A Different Kind of Religious Diversity

Ritual Service Providers and Consumers in China
  • Adam Yuet Chau


China has always been a religiously diverse country, but this diversity is more evident as different “modalities of doing religion” (explained below) rather than as discrete confessional religions. For the vast majority of Chinese people historically and today, the presence of a wide variety of modalities of doing religion is simply a fact of their daily lives. However, “religious diversity” as a concept is alien to most Chinese people since their approach to religion is primarily instrumental and occasion-based (what can be called an efficacy-based religiosity) rather than confessionally-based, and their experience of religious diversity is embodied in the employment of different religious service providers on various occasions rather than abstract systems of religious doctrines and teachings. Being an anthropologist rather than an intellectual historian, I will look at the issue of religious diversity in China from the perspective of ordinary people engaging in religious activities on the ground rather than religious elites engaging in high-power debates. This chapter will be divided into three parts. First, I will explicate what I have called “five modalities of doing religion” in China. Second, I examine two of the five modalities, the liturgical and immediate-practical modalities, in more detail and illustrate how so much of religious life in China can be seen in terms of the provision and consumption of ritual services. Third, I discuss the implications of such an efficacy-based religiosity for our understanding of religious diversity.


Religious Tradition Religious Identity Religious Diversity Funerary Ritual Ritual Specialist 
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  1. 8.
    I have modified the expression that was first coined by Michael Carrithers, “On Polytropy: Or the Natural Condition of Spiritual Cosmopolitanism in India: The Digambar Jain Case.” Modern Asian Studies 34, no. 4 (2000): 831–861.Google Scholar
  2. 10.
    For a historical study of the “interweaving” of Chinese and Catholic funeral rituals, see Nicolas Standaert, The Interweaving of Rituals: Funerals in the Cultural Exchange between China and Europe (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2008).Google Scholar
  3. 12.
    The most important reason for most ritual specialists to adopt the household idiom is to keep a low profile in order to dodge the attention of the state, which has not always been friendly toward these ritual service providers. See Adam Yuet Chau, “Superstition Specialist Households?: The Household Idiom in Chinese Religious Practices,” Minsu quyi (Journal of Chinese Ritual, Theatre, and Folklore) 153 (2006): 157–202.Google Scholar

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© Perry Schmidt-Leukel and Joachim Gentz 2013

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  • Adam Yuet Chau

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