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Confucian Rituals and Chinese Villagers

Confucian Rituals and Chinese Villagers

Thomas Jansen25 Apr 2014Leave a comment

Written by Joseph Tse-Hei Lee (李榭熙)

Liu, Yonghua. Confucian Rituals and Chinese Villagers: Ritual Change and Social Transformation in a Southeastern Chinese Community, 1368–1949. Religion in Chinese Societies, vol. 6. Leiden and Boston: E. J. Brill, 2013. xv, 326 pp. EUR 125.00/US$ 162.00 (hc). ISBN: 9789004257245.

Yonghua Liu 劉永華 of Xiamen University 厦門大學 has produced an outstanding study of Confucian ritual practices and socio-cultural change in rural Fujian 福建 province. Written with the objectivity of a historian and the sensitivity of an ethnographer, Liu builds on the existing scholarship on socio-religious space by David Faure, Vincent Goossaert, David A. Palmer, Paul R. Katz, and John Lagerwey to reveal an accommodating relationship between state and religion in late imperial China.(1)

This monograph employs a micro-historical approach to highlight the centrality of communal religious life, the spread of popular religious print across different regions, and the resilience of rural rituals from the imperial era to the present. Central to this investigation are concerns about what Confucian rituals and norms meant for vastly different rural areas, how local inhabitants related their longstanding patron deities to the Confucian state’s symbols and teachings, and whether the state’s expansion into rural Fujian threatened or conserved the preexisting cultures. Liu’s analysis transcends the bifurcation between state dominance and local submission, and identifies more subtle arrangements and negotiations beyond this theoretical dichotomy.

Three things strike me about this study. The first concerns the inconsistency of the state-making process in rural China. The imperial state’s penetration into local society was neither a complete nor a unidirectional process. Popular reaction to the Confucian civilizing project differed from place to place, ranging from support and embracement to suspicion and indifference. Temples and lineages were widely scattered across Fujian. These rural organizations not only identified with the political center but also held onto their distinct cultures and developed extensive cross-regional alliances for support. They circumvented the top-down institutional demands, kept alive their religious space, and adjusted ritual practices to the fast-changing political environment. Whenever the imperial center set out to standardize all devotional and liturgical forms of rituals that fostered localism, lineage pride, and religious and ethnic identity, in order to maintain unity among its diverse populations, many community actors such as lineage headmen, temple managers and market-town merchants devised innovative strategies to cope with this momentous change.

The second insight reveals the significant role the lisheng 禮生 (masters of rites or ritual specialists) played as mediators in state-society encounters. Coming from various socio-cultural backgrounds, the lisheng perceived their local pride to be as important as their adherence to the imperial authorities. They adapted to the dominant ideological trends and appropriated the state-imposed Confucian rhetoric to defend their interests. They also relied on cross-regional temple and lineage alliances and popular religious print networks to spread their ritual practices. The ritual specialists, temple and lineage leaders, merchants, and local officials actively engaged with one another, and dealt with the top-down change by shifting their negotiating tactics. When most community actors recognized the futility of opposing the Confucian civilizing project, they shifted from challenging the imperial center to openly embracing it partly out of self-protection and partly in the hope that they could safeguard the local interests and cultures. Consequently, the adherence to imperial ideology, the proliferation of ritual ceremonies, and the institutionalization of lineage and temple networks turned into effective strategies used by all sides to advance their diverse agendas. This colorful process of ritual adaptation marked the limits of the state’s expansion into local society. The extent to which community actors subscribed to the ideological discourse and administrative policies from above determined the state’s co-optation of the religious domain. These findings challenge the teleological view of the irresistible expansion of Confucianism in Chinese historiography.

The third lesson has to do with the reproduction of Confucian symbols and norms in rural areas. State-society interaction was not a zero-sum game in which the resilience of local communities meant the utter failure of the imperial center. On many occasions, the lisheng reproduced a localized version of the Confucian state, indigenizing the symbols of the center and making them easily accessible to rural inhabitants. The best example was that of Zougong 鄒公, the most important local deity at Sibao 四保, Tingzhou 汀州 Prefecture. Because the state did not fully recognize this patron deity, the community actors recast it as a god/ancestor under the imperial formula (pp. 209–19). As long as rural communities supported the local state agents and subscribed to discourses surrounding the Confucian center, they could assert themselves as part of an imagined national body. This compromise, in turn, enabled them to localize Confucian rituals and morality at the grassroots level. In this perspective, the state could be enmeshed in a web of ritual symbols and ceremonial relationships that connected rural inhabitants to scholar-officials in the imperial capital. This observation is of great significance. Unlike the West, where the Roman Catholic Church enforced doctrinal and liturgical unity across Christendom, Confucian China lacked a centralized ecclesiastical infrastructure to ensure the proper understanding of canons and liturgies. Therefore, it fell on the lisheng to integrate the vastly different local religious and socio-cultural domains into the state-sanctioned familial-social structure and cosmological universe.

From the perspective of religious revival in China today, this historical study transcends the conventional paradigm of state control and community resistance, and sheds new light on the dynamics of local popular religions. Even though the political center’s vision of religion and ethics differs from the practitioners’ desire for personal salvation and communal security, the latter skillfully manipulate the state-imposed rhetoric and ritualism to continue their own activities. As a result, ritual ceremonies, temple religions, and lineage customs are deeply embedded into the Chinese political, social, and economic structure. The continuous expansion of proselytizing, ceremonial, and charitable activities, the growth of cross-regional incense-building networks, and the strong ties with local powerbrokers are the innovative strategies that many community actors use to diffuse tensions with the current regime. This in-depth case study confirms the latest scholarly consensus that the Chinese religious field has evolved together with the simultaneous expansion of state governance and that of religious movements, and therefore should be studied outside the dichotomy of control and resistance. (2)

In short, Yonghua Liu should be congratulated for publishing this excellent analysis of popular religious practices in Southeast China. The rich ethnographical data and the conceptual insights should appeal to religious specialists, historians, and anthropologists of China.


[1] David Faure, Emperor and Ancestor: State and Lineage in South China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007); Vincent Goossaert and David A. Palmer, The Religious Question in Modern China (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Paul R. Katz, Religion in China and Its Modern Fate (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2014); John Lagerwey, China: A Religious State (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010).

[2] Thomas Jansen, Thoralf Klein, and Christian Meyer (eds.), Globalization and the Making of Religious Modernity in China: Transnational Religions, Local Agents, and the Study of Religion, 1800Present (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2014).

Reviewer’s Bio
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee (李榭熙) is professor of history and co-director of the Global Asia studies program at Pace University in Manhattan, New York, US. He authored The Bible and the Gun: Christianity in South China, 1860–1900 (New York and London: Routledge, 2003, 2014; Chinese edition, Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press, 2010), and coedited Marginalization in China: Recasting Minority Politics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and China’s Rise to Power: Conceptions of State Governance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Email:

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