April 7, 2000

For the Up-to-Date Village, a One-of-a-Kind God


XIALING, China -- The air was thick with incense and the cacophony of homemade horns recently as the people of this tiny village on China's southern coast prepared to celebrate their most sacred holiday. In the morning, a procession led by village elders dressed in long blue robes and wide-brimmed hats moved up the hill to Xialing's elaborate tiled temple, adorned with brightly colored beasts.

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After a luncheon feast, the 350 residents of the village, in Guangdong Province, gathered around a makeshift altar beside the highway to make offerings, sing and pay homage to four carved wooden deities: the Heaven Mother, the King of Three Mountains, the Grandfather of Virtue and the Grandfather of Wealth. Unmarried girls in white jackets and floppy white hats tended incense sticks the size of rocket launchers.

The incense may evoke Buddhism and the gods may resemble Taoist deities, but the villagers have no interest in such formal faiths. "Oh, no, this is not Taoism or Buddhism," said Zeng Qingle, 66, his gold teeth gleaming under the huge brim of his hat. "This is our own religion and local tradition."

Villagers here primarily worship the Heaven Mother -- "our own special god," Mr. Zeng explained, "who brings the village prosperity, harmony, wealth and strong children." All over rural China there has been a renaissance of idiosyncratic home-grown religions. It started in the 1980's but has quickened in the last five years, fueled by increasing prosperity and relaxed government control.

Although China's leaders have spent much of the last year denouncing cults and superstition, in part to justify their ban on the Falun Gong spiritual movement, they have mostly turned a blind eye toward the abundance of folk religions that have re-emerged as a focus of rural life. Although such religions were common in pre-Communist China, their practices and ceremonies were labeled "feudal remnants" and banned during the first 30 years of Communist rule. But today virtually every village on the southern coast has at least one temple or shrine, generally devoted to ancestors or local deities.

Elisabeth Rosenthal/The New York Times

Local folk religions have spread all over China in recent years, even while the Falun Gong sect is being hounded. In Xialing, ancestor worship, which was banned for 40 years under Communism, is having a revival.

In tiny Xialing, traditional ceremonies were disbanded in the early 1950's, and the village's old temple was smashed to bits in 1966, during the Cultural Revolution. Religious ceremonies were not revived in the village until 1992 and its temple was rebuilt several years later, said Zheng Xiaoren, a village elder. "At that time our village had become very poor, and we were eager to revive the ceremony and the temple to bring fortune and prosperity to our town," he said.

China has four officially sanctioned religions -- Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam -- and praying to spirits or deities is officially ridiculed and strongly discouraged. Still, the local authorities often have a strange symbiosis with the indigenous temples, which have become powerful economic and social forces. Many temples have grown rich from the donations of villagers, and a number spend that money on public works, like planting trees or building a school, as a means of honoring gods or ancestors. This assistance has been a boon to cash-strapped local governments, which are in no position to refuse the aid on ideological grounds.

"Even though the government has branded these movements as superstitions or even cults, in reality the local government often arrives at an understanding with the local temple," said Luo Hongguang, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who has studied the phenomenon. Moreover, these religions have become a focal point of village life, he said, providing a framework to replace the rigid Communist system of the Mao era, which has now largely crumbled. "These religions bring together individuals who would otherwise be loose and scattered," Dr. Luo said, "and they also give guidance and significance to their lives."

The revival is occurring all over China, he said, but is most prominent in the southern coastal regions, where the economy has grown quickly and clan ties have remained powerful. In many villages in this part of Guangdong every household shares the same surname. In Xialing, for example, most villagers are named Zheng or Zeng.

"In this part of China the number of rich has grown quickly," Dr. Luo said. "Now people have more wealth and more freedom how they spend it." In Xialing, a poor farming village of simple gray brick homes, villagers raised $50,000 to rebuild their temple and replace its statues, and they contribute $5,000 to pay for their annual celebration. It is an astounding sum in a region with an annual per capita rural income of less than $500, in a village that recently shut its elementary school for lack of funds. But the people believe that donations to the temple will be repaid abundantly with good luck and wealth in the coming year.

"All villagers contribute money as they can afford it," said Zheng Xiaorun, the village elder. "Richer ones give more and poorer ones give less." Even Xialing's 100 or so native sons who have gone to work in cities still send donations home. "They often can't come here -- travel is expensive -- but they want to enjoy the good fortune a donation brings," Mr. Zheng explained.

In some places the local religion has far outstepped the local government in its influence on people's lives. Last year, 200,000 people attended the annual celebration at the Black Dragon Temple in a sparsely populated region of central Shaanxi Province, said Dr. Luo, who has studied that sect. People from miles around went to pray and to ask the Black Dragon, a rain and water god, advice on matters large and small, he said. Petitioners buy slips of papers inscribed with historical parables or sayings from ancient scholars, which are supposed to yield clues that will aid in decisions.

Over the years the Black Dragon Temple has become wealthy, even hiring traditional opera troupes to perform at its annual temple fair. And as the temple has grown, local officials have made it officially register as a Taoist temple, although its practices do not really resemble that religion. "I don't think the head of the temple is at all scared of the government," Dr. Luo said. "The two sides accommodate and there are usually not too many conflicts, unless they get too independent, like Falun Gong. Then it's an entirely different matter."

In Xialing the government has adopted a hands-off policy toward its little shrine, although some tension remains. "Since opening up and reform, we've had freedom of faith, so the government does not dare interfere," Mr. Zheng said.

The revival of local religions owes some of its success to the same sense of social dislocation that gave rise to Falun Gong, which was wildly popular before it was outlawed last summer. But their practices have little in common with Falun Gong's ascetic philosophy, which focuses on personal spiritual growth through exercise and meditation.

In local religions the goals tend to be unabashedly down to earth -- a new job, more rain, a new son -- and the methods center on exuberant excess. In Xialing this year, as horns wailed, drums thumped and huge red banners flapped in the breeze, Zheng Lin, 63, a businessman with cropped hair, giddily viewed the lavish ceremony to honor Xialing's gods. "It's great," he said. "As our little village has become more prosperous, this celebration has become bigger and bigger each year."

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