My research project is entitled “Local Practice and Regional Characteristics of Folk Religion in the Yangtze Delta (1368-1911)”. This project will elaborate the problems as following:
1. How Indigenous people understood folk religion in the Yangtze Delta during Ming and Qing periods? Do they have any unique concept of their own?
I would understand folk religion from the native’s point of view. Based on primary analysis of data, I found that temple community is a quite important concept in the Yangtze Delta. Indigenous people clearly knew about the jurisdiction area of every temple, and called it as miaojie(庙界), which means temple community in the cities or rural areas. It is the concept mirroring the belief idea of indigenous people in the Yangtze Delta since Ming and Qing periods. Generally speaking, the temple community was stable in certain stage, but it would also change with the social and economic development. During the above-mentioned changes happened the conflicts between different temple communities would emerge.
2. How kinds of sacrificial activities were carried out in the Yangtze Delta? What kind of influence these activities exerted on local society?
Sacrificial activities of different levels and scales existed widely in the Yangtze Delta since Ming and Qing Dynasties, which were based on the economic development of Yangtze Delta area in this period. Meanwhile, the economic change also influenced the religious activities. Different kinds of sacrificial organizations named as hui(会), she（社），etc, played important roles of these activities. As the core of sacrificial rites, many ritual specialists, such as taibaoxiansheng(太保先生) in Shanghai, performed the rites.
The development of kinds of sacrificial activities in the Yangtze Delta influenced local society in many ways. I would focus on two problems: Firstly, how sacrificial activities, as a part of daily life, influenced the formation of community in rural area and promoted communications within community or among different communities; Secondly, can we regard folk sacrificial activities as one part of public spheres in modern China?
3. What kind of relationship existed between folk religion and Taoism in local society?
There are some different views on the relationship between folk religion and Taoism. Some scholars such like Kenneth Dean emphasize that Taoism determines the development of folk religion; while other scholars such like Valerie Hansen in her book Changing Gods in Medieval China nearly neglect the influence of Taoism on folk religion. But I will state my opinion that on one side folk religion developed parallel with Taoism to a large extent in the Yangtze delta since Ming and Qing periods, on the other side, there certainly existed competition, cooperation and infiltration between them.
4. What kind of relationship existed between different social groups related to folk religion in the Yangtze Delta? What kind of purposes they had?
The development of folk religion in the Yangtze Delta during Ming and Qing periods had close connection with several different social groups, including local officials, local elites, merchants, monks and Taoist, etc. When taking different attitudes towards different gods, they had different purposes behind it, such as they wanted to get consolations or economic profits. But in many cases, they also tried to acquire symbolic capital which would be helpful for them.
5. What kind of similarities and differences between folk religion in the Yangtze Delta and that in other areas?
The development of folk religion in the Yangtze Delta during Ming and Qing periods is different from that in South China or North China subject to the following conditions. First is political geography factor: North China was near to the heart of the dynasties, while South China was in the frontier, Yangtze Delta was situated between them, so the influence of state power varied in different regions. Second is the economic factor: Many towns scattered in the Yangtze Delta during Ming and Qing periods whose economic growth far exceeded that in North China and South China. Third is social composition factor: South China was a typical immigration society with imitative lineage, while the influence of lineage in North China was also very powerful. But in the Yangtze Delta, the power of lineage was weakened because of frequent population mobility caused by economic development. All of these differences are bound to influence the concept, rites and organization of folk religion, which would shape the regional characteristics of it.
At Leiden University or other research institutes in Netherlands, I hope to use a variety of primary documents in the Libraries, especially papers, diaries, oral histories, and travel photography left by missionaries including Charles Gutzlaff, etc. These materials hold many clues to the organization or ritual activities of Chinese folk region in different times, which will provide new angle onto my research.