Classical descriptions of popular religion in China have noted how the pantheon of deities constitutes a celestial administration organized and approached much like a bureaucratic state. While the view of popular religion as a mere reflection of imperial rule seems inadequate, the idea of the imperial metaphor points to an intimate relation between religious practices and the state that merits attention. This article examines how the state—not only the long-defunct imperial bureaucracy but also the Maoist state—is imagined as a central provider of cosmic order in religious practices in a rural township in Hebei Province. Like many other places in the People's Republic of China, the township has seen a revival of popular religion in recent decades. This revival has often been described as a rebounding and selective adaptation of traditions that had been suppressed by the socialist state. Intellectuals tend to describe this development in terms of an increased tolerance for “cultural” practices; but the fact is that local cosmology puts the state at the very heart of popular religion. In terms of local cosmology, the state is an ideal cosmic order, an exemplary center responsive to the needs of ordinary people, and the present apparatus of governance is but an imperfect actualization of this ideal state that may just as well make itself manifest in the form of popular religion. The bifurcation of the state into two terms, a state idea and a state system, suggests that one might approach the state system and popular religion as both enactments of the state idea. Instead of presenting the relation between the state system and popular religion in terms of a metaphorical or oppositional logic between two terms, local cosmology offers a third term and claims that the state system and popular religion both embody, more and less successfully, a single principle of cosmic order. This article is an attempt to use the cosmological conception of the state as a basis for theorizing anew the relationship between the state system and popular religion. Describing how various manifestations of popular religion from Falungong to Christian sectarianism offer healing and social support in a Hebei township, the article suggests that popular religion does not so much stand for the state as a representation, as it stands in for the state as an alternative enactment.
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Research Article| August 01 2014
Mikkel Bunkenborg; From Metaphors of Empire to Enactments of State: Popular Religious Movements and Health in Rural North China. positions 1 August 2014; 22 (3): 573–602. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10679847-2685386
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