Inverting the Hierarchies: Popular Resistance and Folklore in China

by Marco Rossi

Han Chinese devotees offer incense at the Lama Tibetan Buddhist temple in Beijing on a Sunday morning earlier this year. | Source:

Han Chinese devotees offer incense at the Lama Tibetan Buddhist temple in Beijing on a Sunday morning earlier this year. | Source:

Throughout the history of mankind, the subaltern classes have been the object of study by scholars and intellectuals, who are interested in the way they behave and operate within the societal context. However, despite the positive thickening of the body of literature about the so-called “primitive societies”, this strata of society and the set of beliefs and rituals they practise have been doomed to remain an object of study by the high culture, rather than a subject of history with its own will and influence on other societal actors. Instead, these subaltern classes resisted against the compelling forces from above, including the influences and the constrictions from higher cultures and religious institutions. Their set of beliefs, traditions, and practices, namely the folklore of a community, is still alive and has resisted the absorption and the destruction perpetuated by the ruling ideologies.  

However, even though the movement of popular resistance should be recognised, we should not fall in the Gramscian trap of dealing with an inactive, “implicit”, and “mechanic” religion (Gramsci 1948). Trying to position the folkloric resistance in a more central place, Gramsci also underestimated the active will of the people, and its reactionary attitude towards higher spheres, as the critique of Lanternari (1954) goes. The recognition of the active role of the peasant society in shaping history and traditions is the key to understanding the “failure” of the high institutions in suppressing and destroying what is considered to be an unorthodox and backward facet of society. To further explain this concept, I will sketch a brief history of the Chinese experience, where the clergy and the peasants had to bear the weight of the central ideology’s violent repression. 

The relation between religion and state in China has never been brilliant. Lacking a strong institutional power, and with the spiritual and political leader being one and the same, there has always been an absence of a necessary independence. When the Buddhist clergy was gaining too much power during the rule of Empress Wu Zetian, she persecuted the sangha and confiscated the lands and the monasteries. Also in the late Qing Dynasty we find laws aimed at regulating religion, although with little enforcement (Welch 1968). The same oscillating relation between the religious and governmental spheres took place during the Republican era. The Nationalist Party (KMT) advocated for modernity and suppressed all religious backwardness at first, but then it granted a certain degree of religious freedom with the draft Constitution of 1936 (p. 142). Episodes of violence of the KMT were less fierce than the Communist Party’s (CCP), but then again the various religious communities had to endure confiscations of lands and temples, heavy taxation, and violence. 

Circuiting the Jokhang ceremony in Tibet |   Source: RoughGuides

Circuiting the Jokhang ceremony in Tibet | Source: RoughGuides

The fiercest attacks towards official religions and popular beliefs alike were perpetuated during the Communist rule of Chairman Mao Zedong. Although in the first decade of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) rule, class struggle, revolution, and mass campaigns could not tackle the spiritual revival that was taking place in mainland China, during the 60s the attitude against communal spirituality was reinforced. Within the Cultural Revolution, the CCP banned all forms of religious practices, and shut down every freedom of belief. During 1966, Marshal Lin Biao exhorted to the destruction of “all old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits of the exploiting class”, namely the so-called “four olds”, of which religion was a part. During these years Chinese citizens endured horrible treatment by the Red Guards, including beatings, looting, trespassing of private properties, and expropriation of goods and houses. Many holy places were vandalised and sacred symbols smashed. Everything that was bourgeoisie must be destroyed (Dikötter 2016). 


Nonetheless, after the death of Mao, a religious revival struck China as a wave of liberation in order to affirm popular will. The CCP loosened its laws against religion, and many started to practice their beliefs again. Technically, superstitions and proselytism of non-official beliefs are still a legal offence in China, but the five official religions of China (Daoism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam) are protected by the government and their followers are free to practise them. The temples, churches and mosques must, however, be registered with the Religious Affairs Bureau to acquire the license for operating as sacred places. The real problem arises when enlisting Buddhist and Daoist temples. The Christian and Islamic churches have a certain institutionalised orthodoxy to follow, but the Buddhist and the Daoist philosophies come from a plethora of different sects and beliefs. The enlisting of a temple, or of a sect gets problematic for the local and central state. For example, many temples are today enlisted and protected by the government, but sects as the Falun Gong are banished and its followers persecuted. The way the temples become enlisted and protected is by measuring the interest the local state has in the social service they offer. In his account of the Cultural Revolution, Dikötter (2016: 286) presents what he calls a “second society” of people that appeared to be controlled by the party, while still believing and practising their communal religions through a network of underground churches and religious groups. This “society” is the quintessential counteraction of the popular strata, which, although complying with Party rule, keeps its traditions in tact at the same time. Indeed, folklore and popular resistance remained resilient, even at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Paradoxically, the ultimate act of rebellion towards the Maoist regime was converting Mao himself into a divinity, using banners figuring the Chairman in the clothes of a Confucian-like gentleman to scare off the evil spirits (pp. 295-296).  

The active role of the peasant society, together with the new attitude of the local state, contributed towards the success of the religious revival in China. Folklore kept its strength even during the hardest of times, and the higher institutions could not get rid of it. Why was this? Why did the peasants need to believe and cherish their traditions? Why would they not follow the official ideology and bow to the only orthodox ideology? I argue that is the exact characteristic of the subalterns; to be subaltern. The subaltern classes have always felt the need to “let their steam off”, so to say. This is the overall point that Mikhail Bakhtin (1984) makes through his studies on Rabelais and the carnival during the Middle Age. The grotesque, hilarious character of the carnival is what allows the peasants to invert the hierarchy and set themselves free of moral and ethical obligations. “Medieval laughter is directed at the same object as medieval seriousness. Not only does laughter make no exception for the upper stratum, but indeed it is directed toward it. It builds its own world versus the official world, its own church versus the official church, its own state versus the official state. Even the smallest medieval parody is always built as part of while comic world” (1984: 88).  

We find a similar Chinese pattern in the conceptualisation of “bureaucratic” and “non-bureaucratic” gods (Shahar and Weller 1996). These two “factions” in the divine pantheon were aimed at the crafting of a supernatural political system and its opposite world by the peasant society. The bureaucratic facet of the pantheon should resemble the political order; while the latter goes beyond this, having gods and goddesses with a more personal approach towards the believers. Indeed, the non-bureaucratic gods were central to rebellions and revolts throughout Chinese history, and the fact that most of the non-bureaucratic gods were female (as Guanyin, Mazu, or Xi Wangmu) should be stressed. The inversion in the Chinese supernatural world served to balance the Confucian ethos that guided late imperial society and politics. The colourful and humorous aspects of Chinese deities offered liberation and relief from the social norms serving the same purpose the medieval European carnival that Bakhtin describes.  

Thus, the nature of the subaltern peasant society creates the necessity of revolting against the social order, while at the same time requesting its allowance to express their crafted universe. However, when this allowance by the official spheres is not granted, the peasant society does not accept it passively. On the contrary, they resist and struggle to keep their traditions alive, fighting the state and maintaining a resilient attitude.


Bakhtin, M. (1984). “Rabelais and His World”. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. Translated by Hélène Iswolsky. 

Chau, Y. Adam (2014). “Expanding the Space of Popular Religion: Local Temple Activism and the Politics of Legitimation in Contemporary Rural China”. In Making Religion, Making the State : The Politics of Religion in Modern China, edited by Yoshiko Ashiwa, and David L. Wank. Ch. 9, pp. 211-240. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 

Dikötter, F. (2016). “The cultural revolution : A people's history, 1962-1976”. London, UK: Bloomsbury.  

Gramsci, A. (1948). “Il materialismo storico e la filosofia di Benedetto Croce”. Torino, Italy: Einaudi. 

Lanternari, V. (1954). “Religione Popolare e Storicismo”. Belfagor, vol. 6 (IX), pp. 1-7. Firenze, Italy: Olschki. 

Shahar, M.; Weller, Robert P. (1996). “Unruly gods : Divinity and society in China”. Honolulu, Hawai’i: University of Hawai’i Press. 

Welch, H.; Harvard University East Asian Research Center. (1968). “The Buddhist revival in China”. Harvard East Asian series (33). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 

Juliette Gautron