Yu Zhejun, Shenming yu shimin. Minguo shiqi Shanghai diqu yingshen saihui yanjiu (Deities and City Dwellers: Research on Popular Processions in Shanghai during the Republican Era)

Shanghai, Shanghai Joint Publishing Company, 2014, 312 pp.

Review by Benoît Vermander


This work discusses the make-up of civil society in Shanghai in the time of the Republic of China and the role played in this process by popular religion. The importance of this question clearly goes beyond mere historical interest, which is one of the reasons why this excellent study deserves attention.

Focusing first on the title, two points should be highlighted. The first is, of course, the use of the Chinese term shimin 市民 which, on the author’s own admission, retains a certain vagueness in Chinese, and which can be translated indiscriminately today as “citizen” or “city dweller”; the doctoral thesis behind this work, which was written in German, uses the term Bürger, which does little to clarify the translation to be favoured. At this point, we can look to Rousseau’s admonition: “Most people take a town for a city and a bourgeois for a citizen. They do not know that although the houses make the town, it is the citizens that make the city.” Nevertheless, historically, the Chinese term shimin originally referred to “civil” and “citizen”: bürgerliche Gesellschaft, the term introduced into modern political thinking by Hegel, is translated in Marxist texts as shimin shehui. However, when referring to “civil society,” the term gongmin shehui is today used most frequently, at least in mainland China, where the expression refers to “public affairs,” insofar as civil society, in the sense attributed to it in this case, is that which participates, of its own accord, in public affairs. In any case, in the work relevant to us here, it is “citizens” – and those of the Chinese city at the peak of “modernity” – that are potentially the actors of a civil society in gestation. It therefore appears to be very difficult to separate the two connotations of the term.

The second point that needs highlighting relates to the expression yingshen saihui 迎神賽會. This refers to the processions in which the statue of a god is carried, thus marking its territory, and it is therefore the inhabitants of this territory who welcome the deity’s visit. The author correctly notes that although the character sai 賽 has today taken on the meaning, above all, of competition, the expression saishen 賽神 alludes to an offering or thanksgiving sacrifice (p. 60). The type of processions referred to here concerns local deities, responsible for a territory; the departure from a given territory (a temple or hall) and the journey through a marked space at fixed times of the year form the heart of the ritual in question. It is the inhabitants of the given territory, rather than the clerics, who organise and participate in the ritual.

The work opens along the lines of Paul Katz, who suggested that studying civil society and the formation of a public space in China cannot disregard the study of popular religion (see Demon Hords and Burning Boats: The Cult of Marshall Wen in Late Imperial Chekiang, a line of analysis rejected by Yves Chevrier, for example, for whom the emergence of civil society cannot be reduced to any independent manifestation of the social with regard to the political). Kenneth Dean’s studies of ritual spaces and civil society are also recalled a little later in the work.

The first part, which probably holds less interest for the foreign reader, focuses on the Western concept of civil society and on its applicability (or not) to the Chinese context. Concerning this final point, the studies of Rowe, Rankin, and Wakeman are described in detail. Although the question remains open as to the possibility, extent, and mode of China’s adoption of the Western model of civil society, the author defends the heuristic value of this model to account for societal changes in China. Based on these preliminary reviews, Yu Zhejun elaborates the theory that popular religion is the favoured mode of self-organisation in Chinese society, demonstrated above all by the way in which festivals and temples are managed and overseen (p. 56).

This theory introduces the second part, which starts with a history of popular processions, the substance of which is evoked above. Their enactment is then situated in the context of Shanghai in the time of the Republic of China, with its particularities both geographical (some of these processions take place on waterways) and legal/political (in particular a thorough review of relations between the state and religions). The choreography of the procession follows fairly general rules (opening rites, dances, interventions by “penitents,” and transportation of the palanquin or palanquins of the gods). During the period in question (1912-1949), approximately 200 processions took place each year in the territories that today constitute Shanghai (pp. 107-121). A substantial chapter is given over to the three annual processions organised from the temple of the god of walls and moats (chenghuangmiao) in the old city of Shanghai. The city god, worship of whom originated with the gods of the land, was incorporated into state institutions and sacrifices when the founder of the Ming dynasty, Taizu (r. 1368-1399), made the creation of a temple dedicated to him compulsory in every county and prefecture. In Shanghai, an existing temple was converted for this purpose. The fire of 1924 led to major rebuilding work in 1926-1927. Yu Zhejun sees this as an important step in the assertion of a civil society taking the place of a failing local government and organising itself into a highly structured committee overseeing the upkeep of popular religious practices, the organisation of charitable works, and the provision of a sustainable financial base. At the same time, it strove to equip itself with statutes and to obtain explicit legal recognition, although this did not head off repeated conflicts with the local government, which can be explained by the latter’s control of financial resources (pp. 195-198).

This analysis is supplemented by that of a few conflicts that occurred when processions passed through territories. For example, in Pudong, some participants led actions against the Catholic Church building in Zhangjialou, records of which date back to 1744. The roots of this conflict can be traced back to the long-standing refusal of the Catholics to contribute to the costs of organising the festivals (pp. 227-229). On other occasions, in particular in the outlying districts, the population came into direct (and sometimes violent) conflict with the local authorities concerning the legality, the type of activities authorised, and the expenditure resulting from the processions.

The conclusion attempts to give a human face to these participants in the processions, and, in particular, to retrace the way in which they organised themselves during the period in question; these organisations went beyond family and lineage; they wanted acceptance in the new legal reality (and in the “civilisation” that this reality was supposed to embody) and thus entered into a process of negotiation with the state. These new structures were supposed to be pluralistic, legal, enlightened, and self-managed. At the same time, they maintained difficult, often conflictive, relations with the local authorities. Touching towards the end on religious sociology, and in particular C. K. Yang’s classic model (Religion in Chinese Society), the author wonders if studying popular processions and the way in which they organised themselves somehow changes the common perception of popular religion. By examining them, it is possible to transcend, if only partly, the unsatisfactory distinction between “organised” religion and “diffuse” religion. In the study of Chinese religions, the conclusions to be drawn from the observation of these highly organised groups of laymen have not yet been established.

Yu Zhejun’s work offers a rich and detailed contribution to the religious and social history of Shanghai in the time of the Republic of China. His approach to civil society remains marked by the classic sociological tradition, but is little informed by political theory. Furthermore, it struggles to take root in an empirical research subject that probably remains too restricted in relation to the questions raised in the first part. Nevertheless, above and beyond the documentary interest of the work, the description of the self-organisation of local micro-societies hints at interesting perspectives with regard to the approach of contemporary society. Moreover, the role played by groups of laymen organised on a territorial basis is not necessarily restricted to the domain of traditional popular religion, and parallels could be drawn with the way in which Protestant organisations, in particular, are attempting to proceed in the present day. In another vein, the importance of the notion of “territory” and the way in which ritual processes undertake to make local territories sacred remain subjects rich in implications.

Translated by Will Thornely.

Benoît Vermander is a professor at the School of Philosophy at Fudan University, Shanghai (mdwei@fudan.edu.cn).

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