民間道敎 as Religion of the People: Journey to the West, Part 1.

Often, need of the people and need of the social elites diverge immensely. Social elites have a room to be idealistic, ponder about deep philosophical thoughts or focus on inner refinement, because they are economically stable. When you are hungry, bound by worldly concerns, you reach out for practical solution – so will your belief be. That was how “Folk Religion” differed from “Established Religion” in every part of the world. While the latter’s complex theology argued about abstract concerns such as correct morality, afterlife, and philosophy, former satisfied the taste of common men by talking about success, this life, and practical benefits. Why care about other life, while this life is already so stuffed?

In China, Taoism served the role of Folk Religion. In fact, even the Taoism has two sorts: Civilian Taoism (民間道敎) and Governmental Taoism (官房道敎). As name suggests, the true Folk Religion would be the Civilian Taoism. It is indeed interesting religion to study. It’s the most unique feature is its democratic nature and religious inclusiveness. While most religions tend to have one set theology for all believers to obey, decided by the starter (e.x. Jesus Christ) and elite theologians, Civilian Taoism does not. Hundreds of mutually opposable theories exist, without forcing each other to fade away. They continuously debate, nonetheless recognizing others’ legitimacy. Religious inclusiveness of Taoism is unparalleled by any other religion. Taoist temples serve all kinds of gods – not limited to thousands of traditional Chinese gods, but also historical figure like 關羽 or total non-Chinese foreigner like Jesus Christ. These features provided Civilian Taoism with millions of different forms of worships. It is hard to find any two Taoist temples that serve same set of gods in same way.

Yet, all these immensely different denominations of Civilian Taoism have few features in common. First, they all argue this one principle: prayer brings fortune in your life now. They understand prayer as a sort of payment for good events or lucks in their life. In this case, scope of life is strictly the present one. Second, they have numerous detailed discussions of physical features of religion and less of metaphysical features. (For instance, they would talk more about what kind of supernatural powers each gods have, rather than philosophical theology.) Third, gods are extremely humane, perhaps like gods in Greek myth. Some of them behave divine and respectable, but often times, even the highest authority Jade Emperor (玉皇上帝) may have negative aspect. These common features all owe to the fact that subject of Civilian Taoism were extremely practical people – members of economically or socially burdened classes. We can clearly read this tendency in literatures too.

While I was in China, I had a chance to read the original of 西遊記 or Journey to the West by written Wu Cheng En. Born and raised in Korea, I was already familiar with the overall plot of the novel, but long full version with detailed descriptions and elongated scenario was first time to experience. After reading the original, I concluded that Journey to the West is way more than a mere fantasy fiction. It is in fact rich of hidden religious codes, in a meantime, containing sharp social and religious criticisms. In this aspect, Journey to the West also meets with previously discussed topic – the Civilian Taoism as true people’s religion. It’s favorable description of Taoist character and overall practical, non-abstract worldview clearly show tendency of embracing Civilian Taoism as popular religion.

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