Stephen P. Teiser, states in his paper, Popular Religion (The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 54, No. 2, May 1995, pp. 378-395), that the elements scholars regard today as Chinese “popular religion” had crystallized into a separate tradition by the time of the Sung dynasty. However, Teiser argues that because of the nature and diversity of Chinese sources, no dominant definition or approach to Chinese “popular religion” has emerged among scholars.
Originally, Chinese “popular religion” was defined as any Chinese religious ideas or practices that did not fit into the category of Confucianism, Daoism or Buddhism. This archaic approach has been less than satisfactory and, rather than accept “popular religion” as a category of “hodgepodge” beliefs and practices, Teiser asserts that scholars have opted for a more affirmative definition of Chinese “popular religion” and submits three tactics.
The first approach sees the problem of defining “popular religion” as existing in the source material. Sources written by the Chinese literati are more apt to interpret rituals and practices more philosophically while the the lower classes are inclined to a more superstitious outlook. Another understanding of “popular religion” ignores the social boundaries and asserts a definition shaped by the “common religious activities” and shared by the general population. A third stance, sees “popular religion” as a process of ongoing tension and differentiationâ€”not as a single component, but rather as a field of controversy. Scholars also agree that both anthropological and historical methodologies are necessary to study Chinese “popular religion”â€”not as a stationary model of ideas and practices, but as a vibrant organism that continues to change and demands ongoing modification. One methodology studies the Chinese practices of the elites, hypothesizing that they, due to their standing and education, would best maintain the ritual integrity of the custom. A second methodology involves separating the institutional religious practices from the diffused religion of the masses, whose beliefs and practices are merged with non-religious institutions found throughout Chinese society. Another methodology uses the technique of participant-observation for an ethnographical approach to a specific practice or idea. The breadth and scope of Chinese “popular religion”, however defined or approached, is best inspected in components such as, family religion, cosmology, divination, morality, rites of passage and Gods.
Scholars investigating the practices of family religion are looking into areas such as the filial perception of ancestors, memorial economics, the salvation of women in an patrilineal system and religious forms antagonistic to the biological family such as Buddhist and Daoist monasticism.
Cosmology, divination and morality has been widely spread by the popularity of the Confucian classic, the I-ching. Its metaphysical explanation of the Five Agents and yin and yang form the basic structure of Chinese thought. Geomancy, a popular form of divination, also inspired by the I-ching and the practice of shamanism are areas of scholarly interest. The view of morality being inseparable from cosmology has created a wide range of interpretations such as linking the “Mandate of Heaven” and human nature. Other texts show how Chinese morality has developed into a quasi-economic system of merit and demerits.
Scholarship in the field of ritual studies focuses primarily on important transitional life events, such as, birth, marriage, death, festivals, and pilgrimages. More specific areas of interest include how gender roles, ritual participants, regional differences, class and ethnic identity, yin and yang symbolization, and imperial involvement are shaping Chinese “popular religion”.
Teiser finishes his paper on “popular religion” with the gods which reveals a complex celestial logic. One group organizes the gods in a social context, as an imperial metaphor that uses religion to teach the Chinese public about bureaucratic procedures. Another area of interest examines the rise of new deities such as the City God to encompass the values the emerging urban merchant class. Finally, a third area of research focuses on Chinese fantasy narratives of gods and deities such as, creation stories, allegorical folklore and anecdotal sources that depict supernatural events.