RELIGION IN LATE IMPERIAL CHINA 6
Religionin Late imperial China
What does Watson mean by “standardizing” the gods?
Accordingto Watson, there were different deities that were supported bydifferent locals however, not all deities were in a position toidentify with the national values. Since the elite had the desire ofintegrating the culture during the imperial Chinese society, they hadto ensure that the different cults that were present among the localsconformed to the nationally accepted models. It is this process ofensuring that the cults conformed to the nationally accepted models,which Watson refers to as standardization of gods the process ofincorporating a Chinese deity into a state approved pantheon. Duringthis process, a deity was to be introduced as a national symbolrather than a national belief. For instance, in the standardizationof T’ien Hou, people were nationally introduced to the symbol ofthe goddess, although they had different beliefs. Therefore, duringthe standardization process, people were introduced to a new symbolthat represented the national values, but did not change the beliefsystem. However, Michael Szonyi sees standardization as just anillusion.
How did that process work with T’ien Hou, the deity studied in this article? And how did her image and meaning change as she was absorbed by the state?
Theprocess of standardization of the T’ien Hou was ratherbureaucratic. The process commenced with an imperial decree thatcited the deity for some unique service to the nation. The citationswere considered to take the form of honorific titles, which wereconferred by the grateful emperor. The first of the deity’s titles,Ling-hui fu-jen, became granted in 1156. This acted as a response toa request that had been made by an imperial emissary. It was afterthe deity had guided the official together with his fleet safelythrough a storm. The deity soon after this incident (in 1192)received another superior title, Ling-hui Fei. Although these minortitles had significant meanings, the deity did not achieve nationalprominence until during the Mongol era. In 1278, Kublai Khan singledout the deity for meritorious service to the nation and conferredupon the deity the title T’ien Fei (Celestial Concubine). In the14thand 15thcenturies, a series of associated titles followed, including apredominantly revealing one in 1409 Hu-kuo pi-min chih T’ien Fei.This was to mean the celestial concubine that protects the nation anddefends the people. This deity became more and more significant tothe nation as the Ch’ing emperors desired to tighten their grip onthe southern coastal region. Later, the founder of the Ch’ingassociated his own deliverance from a storm to T’ien Fei andgranted the deity an illustrious title of T’ien-shang sheng-mu.Finally, in 1737, the deity became elevated to the position of T’ienHou by the Ch’ien-lung Emperor. When the T’ien Hou becamedistinguished by the court, the cult of the goddess fell under thecontrol of the imperial board of rites, which implied that the deitywas to be treated in accordance to policies and regulations of theregister of sacrifices. It was at this juncture that the deity becamecelebrated nationally during national festivals. Besides, variouselaborate temples became established by the state in centers ofgovernment nationally to support the cult of the deity.
Theimage and meaning changed as the deity was being absorbed by thestate. Initially, the deity was given the image associated withstorm. The deity was considered to be a significant goddess thatcould cause and quell the storm in order to protect emperor and hisfleet. Later, the deity became viewed as a celestial concubine thatcould offer service to the state. The meaning kept on changing as shewas being absorbed by the state since she was later given the imageof a heavenly empress that could protect the nation and defendpeople. It was at this stage that the deity had to become recognizedas being significant to the nation. However, according to MichaelSzonyi, the intervention of the government never changed localinterpretations of the meanings and powers of the gods.
Why did the state fear the cult of T’ien Hou and was the state really able to extend its control by promoting the worship of T’ien Hou?
Thestate feared the cult of T’ien Hou since its origin in Ha Tsuen andSan Tin could be traced to the turmoil that marked the Ming-Ch’ingtransition. The collapsing of the Ming and the early attempts ofestablishing Manchu control over the South had resulted in a periodof chaos for coastal dwellers of Fukien and Kwantung. The resolutionof the chaos was marked with the embracing of T’ien Hou as thesymbol of tranquility and stability. Thus, through reading from itsorigin, the state feared the cult because eliminating it could havedisillusioned many coast dwellers that viewed the deity as a symbolof tranquility and social stability. For these coastal dwellers, theT’ien Hou cult represented tranquility and social stability in thenation. Besides, the state feared the T’ien Hou’s cult because ofthe various stories that were given about T’ien Hou and herservices to the state. It was argued that, during the Sung, pirateshad caused trouble along the coast, but T’ien Hou was capable ofmaking a storm that overturned their boats and killed all of them. Inanother incident, T’ien Hou emerged at the mouth of a pirate’smouth cave and kept him confined until imperial troops arrived.Besides, in another incident, T’ien Hou intoxicated the drinkingwater of a pirate convoy, killing all of them in their sleep. Inaddition, during Ch’ing, T’ien Hou aided the emperor to defeatpirates that raided the coast. Because of such incidents, the statefeared the cult associated with T’ien Hou.
Toa greater extent, the state was able to extend the control of thecult of T’ien Hou since it was made to identify with the nationalreligion model. After the state standardized T’ien Hou, the cult ofthe goddess fell under the control of the imperial board of rites,which implied that the deity was to be treated in accordance with thepolicies and regulations of the register of sacrifices in the nation.The cult had to agree with such state control, which is the case seenfor the T’ien Hou festivals. T’ien Hou’s annual festival shouldfall on the 23rdday of the third lunar month, but due to the state’s control, thedates set for the national celebrations in the honor of the deity didnot coincide with this date. Therefore, the state was to a greaterextent able to extend control of the cult of T’ien Hou through thepromotion of worship of T’ien Hou. Although state control isindicated by Watson, Michael Szonyi argues that state control wasextremely superficial.
Is the process Watson describes an example of the power of the state or the power of the popular culture?
Theprocess described by Watson is an example of the power of the state.The state is indicated to have the power to control cults that do notcomply with the guidelines of the state. For instance, editors ofgazetteers were given the power of censuring lineages that failed toshow compliance with the state provided guidelines. Besides, Watsondescribes the process of the power of the state because the state isalso indicated to promote the approved cults. For example, althoughthe cult of the T’ien Hou was originally considered among thelocals, it became approved as a national cult through the approval ofthe government and through the government action the cult becamepromoted and recognized as a national cult. This shows the power ofthe state in determining which cult to promote. In addition, thepower of the state is indicated through making the entire nation toobserve the festivals related to a given cult on a particular daywithout failure. Although there is an exact date that T’ien Hou’sshould be celebrated according to the T’ien Hou cult, thegovernment has the power of fixing a national date for hercelebrations.
AlthoughWatson argues that state sanctioning of certain deities resulted tothe expansion of the cults of the deities at the expense of theexisting local cults, Michael Szonyi`s response disputes this claimsince he is of the opinion that although state patronage encouragedlocal elites to claim their worshipped certain deities, this did notimply that these elites and the peasants around them gave up theworshipping of their local deities and adopted the state-approvedones. This opinion can be held because in most emperors, local cultswere reshaped in order to bring them in line with the approved ones.