Some scholars consider these religions a single phenomenon, and other consider them the fourth great Chinese religious category alongside the well-established Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Generally these religions focus on the worship of the universalGod, either represented as male, female or genderless, and regard their holy patriarchs as embodiments of God.
② The Luanist Rebirth Church (重生堂 Chóngshēngtáng) in Taichung, Taiwan.
"Chinese salvationist religions" (救度宗教 jiùdù zōngjiào) is a contemporary neologism coined as a sociological category and gives prominence to folk religious sects' central pursuit that is the salvation of the individual and the society, in other words the moral fulfillment of individuals in reconstructed communities of sense. Chinese scholars traditionally describe them as "folk religious sects" (民间宗教 mínjiān zōngjiào, 民间教门 mínjiān jiàomén or 民间教派 mínjiān jiàopài) or "folk beliefs" (民间信仰 mínjiān xìnyǎng).
They are distinct from the common indigenous religion of the Han Chinese consisting in the worship of gods and ancestors, although in English language there is a terminological confusion between the two. The 20th-century expression of these folk religious movements has been studied under the definition of "redemptive societies" (救世团体 jiùshì tuántǐ), coined by scholar Prasenjit Duara.
A collective name that has been in use possibly since the late Qing dynasty is huìdàomén (会道门 "churches, ways and gates"), as their names interchangeably use the terms huì (会 "church", "society", "association", "congregation"; when referring to their corporate form), dào (道 "way") or mén (门 "gate[way]", "door").
Their congregations and points of worship are usually called táng (堂 "church", "hall") or tán (坛 "altar"). Western scholars often mistakenly identify them as "Protestant" churches.
A category overlapping with that of the movements of salvation is that of the "secret societies" (秘密社会 mìmì shèhuì, or 秘密结社 mìmì jiéshè), religious communities of initiatory and secretive character, including rural militias and fraternal organisations which became very popular in the early republican period, and often labeled as "heretical doctrines" (宗教异端 zōngjiào yìduān).
Recent scholarship has begun to use the label "secret sects" (秘密教门 mìmì jiàomén) to distinguish the peasant "secret societies" with a positive dimension of the Yuan, Ming and Qing periods, from the negatively viewed "secret societies" of the early republic that became instruments of anti-revolutionary forces (the Guomindang or Japan).
In the Ming and Qing dynasties many folk religious movements were outlawed by the imperial authorities as "evil religions" (邪教 xiéjiào). With the collapse of the Qing state in 1911 the sects enjoyed an unprecedented period of freedom and thrived, and many of them were officially recognised as religious groups by the early republican government.
The founding of the People's Republic in 1949 saw them suppressed once again, although since the 1990s and 2000s the climate was relaxed and some of them have received some form of official recognition. In Taiwan all the still existing restrictions were rescinded in the 1980s.
Folk religious movements began to rapidly revive in mainland China in the 1980s, and now if conceptualised as a single group they are said to have the same number of followers of the five state-sanctioned religions of China taken together. Scholars and government officials have been discussing to systematise and unify this large base of religious organisations; in 2004 the State Administration of Religious Affairs created a department for the management of folk religions. In the late 2015 a step was made at least for those of them with a Confucian identity, with the foundation of the Holy Confucian Church of China which aims to unite in a single body all Confucian religious groups.
Many of the movements of salvation of the 20th and 21st century aspire to become the repository of the entirety of the Chinese tradition in the face of Western modernism and materialism, advocating an "Eastern solution to the problems of the modern world", or even interacting with the modern discourse of an Asian-centered universal civilisation.
Geography and diffusion
Geographic distribution of influence of China's popular religious sects.
The Chinese folk religious movements of salvation are mostly concentrated in northern and northeastern China, although with a significant influence reaching the Yangtze River Delta since the 16th century. The northern provinces have been a fertile ground for the movements of salvation because of a number of reasons: ① firstly, popular religious movements were active in the region already in the Han dynasty, and they deeply penetrated local society; ② secondly, northern provinces are characterised by social mobility around the capital and weak traditional social structure, thus folk religious movements of salvation fulfill the demand of individual searching for new forms of community and social network.
According to the Chinese General Social Survey of 2012, approximately 2.2% of the population of China, which is around 30 million people, claim to be members of folk religious sects. The actual number of followers may be higher, about the same as the number of members of the five state-sanctioned religions of China if counted together. In Taiwan, recognised folk religious movements of salvation gather approximately 10% of the population as of the mid-2000s.
^Palmer, 2011. p. 12: «Chinese sectarianism, millennialism and heterodoxy, called "popular religious sects" (minjian zongjiao 民間宗教, minjian jiaomen 民間教門, minjian jiaopai 民間教派) in the Chinese scholarship, often inextricable from debates on the exact nature of the so-called "White Lotus" tradition.»; p. 14: «The local and anthropological focus of these studies, and their undermining of rigid distinctions between "sectarian" groups and other forms of local religiosity, tends to draw them into the category of "popular religion" 民間信仰.»
^Clart, 2014. p. 393. Quote: «[...] The problem started when the Taiwanese translator of my paper chose to render "popular religion" literally as minjian zongjiao 民間宗教. The immediate association this term caused in the minds of many Taiwanese and practically all mainland Chinese participants in the conference was of popular sects (minjian jiaopai 民間教派), rather than the local and communal religious life that was the main focus of my paper.»
Xisha Ma, Huiying Meng. Popular Religion and Shamanism. Brill, 2011. ISBN 9004174559
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