temple fairs


temple fairs
Temple fairs (miaohui) or ‘competitive celebrations to welcome the gods’ (yingshen saihui) take place in temples dedicated to local gods throughout rural China, and in a few closely regulated urban temples. The pantheon of gods worshipped in China extends into the thousands. These include many historical individuals who received a cult after their death. Other gods are nature gods, astral deities or figures from mythology and theatre. Each portion of the earth has a tutelary deity, and many towns and cities have a City god. A number of gods have achieved a trans-regional or even a nationwide cult. Each of the hundreds of local cultures of China has its own pantheon of gods, including many that are exclusive to each locale. Temples dedicated to the worship of particular or multiple gods can be found throughout China. Surveys conducted in the 1990s in southeast China show that most villages along the Fujian coast have over three temples, each with an average of three or four deities. Rituals (see Jiao; Gongde) and sometimes festivals are celebrated on major annual festivals such as the Lantern Festival, as well as on the birthdate of each god. In some especially densely populated and ritually intensive rural areas, rituals and festivities can take place over 250 days a year. However, many poorer inland regions have seen a marked decline in ritual activity, as workers have emigrated to urban centres (see migration and settlement patterns), temples have been robbed and closed, and village solidarity has declined. Where communal ritual life is still active, village temples often merge into larger ritual alliances, so villagers are involved in rituals and processions involving a multitude of temples and a large variety of local gods (see processions (religious)). Festivals usually include rituals in the temple, opera on a stage facing the temple, processions of the gods around the ritual boundaries of the village, and the blessing of offerings prepared by each family in the village. Festivals are occasions of sensory overload—firecrackers explode, incense smoke fills the air, several competing musical and ritual troupes perform simultaneously, and participation is virtually total.
Increasingly, these festivals also include performances by possessed spirit-mediums, who were once ubiquitous in Chinese village ritual events. The ritual processions provide a venue for the many different local performing arts troupes unique to each local cultural region. Each family in a village celebrating a festival provides a set amount (per capita) to the temple committee, which posts its accounts, showing income from the members of the village and individual donations, along with annual temple oil-lamp and incense income. Expenses are also scrupulously posted. These include costs of ritual performances (Daoist priests, Buddhist monks, sectarian ritual specialists, ‘Confucian’ masters of ceremony, and so forth can all provide ritual services). The opera performances are usually the primary expense. In some areas, these temple committees have already formed a secondary tier of local governance, providing many services to their communities.
Geography and local custom lead to wide differences in the nature of festivals dedicated to local gods. In northern China, large temples located in mountainous sites attract crowds in the tens of thousands to week-long temple fairs (see pilgrimage; sacred mountains). In southern China, mountains and valleys surround clusters of villages each with their own group of active temples, which are much more integrated into everyday life. Different regions have re-established temples at a different pace since 1980, depending on many local historical factors, in addition to current economic and political pressures (see Minsu quyi (Min-su ch’ü-i)). The greatest activity seems to be in southeast China, while northern and central Chinese villages are still slowly rebuilding their temples, many of which were destroyed in Republican and CCP anti-‘feudal superstition’ campaigns (see religion, recent history of; religious policies of the state). Festivals, temples and rituals specific to many different minorities have also revived considerably in recent years (see Daoism among minority nationalities).
Dean, Kenneth (1993). Taoist Ritual and Popular Cults of Southeast China. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
——(2003). ‘Local Religion in Contemporary Southeast China’. China Quarterly 174 (June): 338–58.
Overmyer, Daniel (ed.) (2002). Ethnography in China Today. Taipei: Yuan-Liou Publishing.
KENNETH DEAN

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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