A Temple Reborn

"Reflection" (fansi ) is a mode of mental life particularly suited to the unhappy condition of thrown-ness in the world. Perhaps Suhui's reflective nature grew out of her melancholia, itself born of the limitations placed on her life chances, her freedom. For many others in the village, the life condition they confronted was the dis-integration of social relationships, the breakdown of moral order. Reflection was a way villagers put their past back together with their present, using memory to construct a cultural identity that defined who they were. In very much the same way and to the same ends, reflection was the mainstream of intellectuals' discourse in post-Mao China . The discourses through which each group expressed their sense of self-identity and Chineseness differed, but in many ways the process of reflection was the same. For the outside observer looking at these competing constructions of Chineseness, there is a natural tendency to privilege reflection over other modes of thought and expression, since it is recognizable, more or less coherent, rational and "neat." But reflection is not the only way people express who they are, nor is rational reflection ever wholly separate from non-rational assertions of the self.

In Xiakou, people sometimes seemed to coexist in both a mental world of rational reflection and a realm of the miraculous and uncanny ( qiaohe ). Villagers understood the uncanny realm through a kind of experiential knowing-- tihui , a term that implies the particularist embodiment of knowledge-- described in the discourse of peasant consciousness as the ganxing (perceptual knowledge) inferior to lixing (abstract rationality). Non-rational belief in the uncanny, in this discourse, is dismissed as superstition, the ultimate anathema to intellectuals who seek the "high ground of reason" as refuge from the mire of irrational earthy peasantness. For intellectuals constructing a new self-identity, the redefinition of Chineseness had to be created through the absolute and universal standard of rationality; thus Feng Chongyi concludes his typology of peasant consciousness with an analysis of the "religious obscurantism" ( mengwei zhuyi ) at the heart of the peasant personality, and even the acceptance of Christianity by the Chengdu salon intellectuals was limited to its universal morality, a religion of reason, not of faith.

Of course, another way to understand belief in the uncanny is that it shows not the absence but the limits of reason, and therein lies the appeal for many, including the poets of Chengdu . The "obscurantism" ( mengwei zhuyi ) Feng decried was the non-rational source of the post- menglong poets' inspiration. Indeed, the valuation of meng serves as a dividing point between different group identities: it is embraced in what the poets identify as their menglong tradition, and rejected in the intellectual identity of "enlightenment" ( qimeng ), literally, to awaken ( qi ) from sleep or ignorance ( meng ). In the discourse of peasant consciousness, if meng was the dim and misty antithesis of rationality, mixin (superstition) was its total negation. Mixin denotes a sense of being "lost in belief," in a state of irrational fascination, and thereby lacking the power of self-awareness and self-possession. The label was rendered even more pejorative by its ubiquitous pairing with the historical stigmatization "feudalism" ( fengjian ), further negating "tradition" as a source of belief. In reference to the Chinese countryside, intellectuals and state agents used mixin to explain away the uncanny, banishing what cannot be rationally understood because that is most dangerous: "we know you" is control; therefore things that cannot be known threaten that control. The difference between sanctioned religious "belief" and "feudal superstition" lies just in this contested ground of freedom and control. 1 

The distinction between superstition and belief lies in one's perspective, just as does the whole typology of peasant consciousness, but for that very reason it has more than semantic significance. In contemporary China a host of issues, from economic policies to the right of political participation, hinge on the judgment of whether rural Chinese are capable of taking control of their local affairs-- and on who does the judging. Thus the contest over feudal superstition or religious belief can be seen as a distillation of the competing definitions of Chinese cultural identity itself-- a contest with especially real implications for how village China lives.

The Resurgence of Tradition

Many observers of contemporary China have noted the resurgence of traditional forms of economic and cultural life in the Chinese countryside. In some ways this comes as no surprise; since agriculture began to be decollectivized in 1981, families are once again the basic unit of rural production, giving farmers more freedom to produce for the market and pursue sideline occupations. More unexpected is the widespread revival of popular religion after more than forty years under socialism, a phenomenon that draws a wide variety of interpretation. 2 In keeping with the discourse of peasant consciousness, Chinese intellectuals tend to disparage the revival as "feudal superstition," and point to the (perceived) waste of new-found wealth on temples and ancestor worship as evidence of peasant "backwardness." A related critique, advanced by iconoclast intellectuals from the beginning of this century to the present, is that popular religion is another legitimation of the virulent authoritarianism at the heart of Chinese culture, a worship of despotic power typical of "primitive" agrarian societies and at odds with the goal of national modernization. 3 It seems significant that this 'anti-tradition' viewpoint reached a crest in the "culture fever" debate of the mid- to late-1980s, at the same time as the resurgence of tradition began in the form of popular religion in the Chinese countryside.

Some Western observers of the resurgence phenomenon are equally pessimistic, but from another perspective. The view held by Helen Siu (1989a) can be taken as representative of this pessimistic assessment of relgious revival in post-Mao China . Siu sees the reconstruction of makeshift temples and the hesitant performance of dimly understood rituals as witnesses not to the persistence of tradition but to its virtual destruction. The totalitarian strangle-hold of the "party state" was so effective in uprooting traditional elites and institutions, Siu argues, that the relations of power to which religious rituals referred now no longer exist, leaving only an ironic vestige of religion without meaning. An unstated cornerstone of Siu's argument is that the nature of Chinese religious practice is not "faith" but "performance," 4 and that the essence of this performance is a contractual bargain between the petitioner and the god. 5 In Chinese popular religion the gods and spirits are officials in a sacred bureaucracy that mirrors and reproduces the secular imperial bureaucracy. 6 

In other words, religious belief is all about power relations-- transactions between the ruled and their sacred/secular rulers. Take away the imperial bureaucracy and the local elites, social institutions, and community integration that upheld it, and the performative act of religion is stripped of significance. Add to this formula the erosion of traditional knowledge about popular religion, through decades of suppression, and the phenomenon of relgious revival seems even more meaningless. The engine of this total social transformation is the "complicity" of grassroots cadres eager to advance within the new political system and thereby to legitimate it. Religious revival in Siu's account is fit into the model of the totalitarian party state and the integrated traditional communities it supplanted. In this schema, modern popular religion falls woefully short of the 'authentic' original article. This evaluation may be true, but it sidesteps the question of why these revivals are taking place now and what significance they convey.

In fact, the reappearance of ancestor worship, kitchen gods, Daoist priests, exorcisms, earth gods, temples to local deities-- the whole gamut of popular religion from the family hearth to the city god's temple-- is significant precisely because of the disruption in the transmission of tradition. The villager who frequents the local temple today, despite having only a fuzzy understanding of who the deity is and being unfamiliar with the rituals, is making a statement of belief even stronger than the traditional performance of ritual obligation. I use the word "belief" intentionally, for some impulse stronger than simple nostalgia is necessary to overcome the combined forces of the stigma attached to religion under forty years of communism and the sheer inertia of disuse. The point is not to debate the "authenticity" of popular religion in China today, nor to consider its potential cultural value, but to understand more what this transmogrified religious belief means to the believers by putting the revival of popular religion into the broader contexts of economic and political change and the transformation of values in the Chinese countryside.

The case of the local Chuanzhu temple's rebirth highlights Xiakou villagers' feelings of frustration with the changes surrounding them, and their expression of ideal values of good government, social harmony, and moral order. It also presents the contested construction of Chinese cultural identity played out in one community, where "orthodox" attempts to define and control the spontaneous revival of popular religion run against the assertion of local identity and local interests on the one hand, and against "heterodox" challenges to authority on the other. 7 

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History of the Chuanzhu Temple

The Chuanzhumiao (temple of Chuanzhu), is devoted to the "Master of Sichuan" (Chuanzhu), the deified historical figure Li Erlang, who was an official in charge of the construction of the Dujiangyan irrigation system in the third century B.C. 8 Chuanzhu's powers are related to controlling floods, or, in mythological idiom, the ability to "tame the dragon." The original location of the Chuanzhu temple was in Xiakou directly behind Wenxue's house, where the village ends against the rising mountain, and a pathway leads up to garden plots interspersed among ancestral tombs. According to village elders, the temple moved down to Taiping in 1893, when he appeared to people in their dreams and made known his desire to move to more spacious quarters down the river valley. The original site in Xiakou was a logical place for Chuanzhu to exercise his flood-taming powers, since the village lies at the widest point in the long and narrow defile running from Taiping to Xiali, just where the river bends its way around the "dragon's head" ( longtou ) of Qianjia mountain. The road climbing to the upland valley of Xiali , Zhongli, and Shangli, is still nearly deserted, quite treacherous, and prone to collapse when the river undermines it.

The temple is still located above that flood-prone rushing mountain river, one of the tributaries of the Qingyi Jiang, the main river running through the nearby city of Ya'an . The site the temple moved to is less than a mile from Taiping township, where the road turns and grows steeper on its way to Xiakou, two miles upriver. The Taiping location is also described with the fengshui term longtou , and sits in the shadow of a rock outcropping jutting toward the river. Opposite the temple and slightly downstream is a hydroelectric plant built in the 1970s.

When we first arrived in the village, the temple was empty and unused. Over the next two years we saw it transformed into a small but vibrant and growing temple. This was not an isolated incident, but part of a broader revival of popular religion that took hold in the area during our stay. Three temples within walking distance from the village started up, all of them in 1992 and 1993. In traditional times, these villages and temples were integrated in a marketing region that extended from the main center of Ya'an, thirty kilometers up the river to Shangli, the last town in that upland valley rice-growing area.

The Chuanzhu temple was once a center of community activity. Older local residents recall it as a place of excitement and fun ( renao , sua ) where one could hear not only the sound of scripture recited but also the strains of Sichuan opera. The temple was a place to drink tea, gossip with friends and even gamble. Most important, the temple was the locus of community identity and helped define power relations within the local society. These relations can be conceptually divided into two inter-related spheres: the village's social hierarchy, and the relationship between the god cum idealized official and the people of the village. The former can still be seen in the lists of donations inscribed in stone on the walls of the temple. Elite families contributed to the temple (and to other public works, such as bridges) to enhance their prestige in the local community. The highest honor was to be chosen " huishou ", a kind of grand marshall in charge of the Chuanzhu temple's festival day. These occurred twice each year, on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month (of the lunar calendar) when the statue was carried to the local town of Taiping to protect it from flooding during the rainy season, and the ninth day of the first lunar month, when the statue of Chuanzhu returned to his temple. As Zhu Congde explained the duties of the huishou :

My grandfather was huishou back in the 34th year of the Guangxu emperor. He only did it once; there was a new huishou each time, two different ones every year. Not just anybody could do it, you had to have money, he had to repair the temple and buy new clothes for the Chuanzhu statue. My grandfather went to Chengdu and got a new robe and lots of new red cloth for banners and flags in the temple. It was a question of face ! Just like a wedding and the wedding feast-- you want people to say you did it right... The huishou paid someone to come to the temple and sing opera for a couple days. But everyone had to pay ! The huishou went from person to person and got his money back. He also paid the young men who carried Chuanzhu back and forth, and he invited people to his home for a feast. The huishou paid for the feast, of course ! But everyone who came would give gifts, so he didn't spend much money: in the end it was 'spend a penny, get a penny', but you still needed the capital to do it.

The huishou was clearly a man of some means, and filling the position brought recognition of his status. 9 There was also a sense of pride in associating with power that closeness to the god conveyed. In one old story, the huishou actually shared in the power of the god, if only for a brief moment. A huishou was coming down the mountain to take charge of the June 24 Chuanzhu festival, but there was a flood that washed away a bridge in his path, so there was no way for him to cross the river. Legend has it that the huishou bounded across the river in two steps; the Chuanzhu had entered his body and enabled him to cross safely.

Stories of spiritual possession ( ganshen ) are numerous in the village, and treated with varying degrees of credulity, depending on who you ask. Common responses are "you could debate it forever" or "it's hard to say" ( shuo bu wan / shuo bu qing ). We heard another story about spiritual possession and Chuanzhu, this time a contemporary one, that is revealing of the god's identity as an official: During the re-opening festivities at the temple, a woman fainted as she was handed a bowl of noodles. The crowd were going to take her to see a doctor when one of the old men in charge of the temple, He Decai, said she had been possessed by a spirit and that he could handle it. He went to the Chuanzhu and burned incense. The woman revived, and He Decai revealed to everyone why she had fainted: chuanzhu had "hit her", and they would find a mark from the blow on her shoulder. Sure enough, there was a mark in the shape of a hand on her shoulder, which they all saw.

This modern episode was explained in a way that revealed the traditional relationship between the god-official and the people under his jurisdiction: Chuanzhu is just like an official. In the beginning he is most effective ( ling ) because they have just given him a temple and new clothes. He is grateful, so now is the best time to 'pray to' ( qiu ) him; he wants to prove to everyone that he really exists and has power (hence the demonstrative blow that caused the woman to faint). Later he will be satisfied and want to enjoy himself ( xiangshou ), just like an official, and he will not care about the common people ( bu guan laobaixing ). Here the traditional transactional relationship between supplicant and god could and did stand as an allegorical critique of the Party's history of involvement in the village.

In traditional times, villagers seeking favor or protection from Chuanzhu engaged in a ritual of loyalty to the god called " pao cha " (running with a pitchfork). A poor or sick person prayed to the god for help and made a promise ( xu , xuyuan ) that if the god granted their wish they would pao cha for him on the festival day. The believer then had a blacksmith prepare a cha made of iron with a double set of forked tines that could swivel, lending a clanking sound to the "dance" they performed. On the appointed day, the paocha participant wore short pants and painted his face into the visage of a ghost or monster. Then he went to the god, kowtowed and burned incense, donned a turban festooned with paper money and incense and ran up and down the route of the spirit's procession as a kind of escort. For Chuanzhu, this took place during the day, on the road between Taiping and Xiakou.

For the city god ( chenghuang ), the paocha took place at night, sometimes all night long. The nocturnal setting was appropriate because chenghuang's realm is yin (darkness), the night, the underworld. Chenghuang's position is the official-king of the underworld ( yin jian ), and as such, his power is great: he records a person's good and evil deeds in his record book ( hukou ) and uses his power to determine the birth, death and reincarnation of the individual, and to which of the eight levels of hell one is to be assigned. Originally, this idea of an official who determines one's recompense or come-uppance in the next life based on one's behavior in this life was an important consolation to people who suffer: there is fairness ( gongping ) in existence, if not here on earth. Chenghuang's position and power are neatly summed up in the two inscriptions we found flanking him in the Chuanzhumiao on his festival day (the first day of the third lunar month): "hell, Sichuan section, fifth level" and "man, woman, good, evil, birth, death-- judged distinctly."

The pantheon of local gods in China are the reflected images of idealized Government officials. In so far as Chinese religious practice represents a model for the role of officials, one can say that the role of the official is prevalent and encompassing. Scattered throughout the landscape are little alcoves housing local gods. These shrines are important points of orientation through which older villagers conceptualize their local geography. The petty officials who reside in the shrines know the affairs of a particular village, bridge, or region. They wear the clothes of an official and should be respected with offerings of red cloth and incense on special holidays. These 'earth gods' ( tudi ) can be appealed to in times of trouble, such as sickness or disaster. The pantheon of gods is loosely hierarchical, with some temple gods in charge of regional affairs or generalized functions such as childbirth, water control, or final judgements, while others are restricted to a narrower territorial role such as watching over a particular bridge, pathway or village. In the same way, real local officials are expected to manage ( guan ) many aspects of local life. They are involved in village disputes, set the rules for the management of local resources, and stand in judgment over people in the "world of light."

Thus the traditional relationship between the secular and the sacred orders of officialdom was one of mutual reinforcement. 10 The "common people" related to the gods as they would to officials, and reinforced their own status in the community through their support of and association with the god. But the god also mediated between the people and officialdom as an idealization of justice, the upright official. This ideal standard was a potential check on corruption and the capricious exercise of power. While the mirroring of the official bureaucracy in Chinese popular religion did provide a kind of cultural framework for the centralized state, the god of a particular temple was also a protector of local interests; for example, Chuanzhu's role in protecting the town of Taiping from floods, or praying to Chenghuang for rain to end drought.

The powers of the gods-- as protectors from natural disaster and sickness, as reinforcements to the hierarchies of officialdom and local elites, and as paragons of "uprightness"-- made them forces to be reckoned with, and targets of attack when the communists came to power. In 1952, the new power-holders smashed the statue of Chuanzhu and threw the earthen horses flanking the temple entrance into the river. The temple itself was taken over as the headquarters for the township government, filling the symbolic seat of power with new meaning. 11 Slogans from the Great Leap Forward are still visible on the walls; testament to the years that it functioned as the locus of government. In 1958, some of the outer building were removed to the township proper where they were reconstructed and expanded on to build the new township government building. The principal old temple building was left to house the commune grain stores and two old pensioners who had been in the service of the government in days past. Villagers say that there were always individuals who would surreptitiously burn incense at the temple site and thus it could be said that, except in times of extreme political control, the temple never completely stopped functioning. After decollectivization in 1981, there was no longer a need to store communal grain for the productions teams had ceased to exist. In early 1991, the man who had lived in the temple died and the stage was set for the temple's revival.

Revival was a slow, tentative process at first, carried out behind the back of the local government. Then, a series of events surrounding the suppression and eventual approval of the temple by the authorities increased the pace of developments dramatically. It is important to understand the changing economic and political climate in which these events took place. The most important factors influencing these changes were the declining standard of living in the area, and the dramatic increase of corruption, government mismanagement, and the sense of "social decay." After the craze to make money erupted in full force in the wake of Deng Xiaoping's southern tour and the circulation of "document number two" ( erhao wenjian ), rural patience with urban corruption ran out. During the period of the temple's revival, from many parts of Sichuan we heard of angry confrontations between farmers and officials. Farmers were angry about the abuse of power and frustrated at the growing disparity brought by rampant corruption. At a township just a few miles away from Xiakou, farmers held a county official captive for over twelve hours until they were given some credible assurance that a fund reimbursing them for the appropriation of their farmlands to build a paper mill had not been squandered in unauthorized speculation. The actions of angry citizens in Renshou county against the imposition of too many ad hoc fees imposed by officials in the name of highway development also took place at this time. The revitalization of the Chuanzhu temple was a less violent form of resistance to the same set of conditions. Villagers saw the temple's revival as a restoration of order and harmony, a criticism of inept, corrupt and oppressive officials, and an assertion of local interests and local identity. Party authorities sought to give their own meaning to the temple, and to re-channel its spontaneous revival to more orthodox ends.

Ironically, the accelerated move toward a socialist market economy ushered in by "document number two" contributed to the proliferation of temples in a very concrete way. Under the guise of "developing tourism" temples began to be constructed all over. This trend grew especially strong just after the revival of Chuanzhu temple, and crested locally in the construction of a small nearby temple with a large placard above the entrance bearing its name: "tourist center."

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Miraculous Events

When we first went to the temple in late 1991 it was deserted, save for some small old relics that to us had no apparent significance: a sword that had once been part of a statue, a shoe, some old bits of carving all set on a stone platform. Significantly, at about the time of Deng's southern tour the local residents commissioned the carving of a wooden statue of Chuanzhu and the temple was informally opened. It did not have official authorization from the government but was, rather, exclusively a spontaneous, bottom-up creation.

In June of 1992 there were no plans to celebrate the festival day since the temple was still "unofficial", just starting to get organized. In any case, other circumstances arose. The local township government, disapproving of "feudal superstitious" behavior and no doubt aware that the temple was starting to bubble with activity, decided to destroy the new statue just two days before Chuanzhu's festival day. This act began a series of 'miraculous events' in the new life of the temple. First, two officials from the township government entered the temple and tried to burn the Chuanzhu statue's clothes, but they would not light. Then they knocked off his head and carried off his mutilated remains to a groundfloor back-closet of the township government. The very next day, the day before his festival, a tremendous flood swept through the area (quite localized), destroying three houses in the village we lived in and several in the next. It also took out the local high school in the township proper and for the next year classes had to be held in the township government's own offices. The dragon had arrived.

As mentioned above, Chuanzhu is the canonized identity of the "upright official" Er Lang whose ability to "tame the dragon" refers to the construction of a vast and sophisticated irrigation system, still in use after two millennia, that transformed the Sichuan basin from flood-prone lowlands to the fertile and stable agricultural region it is today. Naturally enough, the flood on the eve of Chuanzhu's festival day, following on the heels of his temple's desecration, only served to arouse more local interest in reviving the temple. Moreover, the fact that Chuanzhu is a paragon of upright officialdom made the township government's suppression of the revival all the more galling, and set up an unflattering comparison for local officials. The act of suppression and the castigation of the temple's spontaneous revival as feudal superstition were a recognition of the inherent challenge the revitalization movement posed to the legitimation of Party authority: a challenge in that it is spontaneous and uncontrolled, and a more subtle challenge in the form of an ideal of good government the authorities fell short of. This conclusion is supported by the simultaneous appearance of other heterodox phenomena, such as prophecies of impending doom and millenarian texts in the temple itself.

In one of our visits to the temple, we came across a rather primitive hand-printed text being passed around. 12 . It was a millenarian call to repent from evil ways and follow the Goddess of Mercy (Guanyin) for salvation in the terrible times to come. The text began with the story of a woman from Hunan who believed in Guanyin and faithfully "recited scripture" ( nian jing ). She died but seven days later Guanyin brought her back to life and out of hell because of her piety. The story goes on to describe a time when the good ( shan ) will be separated from the evil ( e ) by two successive years (1992 and 1993) of disaster and calamity, including: epidemic diseases, famine, poisonous snakes, mad dogs and tigers, great storms, poisonous water, apocalyptic wars, bandits and the unleashing of demons and monsters from hell to attack people night and day. Evil people will be the victims of this onslaught, even the wealthy, the high, the mighty and the learned will not be spared: warriors and generals will be consumed, physicians will not be able to cure their own diseases. Finally, eighteen concentric pits will devour the evil ones, and they will be ground between millstones and transformed into monsters. The apocalypse will heighten to a crescendo of disaster, with those not dying at first finding themselves destroyed in the end by progressively debilitating disease, and the second year of disaster more ferocious than the first.

Evil here is characterized in two basic ways: the first, active way is the pursuit of greed and the abuse of one's fellow human. The second is more passive; the failure to follow prescribed rituals, including not only the worship of Guanyin, but also the apostasy of not hanging traditional rhymed couplets ( duilian ) around the door and not maintaining a central ancestral room. The good is defined not only in terms of correctly following these ritual practices, but also in active terms-- especially the call to "help the poor", and in more subjective terms of attitude: maintaining a "rectified heart" ( zheng xin ), a sincere pursuit of the good ( shan ) and a true belief. Also, it was noted throughout that these evil times are not the doing of Guanyin, but brought about by people on themselves.

At the same time that this tract was being read at the temple, a man named Yang in the village began to fall into trances of spiritual possession, claiming to be the "proclamation official" ( xuanming guan ) of the gods. Yang said that the spirits had "borrowed his mouth" to tell "people of this world" ( yangjian ren ) to change their ways. He told us that he planned to take his message to the people, and had already visited several dozen homes, beginning with his relatives. Yang said that most people greeted his message with interest and agreed with the points he made. Other people we spoke with said,

His brain has a problem-- he's crazy. Before he wasn't like this. He didn't talk much... They've always been poor; no labor and they've always relied on the government to support them. His daughter ran away to Hebei last year and now it's just he and his son and daughter-in-law. He's just a poor peasant who has gone crazy.

This assessment goes a long way toward explaining Yang's apocalyptic message: like many poor villagers he is struggling against bad harvests and rising prices on the one hand, and a decaying society and lack of government support on the other. These are two main themes of his jeremiad, which calls for a return to basic values and belief in the gods to avert disaster:

Everyone must quickly respect heaven and earth; only then will good days come back again; 80 to 90% of the people must believe in heaven and earth, only then will good days come back again.

The people are ruled by heaven; the underworld ( yin jian ) also manages the people; the people of this world don't believe because they can't see, they can't feel it, but when the time comes they will know... the people of this world ( yangjian ren ) only have the Public Security Bureau to control them, but in the underworld everything will be taken into account: People who curse heaven and earth will have their whole family die...Officials must be good officials; they must do good things for the people; they should build bridges and repair roads...People who steal and rob, people who are not filial will be struck dead by lightning; one in a thousand will be punished to make others see...Today the market is very unstable; rice will be as precious as gold ...The mountain will open its mouth; tigers and wolves will come out and eat people... There will be darkness and destruction...

Now all the gods are requesting the people to rebuild them temples; they have 'eaten thirty years of bitterness'; if you don't let them come back then the people living on the temple sites will have their houses burned. Everyone must believe in them; only then will they save the people.

Much of what Yang chanted during his trance had to do with bad crops and with the general diminishing returns of agriculture, which he interpreted as a divine punishment for "falling from the Way." He emphasized the "instability" of prices as a disaster in itself and as a portent of more disasters to come. His message also brought out the distinction between "common people" ( baixing ren ) and "officials" ( dang guande ). He exhorted officials in 'this world' to do good deeds, which he saw as taking care of basic infrastructure (bridges and roads). The underworld is just like this world, he said, except that the officials in the underworld are all "upright" ( qing guan ) and can see and govern over all aspects of a person's life-- i.e. not just the commission of crimes (as in this world) but things like belief and being a "good person" ( xin shan ).

Yang may, in fact, be mentally disturbed by the standards of his society. The catalyst for Yang's appeal to the gods may have been the phasing out of government subsidies for the poorest farmers, or it may have been his daughter's running away for a better life in another province. 13 Yet his message is essentially reasonable and reflects many of the concerns voiced by others-- only the tone is urgent and full of apocalyptic images. Even in terms of being an eccentric or heterodox act, Yang's spiritual possession was not an isolated case, as the millenarian text in the temple suggests. In an even more bizarre contemporaneous development, a group of men in a nearby village took to wearing their hair in the style of the Manchu tonsure, convinced that the changes they saw around them signaled a return of the Qing Dynasty. When we asked about this phenomenon, it was explained that,

Things have to change now. Now it's like 'the eight immortals passing over the ocean' ( ba xian guo hai )-- if you pass over the ocean you're a '10,000 yuan household' ( wan yuan fu ), but many people have fallen in and drowned! Things have to change...

The accelerated change to a market economy has clearly made some people feel left out. It has also brought widespread disaffection from the government and both implicit and explicit rejection of Party leadership. In some of the more extreme examples considered above, the challenge to authority is clear-- and not lost on local officials who attempt to suppress "feudal superstition" as soon as it appears. We spoke with one official, the local township head ( xiang zhang ), for whom the central dynamic at play in production is the opposition of 'superstition' ( mixin ) and 'science' ( kexue ). He brought up as an example the idea of " fengshui " (geomancy):

There is a lot of superstition in the countryside. People die and become 'spirits' (linghun) that come after people and 'get' (zheng) them. For example, if a child becomes sick, many people believe it is because of spirits. Also, the nongmin believe that ghosts can reduce their production...You can have the same one mu piece of land and get different production results. One person who is capable can get a lot out of it; another guy who is lazy and doesn't work hard produces very little. But instead of blaming himself, he blames the fengshui of the land !

The township head's complaint highlights the epistemological rift underlying the conflict between his efforts to "modernize" production by applying universal "rational methods," and the villagers' stubborn adherence to "particular" local knowledge of the landscape, and the 'uncanny' understanding of it in geomantic explanations.] The official's major complaint about peasants and their superstitions had to do with their resistance to new ideas-- their conservatism and backwardness. He grew quite agitated and in the space of three minutes of conversation produced this list of invectives against the peasants: stupid, conservative, superstitious, unscientific, lazy, backward thinking, unreceptive to new thinking and new methods, shortsighted, inbred ("lacking human quality"), and disobedient ( bu tinghua )--especially this last, from his perspective.

Peasant "disobedience" was a common complaint from officials, and often connected to the persistence of "feudal superstition." The latter was a category reserved for forms of behavior that either fell outside of or directly challenged Party control. Thus the spontaneous rebirth of the temple was supressed-- with literally disastrous results and bad feelings all around. But while the heavy-handed approach to the temple proved ineffective, especially against disaffected and disobedient villagers, there was another approach to the problem: the temple could continue under the control of the Party. Officials did in fact adopt that strategy, but it involved the transformation of "superstition" into "religion", and the attempt to change the meaning of the temple from the spontaneous revival of popular religion and the assertion of local identity, to the acceptance of leadership by bureaucratized, state-sponsored Buddhism and the development of "tourism." 14 

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Redefinition and Control: A Meeting at the Temple

After the flood (and unconnected with it) there was the change of leadership at the township government, and Party secretary Gao arrived in Taiping. Gao reversed the government's position toward the temple and decided to support it. Once the statue was returned to the temple, Gao went to inspect it, and when he leaned closer to look at Chuanzhu's shoes, the statue fell on top of him. By the time word of this new "miraculous event" reached us, conventional wisdom had interpreted it as a happy portent: "Chuanzhu performed the 'koutou' to Party Secretary Gao in thanks for his support." 15 Rumor also circulated that Gao's father and brother were both daoshi (daoist priests) and so he was himself sympathetic to the temple.

In a public meeting called to organize a leadership structure for the temple, Gao's explanation for his support sought to minimize his own initiative and ground the decision in "orthodox" principles; namely, the leadership of the Party, the Party's official policy on religion, and (most interestingly) the Party's call to "develop the economy and develop tourism" in the "spirit of 'document number two'":

Today we come here to hold this ganbu [sic!] meeting, the purpose is certainly not to practice superstition; some people will say such nonsense, that we are holding a 'feudal superstition activity', but we are acting in accordance with the Party's policy on religion. I want to emphasize this. Besides, we have a management group of seven people especially in charge of the temple's activities.

First, I just want to say that building this temple is not my own personal decision. It has been agreed to be higher levels in the government. Moreover, there is management, leadership and discipline. First and foremost, there is to be absolutely no "feudal superstition" going on-- no 'spiritual possession' ( ganshen ) and no 'black magic' ( duangong ). If anyone is caught doing this, let it be known that I will severely punish them. Don't let this happen. Now, why is the township government supporting this temple ? Some rumors say that the government wants your money. I guarantee you that the government will not take one cent of your money; all the income from the temple will belong to the temple. Not only will the government not take money, it will add to the money you receive. The temple has leadership and organization and the support of the Party, so don't be afraid. Now everyone should go out and make more friends; the more friends the faster the construction ! So, through hard effort we can fulfill the responsibility given to us by the government. The things here, the land, the wood, all of it belongs to the nation. All we need are for more people from outside to come here, more tourists, more friends and we can improve the economic situation here. Economic construction is good for you; you should be 'open' ( kaifang ). There's just one important rule: everything must be in accordance with the Party's policy on religion... Huang shifu and Jiu shifu [the Buddhist nuns put in charge of the temple] from Jin Feng Temple are both familiar with the policy on religion... You have the strong support of mayor Wan, who is a representative to the People's Congress. It's not just me, it's not just my crazy idea to build the temple; it's in accordance with policy."

In his speech, Gao repeatedly emphasized two themes: the temple must have (Party) leadership, and "superstition" would be "severely punished." It is significant that superstition was specifically described in terms of "spiritual possession," since that free expression of "embodied knowledge" (tihui) was inherently resistant to control. The corollary of "following the Party's policy on religion" meant recasting the temple's identity to conform with state-sponsored Buddhism. 16 Making the temple Buddhist homogenized out the particular, local quality of its identity and reigned it into a rational bureaucratic structure of "belief." In addition, developing the temple was legitimated as "developing tourism." This strategy provided a face-saving economic guise for the temple activities to continue, but more importantly (and ironically) represented a bribe. On one hand, Gao was making a simple appeal to what he no doubt perceived as the utilitarian greed of peasant consciousness; on the other, the injection of money and commercialization would make the temple undergo a universalizing process of "opening" (kaifang), thereby subverting the heterodox message of the temple by absorbing it into the prevailing mainstream "socialist market economy." These were the cornerstones of the authorities' attempt to blunt the "miraculous" and give their own meaning to the temple's revival, to coopt it. 17 

Gao was particularly sensitive to the question of the temple's funding, since up to this point the temple had been renovated through contributions of money, building materials and volunteer labor by local villagers. Many people held a cynical view of the government's belated involvement, and felt that the new ethic of "making money" would lead to government exploitation of their temple-- and the cash and labor they put into it. Party Secretary Gao tried to allay these fears by cutting a deal with local villagers: if they would desist from "feudal superstition" and accept the government's definition of the temple-- that is, a tourist development zone with approved religious activity carried out under the clear leadership of the Buddhist bureaucracy-- then the government would help provide money for both the temple's renovation, and for more economic development of tourism.

Gao's allies on the temple's leadership group tried other arguments to persuade locals to cooperate. The most active of these was a woman named Zheng from the United Front Department ( tongzhan bu ) of Ya'an. Zheng was the spearhead of a movement to change the temple's identity from folk religion to Buddhism. In her speech following Gao, she appealed to many of the sentiments that had, in fact, motivated the spontaneous revival of the temple:

Now we're all very clear; we will certainly follow the policy on religion in doing things. We will open up ( kaifang ) and do things correctly... Chuanzhu si [Buddhist temple] needs to attract people, if we attract people we can make money... This will be good for our economy...if the economy is good, the local peasants will have money. Then, when the township government wants you to pay taxes you don't have to be so mad about it... So building the temple is a good thing. It's good for the nation; it helps the nation by giving people faith ( xinyang ) and makes everyone better. so let's not be selfish. We've all come here to make a better life, to give our grandchildren a better life. "If the will of heaven is not followed, the people's hearts will be uneasy" ( Tian xin bu shu, ren xin bu an ). Today's society has many bad things, like on the long distance buses when young men pull out knives and rob people, everyone says things are bad now. Look, one of the reasons we're here is to commemorate ( jinian ) the good officials, like erlang [Chuanzhu], he was a good official. So this commemoration of them is a way to educate people, to tell them what "the good" is, and to 'save' bad people, to have them come here and be turned into good people. If everyone has faith then this is good for maintaining peace in the family and the nation ( zhijia , zhiguo ); it's beneficial to the family and the state.

Zheng's message, with its emphasis on faith as an antidote to social decay, echoed the attitudes of most of the villagers involved in the temple. The real difference between their points of view was that local people wanted to preserve the original identity of the " miaozi " (temple), while Zheng wanted to establish a " si " (Buddhist temple), and to absorb the Chuanzhu temple into the broader Buddhist bureaucracy. To this end, Zheng courted a number of senior Buddhist nuns to persuade them to support and manage the temple. We asked one of these high-ranking nuns about the original Daoist identity of the temple. She looked as though she had been assaulted by an offensive odor:

This religion, that religion-- these temples have no religion at all! Daoism, ha!... Daoism isn't really a religion, it is concerned with reality ( xianshi ). Buddhism is more cultural and literate; that's why the state supports it...

She added that throughout history Buddhism had "led Daoism by its nose." She was quite openly contemptuous of both popular religion in general and of Daoism in particular. As interesting as her words was the way she said them; she had the precious and effete air of an aristocrat. She gave off more than a whiff of corruption: "We ate so well at Wu Tai Shan [a famous convent in Shanxi ], but these small temples-- they really are just too awful ( daomei ) !" She was treated with the deference due to an official, and she acted like one. Later we saw her being escorted to the temple by the leadership group and Party Secretary Gao.

The state accepts Buddhism for a number of reasons, including the easily controlled organizational structure of the religion, its recognition as a "world religion," and its essentially passive moral message. State policy allows for religious freedoms under the condition that religious activities remain unified under the communist cause. Official documents have recognized the potentially constructive role religion can play in the cause of maintaining order and in attracting economic development. 18 The emphasis on unity resonates with traditional ideas of a single universe under one leadership. Thus bottom up activism is tolerated, even welcomed, as long as it remains congruent with and controlled by the official government agenda.

The temple is a nascent "civil" institution in the Chinese countryside, independent of the state yet connected with it in a relationship of mutual cooptation. This relationship can only be understood in terms of the motivations underlying it, and in the context of the particular timing of the temple's revitalization. The phenomenon of "religious revival" was widespread in China during the reform period, and includes not only temple building but household-based rituals of ancestor worship and offerings to the "kitchen god," ritual offerings to the many "earth gods" ( tudi ) scattered in small shrines throughout the landscape, and, especially in southeast China, the re-opening of lineage halls and local festivals (e.g. Siu 1989b). In Xiakou and the surrounding area, furtive acts of individual worship-- primarily the burning of incense and paper money at family altars, graves and tudi shrines-- continued even through the collective period and began to be more openly practiced by the late 1980s, but smaller local temples only began to reactivate in 1992.

In light of the fact that in other areas of China temple building also began earlier during the 1980s, the question of why the temple 'revived' when it did is important. One possible answer is that market reforms spur temple reconstruction both in the sense that, traditionally, a certain level of prosperity gives rise to investment in prestige through donations to the community, and in the sense that temples and local festivals offer opportunities for developing the instrumental guanxi networks that underpin business, even at the expense of the ritual's consequent "vulgarization" (Siu 1989b:127). Thus it seems to make sense that more economically developed areas such as southeast China would have earlier temple revivals, especially given the influence of returning emigres from nearby Hong Kong and Taiwan . In more remote and poor locations, such as Sichuan , the time-lag in temple construction might reflect the time-lag in economic development. This explanation seems even more persuasive when put in the context of Deng's southern tour and "document number two", which aimed to spur economic growth in the hinterland by urging people to "learn from" the example of booming coastal regions like Shenzhen (next to Hong Kong).

The reconstruction of Chuanzhu temple seems true to this pattern-- except that the connection between market reform and temple building is exactly inverted; that is, the motivation behind rebuilding the temple was not for guanxi or economic reasons, but against the commoditization of relationships accompanying market reforms. One might safely conclude from this that market reforms can be linked to the timing of temple revivals, even if that linkage cannot tell us why any specific temple is undergoing revival-- after all, China is a big place, with great variation in local conditions. That said, it is quite possible that the mixture of religious revival and economic motivation exhibited in the (well-studied) southeast of China is an exception rather than the rule; the hinterland is vast, and most of it a world apart from the freewheeling prosperity of villages in, say, Guangdong province. In fact, this disparity of wealth is one of the phenomena stemming from market reforms that feeds the fire of discontent in Sichuan , discontent expressed in the reactivation of local temples. This point is based on an important distinction in what I mean by a "temple", and this distinction, in turn, further explains the timing of temple building.

As the terms "local" and "reactivate" suggest, I am referring to temples which are revitalized from the spontaneous initiative of local villagers , as distinct from those primarily reconstructed at state initiative, developed as tourist centers. While the latter frequently house clerics and are visited by worshipping pilgrims as well as tourists, their religious activities are state-approved (overwhelmingly Buddhist, although Sichuan boasts some of China's most notable Daoist temples, especially Qingyang Gong in Chengdu, and the temples of Chingcheng Shan), and their significance is more redolent of a cultural-nationalistic invention of essence or heritage ( guoqing ) than religious. Local temples, by contrast, are centers of Chinese "popular religion" or "folk religion" ( minjian zongjiao ); or, less charitably and more frequently, of "feudal superstition" ( fengjian mixin ). It is in the spontaneous revival of local temples that the real contest between constructions of Chinese cultural identity take place, in that local temples are the assertion of a specific community's historical memory, and that a moral judgment of the present is both implicit and explicit in that assertion. Further, the tension between the classifications "feudal" ( fengjian ) and "folk" ( minjian ) mirrors the ambivalence in the state's interactions with local communities, and the top-down normative proscription of behavior enforced by state agents. For these reasons, the state perceived the Chuanzhu temple as a threat and, until 1992, resisted the activities there-- which underscores the point that the timing of the temple's revival is crucial for understanding the motivations behind it.

While at the time of the earliest appearance of activity in the temple, in 1991, local officials felt that the threat of "feudal superstition" warranted a crackdown, by 1992 party secretary Gao, "in the spirit of document number two", decided to channel the spontaneous initiative toward economic development. This decision was no doubt made easier by the critical mass of popular support for the temple reached after the flood, but it also reflects the 'money-making fever' gripping the nation at that time, as well as Gao's sage estimation that the level of popular discontent in the countryside made it best to "follow from the will of the people" ( shun cong minyi ). This was precisely the point behind the temple's revival-- getting the state to follow the will of the people. Even if the state's rationale of turning the temple into a money-making proposition was ironically symptomatic of the very trend the temple activists decried, it provided a point of mutual cooptation that both sides found accommodating.

It is important to note that local people did not express outrage at the stipulation that the government be involved in guiding the temple movement forward. On the contrary, there was a consensus welcoming government participation and a general spirit of accommodation from both directions. Locals welcomed well enough the buddhist rituals Zheng organized, but suggested a separate building be constructed for the Buddhist 'Goddess of Mercy' (Guanyin Pusa), and held firm that the temple's traditional name and identity not be forsaken.

The mood of accommodation may well have been a product of mutual expectations of monetary advantage--the temple hoping to get a grant from the government for construction costs and the government hoping to reap rewards from potential tourism development, but there was another sphere in which they shared a common vocabulary of interest, if not exactly the same conclusions. This was the sphere of changing values. The officials for their part hoped that the revival would help put a check on soaring crime rates through the development of "spiritual civilization." Similarly, the farmers' general complaint was that "everything nowadays is for love of money, not love of humanity" but through this one can see in the temple revival both a broad critique of changes in society and an implicit criticism of now-rampant official corruption. In a more positive sense, villagers created, in the temple, a sense of community, and they asserted their local identity despite the attempt by the state to absorb it into the "homogenized" realms of tourism and bureaucratic Buddhism.

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Villagers' Reflections on the Temple

It would be misleading to suggest that the entire village community actively supported the temple's revival. Most people were simply too busy working to be involved in the activities outside of going to see the "excitement" of major festival days. Temple activists were mostly, though not exclusively, old people. But it would be equally misleading to characterize the revival as simple nostalgia. The temple served as a forum for expressing opinions about the changing world the villagers lived in, and for asserting values important to them.

A few villagers were even hostile toward the temple, seeing it as superstition or, more likely, cynically dismissing it as another government scheme to make money. One middle-aged former grass-roots official with whom we spoke was particularly jaded about the government's involvement with the temple, and about the service religion rendered the government. First, in response to our question of who Chuanzhu was, he compared the temple god to the "provincial Party secretary", and added the rather scornful observation that "he is supposed to be a god, but he was really a man !":

they decided to open the temple when the local leadership changed. The Fourteenth Party congress called for 'the development of culture', so they're going ahead with it. Old Deng is a smart guy; as soon as they started the reforms he also had them open up ( kaifang ). It's basically a tactic ( shouduan ) to make money. Deng said, 'ok, you want to see foreign movies? Pay for it; we'll take your money !' It's the same with this temple; they'll develop it and charge admission and make money from it-- that's what 'cultural development' is all about-- a tactic to make money...Sure, it's a part of 'building a spiritual civilization' ( jingshen wenming ); but that really means informing people ( tongzhi ). The pusa tells the people how to behave themselves; it's all very useful... Your country has academic degrees ( xuewei ), we have authority ( quanwei )-- and a long history of authoritarianism... Authority is important for public order and social stability.

While most people did not hold such a cynical view, there was a marked tendency to conflate the religious and the political. As mentioned above, Chuanzhu's identity as an upright official made connections between him and officials today quite commonplace. In many cases, officials were judged on how they related to the temple. One man explained the connection to us during a festival held at the temple:

The township head and party secretary both came here today. They kowtowed, of course! They are officials, but they are still one of the people. It's important for an official to show that he is one of the people, the same as us. an official needs the support of the people. Officials and the people should have mutual respect ( huxiang zunjing ). The peasants have culture, and there are intellectuals among the peasants. This kind of event, with musicians and people reading scripture shows that peasants have culture and knowledge.

This statement expressed the value placed by many people in Xiakou on respect -- an attitude they felt was lacking in both "vertical" and "horizontal" social relationships. It also reveals both the ideal of good government-- to be "one with the people"-- and a strong sense of pride, an assertion of "culture" and the essential worth of villagers who are often made to feel like second-rate citizens by officials, city people and intellectuals. Later, the man praised the new party secretary and township head for their solidarity and respect for the people, shown by their respect for Chuanzhu, and complained about the old officials (who had tried to suppress the temple) and their unfair and disrespectful practice of withholding taxes ( kou shui ) from peasant incomes.

I heard many complaints about Party officials and their mismanagement of the temple. The main thrust of these criticisms was not against the Communist Party, but rather against Party members today who fell short of villagers' idealization of the Party-- they were "not real Party members." 19 During the city god's festival day at the temple I overheard a woman loudly complaining about an official who ignored the temple:

I said to him, 'you're a communist Party member ! You shouldn't just sit around all day ! You should come get involved ( lai guan ). Party member or not I'll box your ears if you don't come! Party member, ha !

On the same occasion, another woman said she had encountered resistance in her production team about coming to the temple:

They opposed me coming here, but I said 'you can't stop me.' They opposed me because they say its 'superstition', but they should be more clear about what superstition is ! This is China's religious belief...

Here she was interrupted by a man, "they're Party members, Party members don't believe in anything..." She replied: "But this is religious belief."

This, of course, is the crucial question of cultural definition: are the temple's activities superstitious or religious ? As we have seen, state approval of the temple is qualified; spontaneous revival of popular religion must conform to state standards and be carried out under the leadership of the Party. But local villagers make no such distinction. For them, religious belief is an important anchor against the winds of change; religion provides values to believe in when all around them they see the chaos wrought by people who believe in nothing. As lao Wang, an elderly Xiakou villager explained during one of the temple festivals (with the help of a middle-aged woman from Taiping):

[lao Wang:]

It's the same everywhere, we depend on heaven and earth to live ( kao tian, di )... Guanyin, she's in charge of giving you children and grandchildren. But even if you have sons and grandsons, you can't depend on them; you have to depend on yourself-- with the help of the pusa (gods). That's why people come here to the temple... today everything's really crooked ( wai de hen ). There's no filial piety-- there's no respect let alone piety ! Why? Because thinking today is different: 'I have a little ability ( benshi ), I get a little money, but you can't have any of it'... if you have no ability you're out of luck; there's a lot of that !"


Today things are really rotten ( wai ). Robbery, murder... just yesterday somebody was killed in Ya'an-- a student !

[lao Wang:]

People don't believe in heaven and don't believe in earth-- they don't believe in anything ! It's young people's personality today, they don't respect old people... what are old people ? What are these pusa ? They just want to buy things... Aiya, today! They don't listen to you. They just want to eat well, dress well, have fun-- in the cities now they are everywhere! I don't know why it's changed... They don't care if they die: no heaven, no earth, no spirits ( shen ), no faith ( xinyang ). They can do anything because they believe in nothing. They can kill people, other people can kill them...


In Mao's time we all slept safely without locking our doors...

[lao Wang:]

Now it's everybody out for themselves. All that matters is that you eat well and dress well; it doesn't matter how you get it. It's a 'floating life' ( fuhua ). If you can pick a pocket you have skill, if you can't you don't have skill; all that matters is what you can get your hands on, what you can get away with.


It always ends up falling on the peasants. The peasants always gets the worst of it! All we can do is depend on the pusa to protect us !

Villagers who supported the temple were expressing their dissatisfaction with the chaos and social decay of the changing world around them. Through the temple they criticized corruption, injustice and the lack of values and principles in society. They put forward their ideal of just and good government and the correct relationship toward authority. The temple was also an important source of local pride, identity and cultural expression, and villagers resisted the pressures to give up this local identity.

As an institution recreated from memory, the temple fulfilled some of the functions it had served in pre-Liberation times, especially that of being the center of a sense of local community. In this sense, the temple revival underscores Richard Madsen's idea that "the associations of civil society are not just interest groups, but communities. And communities are historically constituted, they are 'communities of memory' (1993:192). 20 The importance of the idea that the temple is a place villagers go simply to have some fun should not be underestimated. As Weller (1994) observes, the bustling excitement (or what he terms "heat and noise" [ renao ]) of Chinese popular religion forms a thick brew of potential meanings, saturated with a plurality of possible interpretations. The Chuanzhu temple exemplifies this interplay of contested meanings. I have isolated an interpretation of the temple as an expression of community identity to highlight the local way villagers encounter forces that are often described in global terms-- commoditization, "scientific progress," resistance or "subversion" of state control. Just as the level of economic development varies enormously from locality to locality in China, the reactions of local villagers to the transformations wrought by commoditization vary. In a similar way, for every conflict that precipitates into open resistance, as in the tax revolt in Renshou county, there may be many cases of negotiation-through-mutual cooptation that mediate between community interests and those of the state. 21 

The temple serves many important social functions. Contributions to the temple are a way of showing 'face' and establishing status in the community. The donations of labor and materials to build and maintain the temple make it an outlet for community voluntarism. Finally, and most important for villagers, the temple is an institution for passing on a knowledge (in this case, moral knowledge) to succeeding generations. The Chuanzhu temple is the kind of community institution that was suppressed under the years of Maoist rule, and the resulting social structure of today is scattered, atomistic and lacking any focal point. In this sense, the revival of popular religion can be seen as the spontaneous resurgence of community.

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In the post-Mao period, China has been in a process of accelerating change. With the de facto end of communism as a total legitimating ideology, China is in the throes of a crisis of belief and intense value change. As controls on the economy and on cultural life have been lifted, new values have emerged and long-suppressed forms of behavior and expression have begun to reappear to fill the vacuum of values. The revival of popular religion is an important phenomenon for understanding value change in the Chinese countryside. The case of the Chuanzhu temple illustrates villagers' reactions to changes in the economy, in government, and in society. Through the temple, villagers sought to restore a moral universe of "harmony" between the values of authority, justice and freedom, and to assert local identity against efforts by the state to control the definition of Chinese cultural identity.

The idea that authority is all-important and the corollary that "the people" are pawns of high level power struggles has been an important way of conceptualizing Chinese society (including among the Chinese themselves). In these accounts, even if authority is perceived to be benevolent, the people are but the passive beneficiaries of the enlightened policies. This view has been tempered somewhat by modes of analysis that highlight the way people have used political movements to advance their own interests. In this sense people can be seen as "agents" and not simply or only "victims" (Siu, 1989) This more nuanced "bottom up" view draws attention to the underlying social tensions that explode during periods of relaxed control and are manipulated by the government during tightened control. Still, the central premise of "authoritarianism" has remained largely intact.

Rather than take the exercise and reverence for authority in the Chinese countryside as a given, it might be more revealing to look at how the relation to authority is actually worked out, and what limits there are to it. The revitalization of the local temple is a good case for understanding the dynamic between villagers and authority: the temple's revival is a spontaneous act of restoring "harmony." As such, it is more a statement of an ideal against which the reigning authorities should be measured, and, indeed, measure themselves, than an act of defiance. The villagers acquiesce to government leadership, in fact they insist on it, but not without also insisting that the temple's original identity (read local identity and local interests) be preserved. The call for a return to harmony has a threatening edge and the authorities seek to blunt it by controlling it and co-opting it. The authority dynamic at play here is that of "following from the people's will ( shun cong min yi )" and can be seen in the broader historical relation to authority as well. For example, after the Sichuan riots in Renshou (and elsewhere) "easing the burden of the peasants ( jian qing nong min fudan )" became an emphasized element of policy.

Both the tax revolt riots and the revival of the temple point to the strong sense of justice that serves as a check on the blind acceptance of authority. In today's changing society, villagers have come to expect corruption and mismanagement, but they do not have an unlimited ability to accept it-- especially when it impinges on their own local interests. One important element of the 'restoration of harmony' is that injustice-- whether corruption that threatens the physical and social infrastructure, or the suppression of spontaneous expression-- will not be tolerated.

Another important message of the temple's revival is the expression of local identity and local pride. Many villagers wanted to create a sense of community; to maintain their traditional practices and find in them a measure of self-worth. As a spontaneous act of religious belief and local identity, the revival of the temple was above all an assertion of freedom, and in many conversations with villagers, "freedom" was consistently identified as the most important value. It is not surprising that the government authorities sought to first suppress and then control the revitalization movement, since the outbreak of freedom is a destabilizing political force.

In the sense that the villagers involved in the temple revival were carving out an "independent sphere" for creating their own identity, rather than accepting an imposed one, the temple can be seen as a possibility for the development of a Chinese "civil society." For over a quarter of a century in post-revolution China, the power of the state in managing public affairs was overwhelming. Thus alternative networks must still be seen as nascent. Rowe (1989, p.183) has made the point that in late Qing China societal forces responded more adroitly than did bureaucratic ones to the changing social and economic forces tearing at the social fabric. In the current era of rapid change, there is much to be gained by encouraging such impulses at the grassroots, and great care is required to ensure that agents of the state, working within a dominant state rhetoric which casts the villagers' political and religious impulses as ignorant and backward, do not excessively impair these initiatives. Too often the differences in "interest" between local communities and state agents are veiled by the processes of co-optation we have sought to describe. But co-optation cuts both ways; farmers sought both engagement with and independence from the state in their assertion of moral order against chaos. Moreover, as the case of the temple illustrates, the co-optation of spontaneous 'civil' organizations by the state is not necessarily rejected by the grassroots, nor does co-optation mean that civil society is somehow negated; in fact, villagers were more able to express their interests after the state attempted to take over the temple revival, both in terms of using the legitimation of state approval for "tourist development" to build more temples, and by using the temple as a forum for expressing their values to the government leadership.

The divergent interests of villagers and state agents points to a gap more fundamental than corruption or exploitation: the gap of values between urban and rural dwellers. Chinese intellectuals, in promoting their own agenda for development in the countryside, tend to dismiss local interests, confident that their own methods are modern, progressive, rational, efficient and thus superior to those of the feudal, superstitious and backward peasant. 22 In at least this sense of negative reference to 'the peasant', state agents and intellectuals in China have common cause. In Xiakou, at any rate, sanguine predictions of an increasing urbanization and 'rationalization' of the countryside not only ring false, but are based on interests and values that may be widely held by intellectuals and state agents, yet are alien and even hostile to the farmers.

Thus, it is not surprising that in the case of the temple revival villagers were expressing their own sense of the limitations of the rhetoric of rationality. The orthodoxy of rational economic development has left their interests largely ignored. Non-government networks such as the temple offer a certain flexibility and responsiveness to popular thinking absent in the formal government structures, and it is only through increased understanding of the needs and desires at the grassroots that ultimately successful political and economic structures can be created.

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About This Essay

A Temple Reborn

This essay is an account of the 1992 revival of the most important local temple for the people of Xiakou village, the Chuanzhu miao dedicated to the deified official Li Bing. We argue that the temple's revival can be understood as an expression of local ideals of good governance, and as an assertion of local interests in resistance to the excesses of the state sponsored transition to a market economy. Earlier versions of this essay appeared in the chapter "A Temple Reborn" in John Flower's 1997 Ph.D thesis, "Portraits of Belief: Constructions of Chinese Cultural Identity in the Two Worlds of City and Countryside in Modern Sichuan Province" and in the chapter "Defining Cultural Life in the Chinese Countryside: the Case of the Chuanzhu Temple" in the edited volume, Cooperative and Collective in China's Rural Development: Between State and Private Interests . A Chinese translation of that book chapter was published by the Zhejiang Academy of Social Sciences in The Second Revolution in China: China in the Eyes of Western Scholars .