Religion in Late Imperial China
Whatdoes Watson mean by “standardizing’’ the gods?
Bystandardizing the gods Watson means making the gods popular, knownand realized by everyone. In Imperial Chinese state a deity calledT’ien Hou was popular and believed to protect those who worked onor near the sea from the storms. In standardizing T’ien Hou, thestate promoted her worship and this elevated her to a prominentposition. Her temples were found all along the south China coast fromChekiang to Kwantung and Taiwan. She was originally a minor deity buther standardization made her rise to become the leading goddess inSouth China. Her rise is marked by the illustrious titles given toher by grateful Emperors for example, T’ien Hou means “Empress ofHeaven.’’
Watsonclearly shows ‘’standardizing ‘’ the gods with the example ofT’ien Hou. A deity that was adopted by the state, transformed inimportant ways and then re-imposed on local communities as anofficial recognized goddess .Chinese cults are seen as expressions ofcommunity values such as cooperation, solidarity and social equalitythat represent peoples interest as this brought a sense of unity tothe people.
Inconclusion, standardizing gods therefore plays an important role inconsistency of culture to the popular worship of the gods thatdefines the way of life of the people.
Howdid that process work with T’ien Hou, the deity studied in thisarticle? And how did her image and meaning change as she was absorbedby the state?
Thegoddess T’ien Hou was first recognized as a deity by the coastalpeople of Mei-chou, p’u-t’ien in Fukien province, during the latetenth century. T’ien Hou is presented as a universalistic deity whosaves everyone in need, from the Emperors favorite official to thepoorest sailor in the realm. The process of incorporating a Chinesedeity into a state-approved one was like validation of saints inCatholic Church with established procedures.
Inthe case of T’ien Hou, it started with an Imperial order citing thedeity for some special service to the nation. Upon this, she wasconferred honorary titles such as Ling-hui fu-jen meaning “Divinekindly lady” and Hu-kuo-min chih T’ien Fei meaning one whoprotects the nation and defends the people. In 1737 the Emperorelevated her to the exalted position of T’ien Hou meaning “Empressof Heaven”.
Dueto state recognition of this cult the followers enjoyed specialprivileges such as construction of temples in centre of government.The earliest known T’ien Hou temple is located in her home districton the Fukien coast. Generations of Fukien emigrants adopted T’ienHou as their patron goddess and built temples for her in Thailand andCalifornia.
T’ienHou had become closely identified with Chinese commercial interestsfrom Fukien to Malayan peninsula. She also became the patron goddessof several merchant guilds. She was a multifarious deity since shesymbolized many things. Merchants and Imperial merchants chose toportray her as a quelled of disorder in the seas. The vision of thegoddess as a guardian of stability and order was later to be adoptedby the powerful, land owning lineages that emerged along the coast ofKwantung.
Whydid the state fear the cult of T’ien Hou and was the state reallyable to extend its control by promoting the worship of T’ien Hou?
T’ienHou as a deity she was mostly concerned about the welfare of thepeople like she controlled large amount of resources and wealth whichbecame notably of great concern to the central state thus with therise of this deity, the state would be hard to ignore the role thiscult played by changing people’s way of life and instilling hope intheir livelihood hence the leaders of the state found it hard toconvert ideologies of worship of the deity to the people basing onmodern nationalism.
Manytemples were built by group lineages in south china where governmentofficials did not finance the cost of construction of these temples.This was seen as an added advantage to the local elites since thestate allowed these temples to be recognized by placing wooden postsbearing the name of T’ien Hou on the front base, thus the lineageshad to make sure that they complied with rules concerning promotionof approved cults otherwise there were consequences.
Duringprocessions in performing rituals, the men were supposed to carrypots of burning incense around the village boundaries and withthousands of men participating it led to confrontations with theneighboring lineages who claimed disputed territories, with all thesehappening colonial police patrols were to be called to quell theeventualities hence evident that the state was in control and withtime they continued to patrol such events. The locals were able tomake territorial loyalties every year so as to show their fullallegiance.
Inconclusion, yes the state has succeeded in controlling the state andcivilized the locals by providing a standard form of religion thatbrings about cultural integration amongst the people and lineages.
Isthe process Watson describes an example of the power of the state orthe power of popular culture?
Theprocess described by Watson is an example of the power of popularculture. T’ien Hou was promoted by Imperial authorities because tothem, she represented “civilization” and approved culture. Bybuilding temples to T’ien Hou, the local elite signaled they wishedto join the mainstream of Chinese culture. Being literate, menrelated more easily to the vision of T’ien Hou presented inGovernment publications. The goddess appealed to them as a symbol ofcoastal pacification but carried other deeper messages.
Womenhave a different vision of T’ien Hou from that held by men. Theyplay no role whatsoever in the formal organization of the templecults as the worship of T’ien Hou is usually defined in personal orfamily terms. They appear at the annual festivals with offerings topresent to goddess on behalf of their households. Residents fromsmall communities have been co-opted into the T’ien Hou cult in thesense that they are expected to present altars at the annualfestivals, they all know this is their obligation so as to promotetheir popular culture.
However,there was the problem of cultural integration in late ImperialChinese society. Literate elite played an important role in thestandardization of culture by ensuring that religious cults conformedto nationally accepted models. The state led the masses in promotionof popular culture and co-opted deities. T’ien Hou is an excellentcase in point. But it is equally true that Imperial officials did nothave the powers, or the resources to impose an unpopular deity on themasses. Therefore, the state exercised control over the religiouslives of ordinary people by more restrained means and it becamepopular and well accepted by the community.
MichaelSzonyi response on “standardizing of the gods” by James Watson.
Michaelszonyi counters the work of James Watson, standardizing the gods andargues that these are false ideas and beliefs that nothing of thesort exists. He refutes the claim that the state controlled the workof the deities in that the concerns and powers bestowed to these godsare nothing but illusions. To prove his argument against Watson, hefocuses on local religious cults allowed in china like the fiveemperors that emanates from Jiangxi province in China.
Szonyifocuses on the study of the five emperors evidently been seen as acult that emerged as a result of beliefs in spirits that wereassociated with epidemics and diseases. The five emperor’scommissioners were associated with diseases and had to carry out thewill of heaven in spreading deadly diseases to the world, for thesediseases to be cured one had to change his/her behaviors’. The godswere worshipped on the fifth day of the fifth month. Szonyi quotesthe author (Zuo, 1867) who argues that when rival societies go for aprocession and parading the idols, then this is an act of violatingthe law and corrupting morals.
Thecult of the five emperors had features like symbols, pictures andobjects that portrayed their way of life. Prayers and sacrifices wereoffered to the local gods, the society would then collect money whichwas to be used for exorcism. The crowd would gather then slaughtergoats and pigs for the procession sacrifice. Szonyi describes thegods as great five emperors as their worship was done in templesVillagers identified themselves with these deities. This popularculture satisfied the locals and brought the Chinese societytogether.
Inconclusion, the religion in late imperial China followed a cult ofdeities as argued by the two scholars Watson and Szonyi. Theirideologies are different but represent the culture of people that waspopular and brought the people of China as a state together.