Your first two books both concern rebellions led by religious groups during the Qing dynasty. How did you come to this subject?
Historians of modern and early modern China have traditionally identified the family and the state as the two organizations of supreme importance in Chinese society, and have tended to focus on one or the other. I have long been interested in how people organized themselves outside of the family and the state. In particular, I am interested in how religion allowed people in China to form connections with one another and to articulate unorthodox views.
In 1813 there was a peasant rebellion in north China that culminated with an attack on the Forbidden City, in the heart of Beijing, by several hundred people. The attack was not successful, but the surviving participants in the uprising were rounded up and carefully interrogated. In graduate school I was interested in peasant uprisings; in the course of my research I was fortunate to discover about 400 confessions recorded as a result of these interrogations. It turned out that the participants in the uprising were members of a religious sect operating outside the mainstream--today we might call it a cult--and their actions had been motivated by their beliefs. These confessions, which are quite unusual sources, allowed me to study this religious sect as a social organization. How had the sect come into being? What were the sources of its appeal? These are the kinds of questions I was asking. In my second book, I followed up on some of these questions by examining another uprising, also led by a religious group, this one in 1774.
You have also studied pilgrimage?
Yes, since my first books I have looked at other kinds of religious connections to better get at the fabric of Chinese society. In 1992 I coedited a conference volume titled Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China. Pilgrimage by Muslims and Christians has been well studied; almost nothing had been written about pilgrimage in China. Typically Chinese made pilgrimages to mountaintops associated with a particular deity. Unlike Christian and Muslim pilgrims, Chinese pilgrims left behind little in the way of literature, so we focused on the sites themselves and the different meanings that attached to the sacred place. Not surprisingly, pilgrimage in China was part religious devotion, part tourism. You climbed a mountain to demonstrate your sincerity and to pray in the temple on top--but at the same time you left behind your ordinary routines to travel with family or friends.
Were these sites associated with particular religions?
The categories commonly used to study Chinese religion--Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism--are often impediments to our understanding. Each pilgrimage site was associated with a deity, who had a certain personality and certain tasks. You might compare these deities to Catholic saints. They were not standardized and they did not form a single system in the way that we might expect religion to do.
Your most recent book is a large study of Beijing, Peking: Temples and City Life (2000). What were you setting out to study here?
I was still interested in this world outside the family and outside the state. We knew a fair amount about Chinese village life, but much less about life in the cities. I decided to survey all of the temples in Beijing, the seat of the imperial government, to see what role they played in the life of the city. I construed “temple” very broadly as any physical structure where a god or gods were enshrined, including Buddhist monasteries, Christian churches, mosques, and temples of all kinds. In total I studied some 2,400 different buildings that had been used as temples between 1400 and 1900, although of these no more than about 1,000 were active at any one time. This approach had broad ramifications because temples--which typically contained a series of courtyards within outer walls--were some of the only public spaces in a Chinese city. In this period, there were no parks, gardens, plazas, or auditoriums--and very few places where people could gather. Temples were one such place.
It turns out that temples fulfilled a very wide array of social functions. They were sites of worship and preaching, places where poetry societies and discussion groups could assemble, tourist attractions, and venues for fairs and other commercial activities; they served as libraries and spaces for the display of art, places of political intrigue, lodging houses for transients, and places of leisure and entertainment. I found that various groups, formal and informal, came together in temples, and these groups demonstrated a kind of organizational potential you couldn’t find anywhere else in Chinese society.
The book covers an enormous time span. How did city life change over this time?
Two major social changes took place during the period I cover, 1400 to 1900. In 1644 the Qing dynasty replaced the Ming dynasty. The Qing rulers were Manchus; they belonged to an ethnic and cultural minority that had invaded from the northeast. When the Qing took power they kicked out about 200,000 people and settled in the center of Beijing. (By analogy I invite students to imagine that French Canadians have taken over and installed themselves on the island of Manhattan, forcing all previous residents to move to the outer boroughs.) But over the following two or three centuries, people accommodated to the new circumstances, and eventually these foreigners came to be seen as the quintessential Pekinese. The regime change completely rearranged the social life of the city, including the patronage system that supported temples.
The second major change occurred during the 19th century. Weaker now and distracted by a series of crises, the Qing state loosened its grip on Beijing and all kinds of organizations that had taken shape in the shelter of the temple grounds spilled out and began to operate openly. For example, sectarian groups related to the millenarian associations I had studied in my dissertation emerged from underground and flourished publicly. Merchant organizations, for whom shared worship had been a common feature, now built their own lodges and in the 20th century evolved into chambers of commerce. In the first half of the 20th century, many different groups operated with relative freedom. Then in 1949 the state came back in and abolished them.
How did the state view all this religious activity in Beijing?
Temples , monasteries, and nunneries enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy. No one supposed that religious activity was beyond the authority of the emperor; emperors could shut down temples if they wanted to, and sometimes they did. At the same time, many religious establishments received imperial patronage. Chinese government officials likewise viewed the temples with ambivalence. They saw any kind of organized, popular activity as potentially threatening. As government officials they voiced the state line--that religion could be dangerous and the people had to be educated out of their superstitious beliefs. Yet most officials were themselves religiously observant.
Under the Qing dynasty a tolerance of religious diversity was part of a strategy for managing a vast, ethnically diverse empire. The Qing emperors, who themselves belonged to an ethnic minority, actively promoted the idea that China was a multi-ethnic polity. The empire had five official languages--Chinese, Mongolian, Tibetan, Manchu, and Uighur. In a similar way, the Qing rulers saw themselves as patrons of more than one religion. They presided over the civil examination system, which was based on the Confucian classics; they patronized Buddhist and Taoist temples, and sometimes even mosques; and they privately believed in Tibetan Buddhism.
What do students of modern China miss if they ignore religion?
When the Falun Gong movement appeared a few years ago, many political scientists were astonished. It seems they had been taking at face value the P.R.C. rhetoric about the elimination of religion in a socialist state. In fact, religion is important in China--as it is in all societies--and it always was. Religion was not simply an element of Confucian family society; it was also used as a grounds for challenging orthodox values. Islam and Christianity are an important part of the fabric of life in China today, and will continue to be important. In the last decade, we have learned that Ming and Qing emperors were sincere believers in Tibetan Buddhism, and in fact they saw themselves as bodhisattvas (future Buddhas). This belief was of great importance in drawing the Mongols and Tibetans into the empire. If it weren’t for the Buddhism of the Qing emperors, the borders of modern China would certainly look very different.