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A Conversation: Folk Customs or Pagan Customs?

I recently ran across a post called "Pagan Practice in China's Shanxi Province," which included some intriguing photos of traditional customs.

Here is part of the commentary that accompanied the photos:

These photographs were taken in Shanxi Province in northwest China. They document old customs originating from pagan ritual practices," says photographer Zhang Xiao about the series "Shanxi" (published by Little Big Man, 2013). "They are, in effect, a voodoo-esque form of totem worship. A number of these ancient customs still survive and remain some of the most important cultural practices during the Lunar New Year throughout most of Shanxi. It appears that the participants have created a dramatic and otherworldly stagedressing in stunning costumes and exquisitely painting their faces to represent the identities of gods otherwise long forgotten.

I was intrigued by the use of the word 'pagan,' because it is not a word normally used when describing traditional Chinese folk religions. I fired off the link to two friends, Mark and Andrew, who have lived in Shanxi for many years to get their take on these photos and the accompanying description. Join in the email conversation that followed below:

Mark: You gotta love Shanxi, so dated and yet so funky. I'm wondering where the photo was taken. I have surely witnessed such rituals, having done almost everything that can be done in the cycle of rural Shanxi life ways.

Andrew: I know there are villages or counties famous for certain folk activities or festivals. Mark may remember the name of the village where they prance around with giant puppets on their shoulders.

Mark: Yes, those ceremonies happen at the Lantern festival, which happens on the 15th day of the lunar new year (the first full moon). It's all great fun.

Andrew: Of course, these costumes are straightforward opera costumes. And operas have been and still are prominent features in both funerals and temple festivals throughout Shanxi (esp. Southern Shanxi). And let's not forget that temple festivals are (and have for the most part always been) not particularly religious. They are really a series of rites that help define and affirm the community, while providing an opportunity for trade. And that's really where most people's focus is: the market that surrounds the festival.

Mark: I am suspicious about the depth and dreaminess of the ceremonies being described here. I mean, "totem worship?" Come on. Totem worship is a type of animism, the notion that animals and plants are inhabited by spiritual beings. Some forms of Taoism may teach that, but it doesn't match my experience with Chinese spirituality at all. The closest Chinese people come to animism is ancestor worship, and then, not that their dead ancestors are residing in the material world, but that they continue to exist in spirit form in another world.

I'm sorry for throwing cold water on this, but these participants are more likely illiterate farmers who are willing to do these things in exchange for a hot meal and a few Renminbi (money) from the county government hosting the event. If there is any dreaminess involved, it is not beatific spirituality; but a fair days work for two square meals.

Andrew: I agree. I think it is hard for outsiders to grasp the tremendous social and financial pressures bearing down on rural China. It should not surprise us to see intelligent and sometimes desperate people using whatever resources or opportunities they have to keep their families intact and secure. If this means cynically appropriating a piece of local color and packaging it to fit the expectations of tourists, why not? The same impulse has been at work in some of the ethnic minority villages of Sichuan and Yunnan for years.

Mark: And of course that's not to disparage the fun and mystique of it all. Rural Shanxi ceremonies represent something worth exploring, and I consider myself much the richer for what these types of things have done to challenge and change me!!

To bring this back to a Christian frame of reference, I see the performances being described here as merely folk customs, not pagan rituals. And folk culture in vast swatches of China is alive and well. In fact, I would suggest that much of Christian practice in rural China is a manifestation of Chinese folk culture. That doesn't question its veracity or sincerity, but it does remind one of how much theological training is needed among spiritual leaders in China.

Andrew: The concept of popular religion (or what used to be called folk religion) is a twentieth-century invention. For nineteenth-century missionaries in China, these activities we are talking aboutopera festivals, puppets, etc.were simply dismissed as "superstition." More interestingly, I was just reading the other day that prior to the twentieth century, Chinese people classified these practices and beliefs as "customs" (fengsu) rather than religious teachings (jiao). As you said, good theological training is important if Chinese believers are to develop wise, faithful responses to this aspect of Chinese life.

Mark: However, I don't want to overstate my case and be guilty of perpetuating another popular canard, namely that external cultural similarity between Chinese and Western young people, such as the use of Mac computers and a hankering for Starbucks coffee, have nearly eliminated the cultural gap between them. Nonsense, the gap remains wide, and these externalities are a foil for fundamental disparity in thought and worldview.

Andrew: Amen!

Thanks, Mark and Andrew, for letting us listen in on your conversation.

Image credit: Kay Lilium Travels

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio