The Continent of the Gods

In: Review of Religion and Chinese Society
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  • 1 Centre for China Studies
  • 2 香港中文大學中國研究中心

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It first occurred to me some thirty years ago that Shenzhou 神州, translated “continent of the gods,” was a perfect way of talking about “China in the Daoist mirror.” It made it possible to think of China as a series of concentric spaces, going from the self to the cosmos, all structured in the same away around nodal points occupied by gods. Because it revealed a dense organization at every level, this space-based approach led me as well to call into question the classic distinction between “diffused” and “organized” religion. Subsequent work, both historical and in the field, gradually enabled me to see this as a long evolutionary history which begins with elite attacks on spirit-medium religion in the Warring States and culminates with the emergence of popular religion in the Song. This religion includes popular versions of the Three Teachings, but it is built around the local, anthropomorphic gods whose primary task was the protection of bounded territory and whose natural servants were the ever-maligned spirit-mediums.

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