Historically, religion was an integral part of Chinese life. Across the nation’s cities and countryside spread an archipelago of temples large and small. On temple holidays, some organized processions, parading idols of local deities through the streets. These processions were accompanied by music, stilt walkers, and dances honoring dragons or lions.
For a broadly agricultural society bereft of entertainment options, people often spent the whole year anticipating the processions. They weren’t always fun and games, however. If a procession from one temple crossed into the territory of another, villagers of the latter often saw it as an invasion, which could result in bloodshed.
These days, after 70 years of atheistic education and modernization, religion is no longer a vital part of most Chinese people’s lives. Many demolished or repurposed temples have yet to be restored. Idol processions, which depend on specialized knowledge, money, and labor, are now in serious decline. In many parts of China, local residents who still remember the traditional processions’ rituals are dying off; younger villagers have all left their hometowns in search of work; and temples are losing “incense fees,” the donations from local communities that go toward organizing processions. Taken together, these factors threaten the existence of a tradition that has lasted for hundreds of years.
Fortunately, along the coastal areas of southeastern China, a few temples are hanging on and continue to organize idol processions. There’s a reason why locals are so attached to their temple traditions: In imperial China, officials held weaker power over areas far from the capital and had to give autonomy to local clans as a means of maintaining order. Temples were not only the clans’ religious centers; they also transcended blood ties by binding different clans together through shared temple worship. Additionally, the high status accorded to religion in grassroots communities meant that temples could also serve more secular purposes as assembly halls or theaters.
Processions symbolized a personal visit from the local deity, who would then bless every corner of the temple’s domain. From a secular perspective, a procession was a display of a given community’s great human and financial resources. The more people involved, the more magnificent the procession, and the more admiration it would inspire.
While religious adherents in southeastern China were able to maintain their fragile traditions in the face of modernity’s initial assault, they now face an even more relentless and implacable foe: demolition. As China undergoes a period of rapid urbanization, communities nationwide — including the lands of old neighborhoods and ancient villages — are being commandeered by local governments, their residents relocated, and their buildings demolished and built anew. Although demolished temples are supposed to be rebuilt in another location, they are sometimes moved far from their previous communities, making it hard for members of the former congregation to visit.
As urbanization transforms local communities, idol processions must adapt to the new reality. Traditionally, communities were composed of single-story houses enclosed within courtyards. Believers would place offerings at their courtyard gates, and the idol would be paraded past as it wound its way through the alleys. Now, with many former residents living in towering apartment buildings and many alleys lying abandoned, procession routes are much shorter than before. This has robbed processions of much of their original color and grandeur.
Those hoping to preserve the tradition aren’t entirely without options, however. In the eastern city of Fuzhou, believers now place their offerings in the open space between apartment complexes and gather together there to worship. Even more remarkable is a practice found in the southern city of Haikou, on the island of Hainan, where adherents ride elevators up and down high-rises with their idols in order to reach every believer’s family.