Zhu Mingchuan

Fieldwork Notes Summer 2021

In the past few years, as a research assistant to Professor Wang Chien-chuan, I visited Sichuan several times to collect materials for his project on the spirit-writing movement. In the last field trip in 2019, we discovered a religious group named Confucian Altar rutan 儒坛. During my fieldwork in 2021, I continued our study on Confucian Altar and tried to deeply discover its history. In the mid-late May, I revisited some of the temples run by Confucian altars in the Jiangyou 江油 area to observe and record their ceremonies.

In some towns and villages in Sichuan, there are no Buddhist monks or Taoist priests who provide ritual services for residents. Instead, the Confucian masters monopolize the religious market, proposing the same purposes and expected results of Buddhist and Taoist professionals. They also conduct funerals and memorial ceremonies and even exorcise demons.  

Confucian Altars appeared in Sichuan and spread to neighbour provinces since at least the mid-Qing period. The two most typical activities of Confucian altars were spirit-writing ceremonies and ‘Sacred Edict Lectures’ (shengyu xuanjiang 聖諭宣講). During spirit-writing ceremonies, Confucian altars were able to obtain messages from deities; sometimes these revelations were published in moral books (shanshu 善書).

The ‘Sacred Edict Lectures’ were issued by the imperial court, with the main purpose of instructing commoners in the Confucian moral principles and make them obey the rule. According to the Qing policy, local government was obligated to appoint scholars and officials to lecture on and explicate the sacred edict in every town and village each month. However, in Sichuan, since the late-Qing period, Confucian masters had replaced officials as organizers and performers of the sacred edict lectures. During these activities, they would explicate the sacred edict and preach their scriptures and moral books. Both of the above activities have become very rare since the mid-twentieth century. Luckily, I interviewed some elders who witnessed these activities before the 1950s.

Besides, I also collected their scriptures and liturgical texts. Nowadays, most Confucian masters in Jiangyou rely on manuscripts, but I still found some woodblock and lithographic editions in libraries and archives in Chengdu, Chongqing, and Jiangyou.

They were published by Confucian altars in the late Qing dynasty and early Republican period. Contemporary scholars have not paid much attention to these local religious texts composed of Buddhist monks or Taoist priests. I also spent several days visiting some rare-book dealers and acquired related materials.

Based on these materials, I started to write an article about Confucian altars and their ceremonies of Sacred Edict Lectures; I gave a presentation about this topic in a conference held by Peking University in August 2021, and the article will be published next year.

In 2021, I also commenced a new project on the devotion to Buddhist ‘divine monks’ (shenyi seng 神異僧) in Sichuan. Simultaneously with the development of Confucian altars, Buddhist monastics with alleged supernatural abilities emerged in the Sichuan region and impacted the local religious landscape. Even during the Qigong Fever (qigong re 氣功熱) in the late twentieth century, these figures from Sichuan played vital roles in the rural setting.

During my field trip in May 2021, I mainly investigated the cult of divine monks in the basin of the Fu River 涪江 (mainly Mianyang 綿陽 and Suining 遂寧). I spent ten days driving alone on the mountain roads along the Fu River, searching for temples that enshrined these divine monks in various counties and towns. A few examples follow below.

Baoguo Temple 報國寺 in the county of Lezhi 樂至, and the statues of Master Simo 思摩禪師 (alleged 1719–1939) and Master Liyu 離慾禪師 (alleged 1868–1992):

Dongshan Temple 東山寺 in Shehong 射洪 county is a considerable monastery, and it has become well-known cause the former abbot Master Benkong 本空禪師 (?–1937), another ‘divine monk’ form the early and mid Republican period:

See also Longtai Temple 龍台寺 and the tomb of Mater Mingxin 明心禪師 (alleged 1555–1901). Though he lived as a Buddhist monk, a Taoist lineage has started viewing him as their first patriarch after his death:

The most significant case is the cult of Old Buddha Qinglie 清烈古佛. He was a ‘divine monks’ in Guangde Monastery 廣德寺 and Pilu Monastery 毗盧寺 in Suining. On the one hand, the cult of Qinglie has made Pilu a pivotal sacred place, which attracted many local lay Buddhist societies since the late Qing dynasty. On the other hand, Qinglie was regarded as a founder of a new branch of Xiantiandao 先天道. Locals say that he had numerous disciples in the past two centuries preaching his legends and teaching. An internal alchemy guidebook, which was allegedly composed by him, has been circulated widely since the late Qing dynasty.

However, when I visited Guangde Monastery, the most famous temple in Suining, I did not find any trace of Old Buddha Qinglie. Then, I visited his tomb in Pilu Temple, and I failed again to find any disciple or linked group. I could imagine this typical sectarian group had been banned as an illegal organization and become extinct due to recent governmental policies.

After several days of vain research, I almost decided to give up and end my field trip. I spent some time in my accommodation, sorting through the texts I had bought from local dealers. Suddenly, on the cover of a liturgical text related to Qinglie, I noticed the copyist’s name and a blurry stamp with the name of the temple that housed this text. I could not find this temple on the map though. I presumed that this manuscript was copied from a woodblock edition published in the Qing dynasty in a town in the county of Zhongjiang 中江. So, I rushed to that town and started to ask the residents about the temple and the copyist. Eventually, I found the copyist in a mountain valley near the town, a remote inaccessible even by car. He was more than eighty-year-old, and said to be the sixth-generation disciple of Qinglie.

Thanks to the copyist I came to know that their group was called Qingliemen 清烈門. Afterwards I was able to visit other disciples of this group and their temples in Mianyang, Deyang德陽, and Suining. Most of these temples are located in suburban areas.

I discovered that they had established 48 altars in Sichuan and southern Shaanxi in the late Qing dynasty. In the corner of a temple in the county of Shehong 射洪, I found an inscription from 1932 saying that these altars used to meet there.

Due to political constraints, Qingliemen began to fade in the late twentieth century; to date, it has not received much attention from scholars. Fortunately, in this field trip I discovered that this group had not disappeared. Some towns and villages in central Sichuan still host some temples run by Qinglie’s disciples. The scriptures composed in the mid-Qing dynasty are still affecting the religious life of local people.

As a result of this field trip, I plan to write an article about the cult of Qinglie, to discuss the relationship between the ‘divine monks’ and popular religious movements in modern China. This article will also provide more evidence to the hybrid nature of the religious landscape in Sichuan. 

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