Individual Studies

Guildhalls as socio-religious spaces

Elena Valussi

Guildhalls (huiguan會館) are socio-religious spaces that developed in China as gathering places for communities of migrant merchants from a common geographic location. Guildhalls have been investigated as places of economic exchange and as mainly as locations for migrants from the same native place to congregate or places for examination candidates to resideduring the examination period, especially those in Beijing, but they have not been investigated as religious spaces.

It is important for this project on the diversity of the religious landscape of Sichuan to take into account guildhalls and migrant population beliefs, and how they interacted with local pre-existent beliefs. 

These religious spaces show a very different kind of network, one not tied by a specific religious tradition (Daoist, Buddhist) but to a specific divinity connected to a group of migrants. 

Thus, the huiguan network form a transversal, invisible layer that has been forgotten in the religious landscape of Sichuan. They are, however important, because they witness migrant group native place religious traditions’ and how these religious beliefs merged with local beliefs and practices.

Also, guildhalls are a specific manifestation with a specific time boundary, that begins with the Ming-Qing transition, reaches its height in the mid Qing, and dissipates with the end of the dynasty. As the world around them changed, place of origin communities were less needed, travel by train did not follow the same routes that the migrant followed in earlier times, trade was conducted in different ways, and, lacking a cohesive community behind them, they went into decline.

Nowadays, because they are not clearly deemed religious spaces belonging to any tradition, their function is unclear. After the 1980s liberalization of religion, religious organizations regrouped, received donations from believers to reconstruct their temples, negotiated with the city and the state the return of religious grounds to them, reignited religious festivals and activities, and attracted followers, lay and monastic. 

On the other hand, migrant communities have completely integrated into the Sichuanese social fabric and do not have a strong separate identity in Sichuan any longer, so there is no strong constituency to lay claim on the guildhalls and to revive their original role and function, and to rebuild them. Most of the guildhalls I visited in Sichuan belong to the Wenwuju 文物局  and are now museums, exhibition spaces, tourist places, orcommercial teahouses.  Some of them have been given over to different religious organizations, becoming Buddhist or Daoist temples, the original gods flanked by new ones.

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