Deity Procession

Sarah Fitzsimmons and Richmond Smyth

Abstract

Deity processions are a common practice within Chinese religion to celebrate the gods. Harry Caldwell, a religious man from Tennessee, captured this event within the Fujian province in the early 1900’s. Deity processions are best defined as a parade for the gods. During processions, the gods, along with demons and other celestial beings, are often represented as statues that are paraded from town to town and then to different temples. It is worth to note that both Gods and demons are sacrificed to, this is because people want to find favor in the God’s eyes and be protected from the demons. In this clip, there are many signs of multiple religious practices. Although Fujian is known today as primarily dominated by Buddhism and Daoism, in this procession there seem to be signs of all three of the major Chinese religions: Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. Buddhism and Daoism can be viewed through the procession itself, as processions are a Buddhist and Daoist way to worship and praise the gods. Since this deity procession occurs in the Fujian Province, contains many Daoist gods, and has petitions to burn, it is likely that this procession has strong Daoist influences. Also, during the clip, it shows petitions from people being wheelbarrowed to the next location in order to be presented and burned to the gods, which is primarily a Daoist tradition. As far as Confucianism goes, one major Confucian local popular god can be recognized. The Lord of the Three in One (also known as Sānyī jiàozhu) is primarily a local Confucian-based god in Fujian province, and can be seen in the clip being carried on a sedan chair during the procession.

Expanded Explanation

In the early 20th century, Harry Caldwell, a Methodist missionary from Tennessee, embarked on a mission trip to Fujian Province in Southeast China. Caldwell’s primary mission was to convert locals within the region to Christianity, as well as relay his success as a missionary through books and film to those in the United States. Caldwell’s film takes place during his time in Fujian province, which is primarily a Daoist and Buddhist region even today. In this particular clip, Harry Caldwell films the marching of a deity procession.

In this film, Harry Caldwell witnessed the locals of Fujian participating in a procession including multiple Chinese gods and other celestial beings. Within Chinese religion, there are multiple reasons to explain why a community would participate in this method of worship. Deity processions can take place to celebrate a god’s birthday, or to make offerings in order to ask for protection from misfortunes, such as illness or droughts. Within the Chinese religious landscape, there is a celestial being that is responsible for every aspect of society. For example, there are “bureaucratic” gods that can been seen as part of the political hierarchy in China, such as the Stove God. The Stove God is a symbol of the family unit and is worshipped in order to prevent him from giving an unfavorable report to his superior, the Jade Emperor.[1]  The Stove God is worshipped across China in different ways, region by region. Other deities, such as Lady Linshui who is worshipped as a protector of women and children, have more of a cult following within certain regions such as Fujian.

In contrast to these entities, demons are also subjects of offerings and rituals. In Caldwell’s film, demons take part in the procession and portrayed as short, stumpy characters that walk with a swagger. Demons and ghosts are also worshipped in order to rid a community of illness, drought, infertility, or other misfortunes. Some of these practices, such as burning petitions or chanting, are also used in funerals within this region.[2] It is important to note that deity processions and rituals differ greatly by region in China. Each village or town incorporates unique aspects of their life into religious practices. The deity procession filmed by Harry Caldwell is unique to that community within Fujian Province, in that the gods are specific to the needs of the people in that moment.

Deity processions are an important method of worship within Chinese religions, most notably Buddhism and Daoism. Processions can be described as parades throughout a town or community for the purpose of worshipping gods and even demonic entities. This parade allows people to worship and present offerings to different entities in order to celebrate religious holidays or even to ward off misfortunes, as discussed above. The procession that is seen in Caldwell’s film appears to contain more elements of Daoism rather than Buddhism. Kenneth Dean’s Bored in Heaven film shows a Daoist procession in Putian, another city in Fujian Province, that has many similarities to certain aspects within Caldwell’s film[3]  Some other important factors in this deity procession include the wheelbarrowing of petitions to be burned and the portrayal of the Lord of the Three-in-One.

Burning petitions to the gods is a common Daoist practice. As seen in Bored in Heaven, petitions and spirit money are constantly being burned on the streets of Putian.[4] These petitions are used in order for people to communicate with the gods. Daoists write prayers or messages onto the petitions and burn them in order to “send” them to the Gods.[5]This is a common practice within Daoist culture, whereas in Buddhism there is more of a presentation of petitions.[6] In this clip it shows a wheelbarrow filled with petitions being taken to the next location in order to be burned for the gods. People would likely come out of their homes and give their petitions to the procession in order for them to be taken to the next location where they will then be burned.

Finally, another piece of the procession that can be seen in this procession is the appearance of the Lord of The Three in One. He can be seen being carried on a sedan chair during the procession. The significance of this celestial being, is that he originated within the fujian province. According to Kenneth Deans book, Lord of the Three in One: the Spread of a Cult in Southeast China, Dean explains the spread of the Lord of the Three in One and his teachings throughout the land of the Fujian province. This helps to show the uniqueness of this specific procession, and the types of gods that they praise in this area of China. As Dean puts it, the Lord of the Three in One has grown to have great support within this land[7], and from Dean’s study this procession shows that this is true.

The deity processions are a widely practiced tradition within the Chinese religious landscape used to celebrate the gods and other celestial beings. As seen in Caldwell’s film clip of a deity procession in Fujian Province, these processions often consist of multiple deities in order to present offerings for holidays, such as a god’s birthday, to prevent illness or misfortunes in a community, or even funerals for community members[8]. The deity procession seen in this clip exhibits multiple traditions that are consistent with Daoist practices, such as burning petitions and chanting ritual rites. As Harry Caldwell witnessed this deity procession, it was likely easy to draw a clear contrast between the Chinese religious practices and the worship of Christian God. For one, this village in Fujian portrayed several different gods and entities, rather than just one, and included multiple demons. As for Caldwell’s mission in the region, he likely used this deity procession as an example for why he desperately needed to spread Christianity in order to save the people of Fujian.


[1] Shaher, Meir and Robert P. Weller. “Introduction: Gods and Society in China.”1-36.

[2] Dean, Kenneth. “Funerals in Fujian.”

[3] Dean, Kenneth and Cora Dean, dirs. Bored in Heaven.

[4] Dean, Kenneth and Cora Dean.

[5] Katz, Paul R. “Festivals and the Recreation of Identity in South China: 67–85.

[6] Dean, Kenneth. Taoist Ritual and Popular Cults of Southeast China.

[7] Dean , Kenneth. Lord of the Three in One: the Spread of a Cult in Southeast China.

[8] Szonyi, Michael. “The Illusion of Standardizing the Gods: The Cult of the Five Emperors in Late Imperial China.” 13-15.

Bibliography

Dean, Kenneth and Cora Dean, dirs. Bored in Heaven. Montreal: Kenneth Dean, 2010.

Dean, Kenneth. “Funerals in Fujian.” Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 4, no. 1 (1988): 19–78.

Dean, Kenneth. Lord of the Three in One: the Spread of a Cult in Southeast China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Dean, Kenneth. Taoist Ritual and Popular Cults of Southeast China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Katz, Paul R. “Festivals and the Recreation of Identity in South China: A Case Study of Processions and Expulsion Rites in Pucheng Zhejiang.” Journal of Ritual Studies 19, no. 1 (2005): 67–85.

Shahar, Meir and Robert P. Weller. “Introduction: Gods and Society in China.” In Unruly Gods: Divinity and Society in China, edited by Meir Shahar and Robert P. Weller, 1-36. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.

Szonyi, Michael. “The Illusion of Standardizing the Gods: The Cult of the Five Emperors in Late Imperial China.” Journal of Asian Studies 56, no. 1 (1997): 113-35.

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