processions (religious)


processions (religious)
Impregnated with local culture and displaying an extensive palette of popular traditions and arts, processions in China are, or were, inherent constituents of local identity. Our focus here is processions of a religious nature, which play a vital role for cults and in temple fairs, most often celebrated on the birthday of a protective god. National day and political parades will be left to one side, although in the 1940s and 1950s the latter did make use of traditional processional elements, one example being the renowned ‘rice-sprout song’ playlets (yangge), as political instruments to promote socialism. The private nature of processions for weddings (see weddings (rural); weddings (urban)) and funerals makes them significant primarily for affines and kin and they therefore fall outside our ambit, which centres on processions organized by communities of cults.
The vernacular terms referring to ‘processions’ vary depending on local traditions, ritual functions, or the simultaneous performance of other rituals, such as the Daoist Jiao (offering ritual). Among the most common denominations we find youshen, chuxun, raojing, youxing, chuzhen, gexiang, yingshen and jinxiang. The written sources also refer to processions in different ways, sometimes using analytical terms or the generic name of the festival (shehui, [yingshen] saihui, miaohui).
As the favoured collective ritual of Chinese popular religion, processions are assigned a variety of symbolic functions. Generally speaking, they connect sacred places together, in an ostentatious manner, allowing people to assume a ritual role and revitalize the bonds both among themselves and directly between the human and the super-natural worlds. Three main kinds can be distinguished.
1 Territorial processions, which carry gods on a tour of inspection through a delimited inner territory, along a progressive route or departing every day from a symbolic centre. Exorcistic in nature, their goal is eventually to bring prosperity and fertility to the inhabitants.
2 Pilgrimages, through which temple communities regularly revive the ties of ritual kinship connecting them to an original temple or god, or which aim to visit a famous cult place. Both forms strengthen the supernatural power of the god.
3 Processions inviting a god from a renowned temple or directly from the supernatural realm to sojourn in the community—generally during a temple festival—and, at the end, walking the god back, though with less pomp (see temple fairs).
A fourth category could be constituted by processional convolutions, not only around a temple or sacred site, but also on a ground transformed into a labyrinth or representing a gigantic talisman or a propitious Chinese character. This delimited microcosmic scale results in slightly different components here.
Three periods during the year are habitually chosen all over China as the time for cyclical temple fairs and processions, which are held for one or several days, though not necessarily every year. These periods fall closely in step with agricultural life: right after the Lunar New Year, a time of renewal; the fourth and fifth lunar months, critical when it comes to crops, threats from insects, epidemics and water; and in the autumn after the harvest.
Different from carnivals, participation in Chinese processions is not spontaneous but channelled into a delegation strictly representing a community and its families and almost exclusively composed of male individuals. The scale of a procession ranges from one delegation—sent by a village, urban neighbourhood, lineage, patronymic group, corporation or any other association that constitutes a cult community—to an alliance of several such communities, sometimes comprising over one hundred delegations, as in Saikang (Tainan, Taiwan). A delegation includes (1) at the rear, generally the place of honour, a palanquin carrying the statue(s) of the god(s) and the incenseburner—the emblem of the community—preceded by bearers of an umbrella and different banners, as well as a group of percussionists (see luogu) and spirit-mediums mortifying themselves at appropriate times; and (2) at the front, one or several processional troupes performing martial arts, dances, songs and music, or floats. The head of the cortège often emulates the official retinues of imperial times, including a squad bearing banners, lamps, boards and other insignia of authority.
Processions offer the observer an insight into the system of beliefs, representations and values, as a coherent and synthetic whole, in which popular religion resides. They also exteriorize and activate, within a delimited time and space, the social organization and networks that are not controlled by the state apparatus, despite certain links with it. This is the main reason why they are not appreciated by officials. The organization of inter-communal processions with territorial implications- very complex in nature—generates different types of partnerships: a rotation or a simultaneous sharing of responsibilities. Ceremonial exchange is the motor of such events and also reveals the local power structure, which tends to be egalitarian, hierarchical or embedded (i.e. supportive of another delegation). The entrepreneurial knowledge and endeavour that processions activate are simply enormous and so are the expenses, which boost the local economy for a time. Processions can also be put on hold by locals in periods of crisis or when proscribed by the government, as was broadly the case in Communist China during the period of collectivism and the Cultural Revolution. Manifesting the flexibility of popular religion, a revival, albeit in altered forms, occurred in the late 1980s and 1990s, especially in the southeastern, the lower Yangzi, and Huabei regions, though in other areas as well (Hunan). However, the repression in the late 1990s and early 2000s of the—unrelated—Falun gong movement provided the pretext for new, severe restrictions, which betray a clear political fear on the part of the government. More than anywhere else in the Chinese world, these complex traditions have been maintained in Taiwan, where they have been able to thrive.
Apart from official policy, the factors of change affecting processions vary in nature. We note that increased wealth in the community is translated into more lavish expenditure. Urbanization and industrialization do not necessarily occasion socio-religious anomie. In Taiwan, by contrast, where processions flourish, television coverage and tourism are starting to have corrosive effects.
See also: local religion
Allio, F. (1998). ‘Procession et identité’, Cahiers d’extrême-Asie 10:1–18.
Sangren, S. (1987). History and Magical Power in a Chinese Community. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
FIORELLA ALLIO

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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