Fieldwork Notes 1st year: 2017-2018
I visited rural areas of Sichuan in summer 2017, specifically the ruins of the Longnü 龍女 temple and of the Wulingshan 五靈山 temple.
At the same time I collected textual materials related to these sites. My research focused on two distinct but interrelated spirit writing communities in Sichuan: The Longnü temple in Ding Yuan, and the Shuquanhui community on Wuyun mountain (Daxian). 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 neighbouring places like Yunnan and Guizhou, and produced several morality books (shanshu), at the time the most popular form of religious scripture.
Fieldwork Notes 2nd year: 2018-2019
Following our visit to the Longnüsi 龍女寺 and Wulingsi 五靈山 in 2017, this year myself and my assistant Zhu Mingchuan 朱明川 this year went back to Sichuan. This time we went from East to West, and visited Chongqing, Dazhou, Chengdu, Mianyang and other cities, with a focus on researching Sichuan’s popular religions and new Buddhist groups.
We can divide up the work we did this year in two large sections: one pertaining to the collecting of textual sources, the other to the onsite fieldwork. It was rather hard to collect textual materials, either in the libraries, archives, or book markets of big cities like Chengdu and Chongqing. Therefore we relied on materials found on site.
We first payed a return visit to the city of Dazhou 達州, to see Zhenfo shan 真佛山, located in Fushan zhen 福善鎮, which is the ancestral home of the new Buddhist religious school called Qingyun zong 青雲宗.
At the beginning of the 19thcentury, local spiritual leader Jiang Dehua 僧蔣德 (locally known as Jiang Foye 蔣佛爺) established this local Buddhist lineage. His family was politically powerful, but after the beginning of the Republican period in 1912, they lost power, though he remained an abbott. This lineage used the Xixie jing 西脇經 as their main scripture, and they combined teachings from all three religions (Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism), using scriptures from all three traditions, as well as morality books (勸善書), and scriptures received through spirit writing (扶乩).
The lineage of this school is very clear, it has its own distinctive genealogy, starting from the mid-Qing, it expanded widely to many areas in North-East Sichuan, and still survives today. When we visited Zhenfo shan, we researched both the building complex, the grave complex, as well as their remaining scriptures.
Last year, when we went to Wuling shan in Dazhou, we realized that the temple still stored a scripture called Shenjiao Wengao 《聖教文稿》; when we researched this scripture in more detail, we started to understand that, from the late Qing, a religious tradition related to this scripture and to an altar called Zixia tan 紫霞壇 had emerged in Eastern Sichuan. In my opinion, the Zixia tan was a Confucian popular religious group, and the Shenjiao Wengao was its central scripture; there is evidence of it spreading to Sichuan, Shaanxi, Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Yunnan and more.
The Zixia tan is closely related to the events that happened in 1840 at the Longnü temple, namely the transmission of several scriptures of an eschatological nature from Guandi through spirit writing. The Shenjiao Wengao describes Guandi as its main divinity, and elevates Guandi to the role of Jade Emperor of Central Heaven 中天玉皇.
Last year, we found that the Longnü temple had been destroyed, and that there are no meaningful traces of it remaining. Further, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Zixia tan was labelled as a heretic sect (反動會道門), and it was banned and persecuted. Fortunately, this year we found some members of the Zixia tan group. In the outskirts of Mianyang, there are several branches of the Zixia tan.
They look a lot like Buddhist or Daoist altars, and they provide the people around them with ritual services for all four seasons and for all events from birth to death. Zhu Mingchuan and myself were able to collect important materials like hand-written ritual manuals, but also participate in local ritual and visit temple compounds related to the Zixia tan. It will be important to compare these hand written books with woodblock prints from the late Qing and Republican period.
Zhu Mingchuan was able to participate in two Zixia tan rituals for the feast on the fifteenth of the 7th Lunar month (中元法會). Both were held near Mianyang, one in a remote village on the mountains, in the Jinguan dong 金光洞 in Hanzeng village 含增鎮, which lasted for five days, and another on the plains, at the Rulin temple 儒林寺 in Zhangming village 彰明鎮.
Observing these large scale rituals, we can see in contemporary practice the embodiment of the eschatological events that happened at the Longnü temple in 1840. To a certain degree, it is possible to understand the power and influence that the Zixia tan had on local society more than 100 years ago.
Even though at modern Zixia tan there are no more spirit writing activities, fortunately Zhu Mingchuan, during his visit to Zhangming village, met a spirit writing practitioner who was active before 1949, and he observed him while he was transmitting his knowledge orally to be transcribed and preserved.
He also described the history of the Zixia tan and the spirit writing activities during the Republican period, the worship of Guandi, and the close relationship between Guandi worship and the philanthropic activities of the Shiquan hui 十全會 society.
This second time in Sichuan we gathered a lot of materials, the textual sources and the fieldwork combined very well; this allowed us to improve our knowledge of the development of popular religion in late Qing and Republican period Sichuan. Further, this close observation of the current situation can elicit new questions; for example, looking into the relationship between a Buddhist unorthodox school like the Qingyun group with the local government and with the local Buddhist association, or the Zixia tan with the local Daoist and Confucian groups.
The varied nature of religious traditions in Sichuan becomes thus apparent, and needs to be further researched.
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