from going wrong.

Nevertheless, as is observed in Session 3, things frequently did go wrong. The Chinese imperium split into rival states, foreigners conquered and ruled, republicanism came in two forms, one of them led by the Communist party. However, through all this there remained an image of a centralised polity via the imagery of the state in popular religion and ritual. Popular religion created an alternative system through which people could engage with the world of power and chance. In Session 4, Feuchtwang explores the subversive potential of demonic power and the response of the republican government to popular religion in the twentieth century.


  • Session 1 Reading, Writing and Religion
  • Session 2 Establishing Imperial Authority
  • Session 3 Images of the State in Popular Religion
  • Session 4 Demonic Power, Subversion and Republican Rule


Learning Objectives:
  • Explain the importance of textual traditions in Chinese religions.
  • Describe the relationship between imperial scholarship and religion.
  • List some of the spectacles and rituals in popular temples.
  • Analyse the relationship between popular religion and republican rule.


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