Inside heteroreligious households

Inside heteroreligious households: Domestic spaces and networks in late imperial and modern Sichuan

Bram Colijn

Chinese religious history is marked by fervent activity and staggering diversity. Since the end of Maoism, temples for popular deities are once again being built on a large scale (Dean 1993, Chau 2006), while a Pew-Templeton survey found that the number of Chinese Protestants has risen from less than one million in 1949 to 68 million by 2010. Sichuan is a key area for exploring interreligious dynamics arising from these developments. It is among China’s most religiously diverse areas, with ritual spaces and practices of various traditions overlapping in villages, neighborhoods, and as studied in this project, in households.

Since Protestantism’s inception into China in the late Qing dynasty, coexistence with practitioners of popular religion (who draw from Buddhism, Daoism, and local deity cults) has been uneasy. Chinese Protestants still refer to popular religion as ‘superstition,’ while practitioners of popular religion speak of Protestantism as a ‘foreign teaching.’ The late Qing and early Republican period was a crucial formative period for these dynamics, because it saw the introduction of the concept of ‘religion’ into China in the form of Protestant Christianity, and a century of destruction was initiated against popular religiosity (Duara 1996, Goossaert and Palmer 2011).

If we want to understand how practitioners of popular religion and Protestant Christianity have historically interacted in Sichuan, the highly monitored public sphere may yield limited richness in data. Therefore, this project looks to the private spheres of households to construct an intimate historical ethnography of religious diversity. It represents the next step in the author’s ethnographic work on heteroreligious households, where both Protestant Christianity and forms of popular religiosity are practiced.

To trace the historical dimensions of religious diversity in Sichuan’s domestic spaces, this project will consult local historical sources, both written and oral. Five to eight heteroreligious households and five to eight homoreligious households (all members practising either Protestantism or popular religiosity) will be studied. The interior of each household is documented, with a focus on the position and number of religious items like crosses; deity figurines; ancestral tablets; food offerings; tape players broadcasting sermons or sutra’s; and auspicious door couplets. The researcher will immerse himself in each household to facilitate interactions with the household members. He will observe rituals such as prayers before meals; ancestor veneration; scripture reading; food sacrifices to popular deities; group bible study sessions; and incense to the Stove God.