By reconstructing temple-building activities and the historical process of temples entering villages in the Sibao region, western Fujian in the late imperial period, this essay examines the evolving meanings of temples and deities to the Sibao society and the changing relationship between temple-centered rituals and the local society.
From the Song and Yuan through the mid-Ming, the ritual-social practice in Sibao centered around four types of religious sites: Buddhist monasteries, local temples, altars of the soil and orphaned souls, and kinship-based chapels. Rituals performed at these sites dominated the symbolic and social life of the region. However, under the combining influence of the implementation of imperial rural institutions, popularization of Confucian rituals, commercialization of rural economy, and competition among local powers, a series of social changes took place from the mid-Ming onward, including the rise of lineage organizations, division of altars, popularization of village temples, rise of village alliances, and the emergence of god-worshipping societies. As a result, the relationship between temples and local society was modified accordingly.
Since the mid-fifteenth century, in the efforts of gentry and local elites, Sibao witnessed a process of lineage building that lasted over three centuries. By the end of the eighteenth century, lineage organizations with ornate ancestral halls and written genealogies became popular. Ancestral rites started to be performed at ancestral halls rather than temples, and kinship became one of the most important "languages" to mobilize social resources and reorganize social connections. Nevertheless, the temple-centered social framework established before the mid-Ming continued to exist, while its status and social content underwent some remarkable changes.
While lineage organizations were gaining importance, the relationship between temples and local society also witnessed a series of changes from the mid-Ming until the eve of land reform in the early 1950s. During this period, the number of village temples rocketed, relationship between temples and village society tightened, and some temples combined with villages and became key symbols to define village boundaries and to construct and highlight village identity. The changes initiated a process which the author calls "temples entering villages," and temple-defined ritual-social space (jisi quan) became more common. In addition, temples also provided ritual-social frameworks for inter-village alliances and intra- lineage/village interpersonal network, and thus played a vital role in the rural social life. Finally, a temple-centric village society was in place.