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. ...
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]
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. ...