Popular Religion
 
One of the enduring features of popular religion is its tendency towards syncretism. Syncretism refers to processes of borrowing, combining, or adapting elements derived from diverse sources. ... Within the Chinese framework, elements of syncretism are evident in each of the three teachings, especially in their popular manifestations. The tendency towards syncretism increases as the focus of attention moves towards the margins of each tradition, away from the orthodox formulations of the priestly and intellectual elites. ... Most of the elements that were adapted and absorbed into popular religion can be traced to one of the three teachings. For instance, much of popular morality reflects the pervasive influence of Confucian ethical norms and principles. That includes the virtue of filial piety, as well as a general moral ethos that promotes good traits such as honesty and fairness. Copious elements of Buddhist influence are observable in popular beliefs about hells and the afterlife (which are modulated by the insertion of Daoist elements), as well as in prevalent ideas about merit and karmic recompense. ... The influences or correlations between Daoism and popular religion are even more extensive than those of Buddhism and Confucianism. They cover most aspects of popular religion, from the arrangement of the pantheon to the structure of key rites and other prevalent modes of worship. Even at the institutional level, Daoist priests are often employed to officiate at rites performed at popular temples, especially in Taiwan and other parts of South China. This makes the lines of demarcation between popular religion and Daoism especially blurred. [ICR, 165-7]
 

Unity of the Three Teachings
Deliberate or conscious forms of syncretism, observable at different junctures in Chinese religious history, are especially well represented in the various attempts to highlight the unity or convergence of the three teachings. Within such interpretative schemes, the three main religious systems of China are deemed to be essentially alike, as conveyed by the popular notion of “unity of the three teachings” (sanjiao heyi) and its variations. The three teachings simply represent different modalities of an essential truth or reality, and in the final analysis they are subsumed into a larger organic unity. ... At times these kinds of syncretic themes and ideals were given concrete doctrinal and institutional forms, as evident in the rise of religious movements based on the idea of the harmony and unity of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. A good example of that from the late imperial period — that continues into the present time — is the Three-in-one Teaching (Sanyi jiao). ... Other modern examples of popular religious movements or sects with manifest syncretic tendencies include Falun gong (Practice of the Dharma Wheel) and Yiguan dao (The Way of Unity, often transcribed as I-kuan tao). [ICR, 168-9]
 

Worship of Local Gods
In popular religion the basic forms of relationship and patterns of interaction between humans and supernatural beings are based on the principle of reciprocity. That implies a system of mutual obligations: while human beings venerate and pray to the gods with the hope of receiving their help and harnessing some of their numinous power, the gods also rely on the offerings and sacrifices of the faithful. The gods’ very status and authority as divine beings is dependent on the worship and respect they elicit from their devotees. ... There is typically an inverse relationship between an individual god’s power and his or her remoteness from potential worshipers. The highest and most powerful gods are frequently perceived as being too remote or aloof to be approached directly. Conversely, the gods that possess more limited powers and spheres of influence are also the ones that are most accessible and responsive to felt religious needs, as they are situated closer to the main places where everyday worship takes place: the family and the local community. A prime example of a god that is closely linked with the family is the stove god (zaoshen, also referred to as the kitchen god). ...
 
 
The belief in this god is very ancient, probably going back to the time of Confucius. He is most prominent among the domestic gods that look over the home and the family. Other members of this group are the door gods, usually represented as a pair, whose images are posted on the outside doors to ward off evil and protect the home and its occupants. The primary role of the stove god is to watch over all happenings in the household and keep detailed records of the deeds of all family members. Once a year, just before the lunar New Year, he ascends to heaven to give report on the meritorious activities and transgressions of each member of the family to the Jade Emperor, the supreme deity and the head of the celestial bureaucracy. ...
 
 
As we move away from the confines of the home and the family, we encounter other gods with different roles and realms of jurisdiction. At the level of the local community, they are best represented by the earth god (tudi gong). Every village or residential area has its own earth god, who is closely involved in the life of the community. Depicted in the guise of an elderly official, his abode is an unpretentious local shrine. Small shrines dedicated to him are also installed in front of or inside individual homes and local business, often close to the ground, or in larger temples dedicated to other gods. From there the earth god allegedly oversees the affairs of the local community and is closely involved in the lives of its residents. He performs a protective function and the local people approach him with all sorts of entreaties and requests for blessings. Moreover, the earth god is integrated into the celestial bureaucracy, occupying a humble position at the bottom of the hierarchy, analogous to that of a village chieftain, who answers directly to the local magistrate. ...
 
 
A prime example of a celestial bureaucrat is the city god (chenghuang shen, lit. “god of walls and moats”). He occupies a higher position in the celestial bureaucracy than the earth god, who is under his authority. Each urban area has its own city god, housed in a temple dedicated to him, just as each jurisdiction has a local official — a county magistrate in pre-modern times — to administer it. The god assumes the appearance of a local official and is responsible for safeguarding peace, public safety, justice, and prosperity in his area. The symbolic persona of the city god embodies a range of outstanding qualities that are (publicly) admired by the Chinese literati and are associated with exemplary civil service, such as honesty, loyalty, and dedication to public duty. [ICR, 172-6]
 

Divination
Like in many other cultures, the Chinese practice of divination is concerned with the use of assorted techniques to determine the hidden meaning of specific happenings or ascertain causal relationships among disparate events. The practice of divination underscores basic human anxieties about making sense of present predicaments, deciphering the unfolding of future events, and gaining control over the unseen forces that affect human life. Much of it is based on a common desire to anticipate or foresee the future, which imparts a sense of security and control over one’s life. ... Perhaps the most common forms of divination practice in China are the uses of divination blocks and oracle sticks, which are widely performed not only at popular places of worship, but also at Buddhist and Daoist temples. ...
 
 
The use of spirit mediums can also be regarded as a popular form of divination, through which the patrons seek guidance from various gods or ancestors. The spirit mediums are shamanic figures — that can be either male or female — that have mastered the arts of spirit possession or communication with the divine. They are supposedly able to enter trances by employing particular techniques, during which they communicate with certain divinities, or channel information from the spiritual realm by identifying with particular spirits, usually in response to specific questions posed by their clients or patrons. In effect, the medium is purportedly able to connect and become spokesperson for a particular deity. Often the medium speaks in tongues or resorts to spirit writing, in order to communicate the information imparted by the deity. ... In contrast to the positive spiritual communication associated with mediumship, the priests or ritual specialists that perform exorcisms are concerned with neutralizing pestilences and banishing the baneful influences of bothersome ghosts or spirits. Typically the offending presence of demonic entities, which might infest either a person or a place, is brought to an end by carefully choreographed sequences of ritual acts, which include dancelike movements and incantations. The undesired forces of disorder are thus banished away, via skilled ritual manipulation and engagement with the forces of order, primarily represented by various gods. Often exorcisms function as healing rituals, being meant to combat specific diseases, and they are also performed by Daoist priests. [ICR, 181-2]
 

The Theater God
戲神