Individual Studies

Spirit-writing movements in Modern Sichuan: A study of religious interactions and religious networks in the late Qing and Republican period

Wang Chien-chuan

From the Song dynasty onwards, gradually, spirit-writing activities became an important part of Chinese religious activities. Specifically, from the mid-Qing onwards, until the establishment of the Communist regime in 1949, spirit-writing activities were not any longer only very local practices, but there emerged a few long lasting trans-regional ‘spirit writing movements’ which attracted large numbers of people engaged in preaching, educational and philanthropic activities, and who developed a distinctive ‘millenarian ideology’.

This big wave of spirit writing activity also influenced contemporary Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism and other traditions, and even more so popular religions like Xiantiandao 先天道, Shengyutang 聖諭堂, Tongshanshe 同善社 and others, so we can say that spirit writing is indeed an essential aspect of modern Chinese religion.

The research will start by focusing on two distinct but interrelated spirit writing communities in Sichuan: The Longnü 龍女 temple in Dingyuan 定遠, and the Shuquanhui 十全會 community on Mt. Wuyun 五雲山 (Daxian 達縣). Both were extremely successful and popular because they provided followers with easy solutions to escape life misfortunes. The Shiquanhui, for example, stipulated that, if you performed ten good deeds (shiquan) you would be saved from all suffering.

Spirit writing halls related to these beliefs were quickly established all across Sichuan in the late Qing, to receive communications from gods and to engage in philanthropic activities.

Thus, within the modern spirit writing movement, the Longnü temple and the Shiquanhui movement are extremely important, not only because they were very influential within Sichuan, but also because these local traditions quickly spread to neighboring places like Yunnan and Guizhou, and produced several morality books (shanshu 善書), at the time the most popular form of religious scripture.

The author will investigate both the interplay between these practices and other religious traditions like Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism, and the trans-regional networks that they established. The author will also look into how these Sichuanese practices had an impact on Republican period religious movements like Xiantiandao, Shengyutang, and Tongshanshe (both the Tongshanshe and the Xiantiandao originated between Sichuan and Yunnan).

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