Religious History of Modern Sichuan

Discussing Local Identities, Inter-Religious Borrowing, and Cross-Regional Networks
9:00 am – 12:45 pm
Room F

  • Organised by Stefania Travagnin
  • Stefania Travagnin, Chair
  • Stefania Travagnin, “From the Center to the Periphery: the Modern Buddhist History of Neijiang”
  • Lars Peter Laamann, “Catholic Smalltown Life in Late-Qing Sichuan”
  • Chongfu Zhang, “Origin and Spread of the Chuanzhu 川主 Worship”
  • Volker Olles, “The Twin-Monasteries–A Case Study of Urban Sacred Space in Sichuan”
  • Jiechen Hu, “Confucianisation of Taoist Rituals: ‘Dipper Altar Attributed to Wenchang’ in Late Qing Guizhou and its Sichuan Origin”
  • Yiqiao Yan, “Mapping Redemptive Societies in Wartime Chengdu, 1937–1945

Sichuan is a geographical area of China that so far has been less studied than other urban or coastal centers; yet, Sichuan was and remains an extremely influential region, especially for the formation and development of religious groups, modern political and military history, ethnic diversity, and transnational connections.

These two panels reflect on the religious and social texture of modern Sichuan, and thus contribute to the study of Southwest China as well as the field of modern history of Chinese religions. The panelists are part of the multi-year research project ‘Mapping Religious Diversity in Modern Sichuan’ (funded by the CCKF, 2017-2020), which analyses the five officially recognised religions and other religious manifestations (like Confucio-Daoist traditions, philanthropic organisations, new religious movements, spirit writing communities).

Organiser and chair of both panels will give an introduction to the narrative underlying and connecting the six presentations. The papers, which are based on archive research and fieldwork interviews, will explore different religious traditions and social groups; some papers will focus on the capital Chengdu and the Southeastern town of Neijiang 內江, others will address a plurality of sites; some papers will cover a few decades of religious history, others will emphasize specific moments like the second Sino-Japanese conflict. All papers will highlight unique features of the local identity of Sichuan religious history, and some will also underline the process of inter-religious borrowing and the formation of cross-regional networks.

Stefania Travagnin, “From the Center to the Periphery: the Modern Buddhist History of Neijiang”

Studies on modern history of Sichuan Buddhism have been limited mostly (or even only) to analyses of the monks Nenghai 能海 and Fazun 法尊, the nun Longlian 隆莲, the Sino-Tibetan tradition; and Chengdu, Chongqing and Mt. Emei emerged as the key places. However, an in-depth research on the history of Buddhism in Sichuan, from the Qing up to the mid twentieth century, reveals a richer picture, involving several rural and urban centers, overlapping monastic and lay networks, and a wide range of activities.

This presentation will contribute to the current scholarship on the modern history of Sichuan Buddhism with the study of the Buddhist communities of the town of Neijiang 內江, in Central Sichuan. My research will address three main elements: the historical development of Shengshui Monastery 聖水寺; the impact of the lay intellectual Wang Enyang 王恩洋 (1897-1964), especially the Eastern Culture and Education Research Center (Dongfang wenjiao yanjiuyuan 東方文教研究院); the modern history of ‘invisible’ yet relevant female communities, like the Xilin Nunnery 西林寺 and the nun Yuanhui 圓慧 (1902-1984).

‘Neijiang Buddhism’ mirrors key features of Han Buddhism in modern Sichuan, elements of the unique local culture from the Southeast of the province, but also shares significant patterns with the overall Chinese Buddhism during the first half of the twentieth-century.

Lars Peter Laamann, “Catholic Smalltown Life in Late-Qing Sichuan”

The Western missionaries who entered Qing China following the Treaty of Tianjin in 1858, concluded with resigned determination that China was a land of heathens, whose Christian beginnings had been extinguished after the Yongzheng edict of 1724. However, nothing could be farther removed from the truth. As the present paper will show, the communities founded by missionary congregations between 1600 and the 1720s continued to thrive, albeit by adapting to the changing political conditions. For Sichuan, the most important incision were not the missionary prohibition policies of the Yongzheng era, but the destruction wrought by the Three Feudatories warfare marking the middle of the Kangxi reign. In the subsequent economic reconstruction boom, millions of migrants arrived from other provinces, including many Christians. These Christian migrants either contributed to the existing Christian activity in the market towns and cities which they visited or even gained new converts, to their very own brand of Christianity. Importantly, most churches were not visible from the outside, being accommodated by wealthy Christian families in their homes. This paper cites evidence from the Baxian and Nanbu archives in historical Sichuan, combined with evidence from The Number One Historical Archives in Beijing and also some Western accounts.

Chongfu Zhang, “Origin and Spread of the Chuanzhu 川主 Worship”

The Chuanzhu 川主 worship is a cross-regional and cross-border cultural phenomenon, which is centred on the culture of water management. It is an important folk belief in China; yet, it still lacks a comprehensive and in-depth research. Historically, the Chuanzhu worship originated in Sichuan; it became soon extremely popular in southwestern provinces, in the Tibetan and Qiang regions, eventually spread throughout the whole country, and has even reached other areas in Southeast Asia, so to turn into a transnational phenomenon. This paper, which is based on historical documents and fieldwork research, discusses four main aspects of this religious and cultural reality: the paper will start with a discussion on toponymy of the Chuanzhu worship; the second part will provide an answer to the question “Who is Chuanzhu,” hence will shed light on the ambiguities around this deity; the third part of the presentation will explore the historical development and geographical spread of this belife; the final part of this study will explain texts and rituals associated to the worship of Chuanzhu.

Volker Olles, “The Twin-Monasteries–A Case Study of Urban Sacred Space in Sichuan”

The Longmen 龙门 (Dragon Gate) branch of Quanzhen Daoism spread rapidly across the area of Sichuan during the Kangxi reign (1662–1722) of the Qing dynasty, and the majority of Daoist temples in this region came under the management of Longmen masters. Two Quanzhen monasteries remain the most important Daoist sanctuaries in today’s Chengdu City. The first of these, the Qingyang gong 青羊宫, has a long history, it was and remains the major center of Quanzhen Daoism in Chengdu. Situated in close proximity to the Qingyang gong and regarded as the latter’s branch monastery, the Erxian an 二仙庵 was then turned into a public (shifang 十方) monastery, where large-scale ordinations were held, and was the location of a publishing and printing house for Daoist scriptures. Both Daoist monasteries maintained close contacts with the Liumen tradition in late Qing and Republican times. Based on the teachings of the Confucian scholar Liu Yuan 劉沅 (1768–1856), Liumen developed into a quasi-religious movement that constituted an important part of Sichuan’s civil society. The present splendor of the Qingyang gong is mainly based on extensive renovations that were funded by the Liumen community during the Qing dynasty. Furthermore, it appears that the Liu family and Liumen adherents sponsored liturgical festivals of the Qingyang gong and were involved in the publishing work of the Erxian an. Analyzing relevant epigraphical sources, this paper outlines the interaction between Liumen and the “twin-monasteries.”

Jiechen Hu, “Confucianisation of Taoist Rituals: ‘Dipper Altar Attributed to Wenchang’ in Late Qing Guizhou and its Sichuan Origin”

Dipper Altar attributed to Wenchang (Wenchang Doutan 文昌斗壇) was a community active in Guizhou area in Late Qing. The members produced several full-fledged collections of liturgical texts, namely Full Collection of Rituals in the Dipper Altar Attributed to Wenchang (Wenchang Doutan Quanke 文昌斗壇全科), “Ritual Systematisation of Wenchang (Wenchang Yizhi 文昌儀製), and Mysterious Documentation of Wenchang (Wenchang Midian 文昌秘典). The collections included varieties of rituals, especially Retreats for the deceased and Offerings for the deities, which were usually performed by Taoist ritual masters. They were nevertheless categorised as “Confucian” rituals by the editors. By comparing them with earlier texts, I will argue that these liturgical texts produced in late Qing Guzhou had several origins from early-mid Qing Sichuan, including: 1) Jin Bencun’s 金本存 Wenchang spirit-writing altars in Yongzheng and Qianlong reign; 2) the collection of Ritual Systematisation of Master Guangcheng (Guangcheng Yizhi 廣成儀製) in Qianlong reign; 3) the soteriological movements initiated by Longnü Temple 龍女寺 in Daoguang reign. And it was the Wenchang spirit-writing cult directed by Confucian literati that attempted to expand the boundary of “Confucian teaching” and absorb the ritual elements from Taoism and other traditions.

Yiqiao Yan, “Mapping Redemptive Societies in Wartime Chengdu, 1937–1945

Much of what has been written in English and Chinese about redemptive societies in Republic China shares the interpretation that these civic groups decreased in social importance during the Second Sino-Japanese War, gradually ceding their authority to the state. This document-based study of redemptive societies in wartime Chengdu questions this current understanding of the field by looking at crisis relief activities that flourished in the city during the 1940s. Rather than simply being locally organised and endorsed by local elites, like Wang Di, Stapleton and others conclude, these societies were led by the elites who were closely associated with government relief action at provincial and municipal levels. The social networks and activities of these social elites and their religious affiliations are therefore a crucial dimension to consider when examining the role of redemptive societies during the wartime. This study turns the focus to an analysis of the deeply rooted Daoist-influenced spiritual writing tradition that shaped the trajectory of the development of local charities. The archival files, social survey and other locally documented sources examined in this paper offer an opportunity to both deepen our understanding of Sichuan redemptive societies in the war years and to reflect on the broader historical development of modern Sichuan religion.

Event Timeslots (1)

Room F
Discussing Local Identities, Inter-Religious Borrowing, and Cross-Regional Networks