Popular Religion in China
Gods are human beings that died and are therefore in the Yin world, invisible, but can intervene in the visible Yang world of the living. Death rituals can show us how gods are conceived and understood.
Death rituals deal directly with the demonic aspects of human beings and the transition from the Yang into the Yin world, and therefore with the possibility of a reverse transition. In rites of encoffinment, burial and commemoration, all human beings are treated as ghosts. If neglected or abandoned, they are hungry and trapped in the places where they met their death and can be very harmful to those who pass by. Death rituals seal off the demonic and corporeal aspects, by burying the body whose bones convey the forces gathered by the site of the grave. On the one hand death rituals honour and elevate what is conceived as an ancestor, and on the other they intervene on behalf of a soul that needs salvation into the Buddhist Western Paradise. The ancestor is installed as a name onto the domestic altar of its descendants, to be honoured on its death day and on standard occasions for the veneration of ancestors. The soul must be released from a purgatory pictured in scrolls, prints, and temple murals that is as lurid in its inventions of torment and torture as that of Christianity.
virtue of the deceased's children employing Buddhists or Daoists to recite scriptures and intercede on behalf of the soul, is solemn and repetitive. But attached to it is a much more theatrical enactment of the mythic stories of those who, like the filial son Mu Lian rescuing his dead mother, crossed from the Yang to the Yin world. The fact that they made the crossing shows the way to intercede on behalf of what would otherwise be an eternally trapped or forgotten soul. The performances of their crossings include comic enactments of the wiles of bribery and cajoling needed to find a way past guardian monsters and officious gatekeepers.
But a person who showed uncanny abilities in her or his lifetime, and died before having fulfilled the normal span of life at the time, or after having renounced the normal obligations, and had committed extraordinary deeds must have died with extraordinary demonic power. If those who commemorated that person told of miraculous events that were the result of honouring and petitioning the deceased, that was considered proof of that person's powerful capacity to cross from the Yin to the Yang world. Another trajectory to deification stems from the offering of propitiation to the bones of a stranger, an orphan ghost, to prevent them from doing harm. If this results in a good turn of fortune and the reputation for the same result grows, then the orphan ghost becomes known as a god.
The most important and widespread god of intercession for the dead, for women wanting children, and for the sick, was originally a Buddhist divinity who in Chinese history was transformed from a male into a female deity. This is the bodhisattva or pusa (one who has achieved buddhahood but chooses to remain in merciful attachment to the world) who in Sanskrit is called Avalokitesvara. In China he was merged with the legendary Miaoshan, a princess who incurred her father's rage by her choice of an ascetic, unmarried life until her death. She then returned to life to save him from severe physical and moral sickness by sacrificing her eyes and arms for him to eat as medicine. As a deity she is the female Guanyin, often known in English as the Goddess of Mercy. Her depiction is usually benign, but many Buddhist temples portray her other aspect as a much more majestic and commanding deity with a thousand arms and with feet literally stamping authority on the monstrous dragon of the waters that is the realm of demons. Daoists honour her, as well as Buddhists. She is one of the gods whose worship has spread throughout China and epitomises the mix of vernacular and textual traditions in Chinese religion.
Guanyin is an easily tolerated god of popular religion. Most dangerous among heterodoxies were those in which a living person assumed an imperial title. Such heterodoxies were intrinsically rebellious and usually millenarian, promising a new age. They claimed a pedigree that has been repeated so often that it has been called a paradigm. In this paradigm without a textual tradition the world is seen as chaotic, a battlefield of demonic powers into which someone who can command them by secrets revealed through dream, vision or spiritual possession will bring about a new order. The secrets include treasures, such as a peach and pennants coloured red and numbering nine, a sword, and a protective amulet that can be multiplied. The demon commander is a new emperor who has entered into a blood covenant with a bestowing divinity to save the world, in which humans are like hungry ghosts and are prey to the violent depredations of monster devils. Resurgence of such condemnations of the present and promises of a morally and materially prosperous near future continue to pose problems for republican governments of China.
Popular religion and Republicanism
For the whole twentieth century, republican governments attacked 'superstition', by which they meant the popular cults and their temples and the kinds of healing, spirit-mediumship and divination that they supported, as well as the more threatening sectarian and millenarian movements. On the other hand, governments supported at arms' length institutionalised religions, just as the governments of the imperial dynasties had.