sectarian religion

Sectarianism is the general name given to a broad tradition of lay religious teachings, also referred to as the ‘White Lotus’. This tradition developed out of Buddhist devotional societies of the Song dynasty, and grew to encompass elements of Daoism and Confucianism, under the belief that these three teachings were each expressions of the same truth. The ultimate source of this truth is a deity called the Eternal Venerable Mother, who over the ages has sent a series of divine teachers to reveal specific elements of it to humankind. This process will culminate in a final apocalypse, after which the faithful will ascend to a millennial kingdom presided over by the Maitreya Buddha. Owing to this apocalyptic element, sectarian teachings have served as the inspiration for millenarian rebellion, and were strictly banned throughout most of the Ming and Qing dynasties. However, this policy proved difficult to enforce, especially in rural areas, not merely because sectarian teachings satisfied popular longing for a future paradise, but also because these lay teachings were often stable centres of local religion, and performed important ceremonies such as healing, exorcism and funerals. During the early twentieth century, restrictions against sectarianism were relaxed, and many teachings began to take on new prominence. Some schools, such as the temperance-based Zaili jiao, formed national organizations in emulation of reformed Buddhism, while others, such as the Yiguan Dao, became active in Japanese occupation-era politics.
After 1949, the newly formed People’s Republic again banned sectarian teachings, and used its unprecedented presence in rural society to enforce this policy locally.
The first strike was a highly successful 1951 campaign against the Yiguan Dao, which was accused of having supported the Japanese occupation. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, ‘White Lotus sectarians’ were touted in political campaigns as a universal villain, and accused of using ‘superstition’ to enslave the masses. Under this pressure, even apolitical sectarian groups such as the Zaili jiao disbanded, and local organizations disappeared from public life.
The loosening of religious policy in the late 1970s allowed a limited revival of sectarianism. Although lay religious organizations remain technically illegal, many local officials allow them to operate so long as these groups maintain a low profile and restrict their ritual activities to personal devotion. Sectarian groups in the cities participate in public religious life, such as temple festivals, under the acceptable guise of ‘folk Buddhism’. The more significant revival has been in the rural areas, where the sectarian tradition is more deeply entrenched. As local religion revived during the early 1980s, village sectarian groups were faced with the challenge of retraining ritual specialists, and recovering a liturgical tradition that had been suppressed for decades. Those groups with strong local networks were able to pool resources and overcome these problems. However, even with the loosening of policy, certain teachings, such as the Yiguan Dao, remain strictly outlawed, and actions such as spiritualism, spirit writing or making apocalyptic predictions will bring swift attention from local officials. This vigilance increased with the 1999 movement against Falun gong, which was portrayed as a modern-day variation of sectarian heresy.
THOMAS DUBOIS

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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