Space, Religion, Government and Dragons in Twentieth Century China

The Role that Dragons have occupied in Modern Chinese history, to many historians may be understood as contested. The history of Dragons within China’s past not only debates the mere existence of Dragons as physical entities, but as popular religious deities. Thus, through the examination of Dragons as popular religious deities, such as the Dragon King of Wuhan, we may attempt to understand how space, religion, government all facilitated towards a wider belief system of worship for many people at the time.  In particular, how people viewed such deities in response to environmental catastrophes such as the 1931 Yangtze River Flood. Chris Courtney’s illuminating article and further monograph examine such popular beliefs held by the residents of Wuhan in light of the flood, which provides the background for this analysis.

 

Primarily the role of Dragon’s as popular religious beliefs may be examined in light of the space that they occupied physically. For example, for local populations in the 1930’s such as those within Wuhan, worshiped the shrine of the Temple of the Dragon King. Such people prayed for fertility for their crop growth before a harvest to the Dragon King who was in control of the rains. Physical manifestations of worship within Wuhan, were also eminent, such as parades in celebration of the Dragon King annually. Following the demolition of the Temple prior to the 1931 catastrophe, many within Wuhan held popular belief that it was in fact the anger of the Dragon King which “was causing the deluge in order to wreak vengeance upon Wuhan.”[1] The destruction of the Temple, whilst not linked to any religious cause for its demolition, but for the purpose of modernization within Wuhan, further pays homage to ideas expressed within Joespeh Esherick’s work on modern zoning principles. By citing Wuhan an example, the modernising nature of the city exposes the relationship between religious space and modernisation within Wuhan as “if the nation was to modernize, the cities had to take the lead.”[2]

 

However, in spite of the municipal authorities of Wuhan officially outlawing belief in the Dragon King in 1928 as superstition, Chris Courtney gives a poignant example of how belief was maintained not only privately but physically. Courtney described how members of the Wuhan population “descended upon the site of the former temple. Daoist, priests, monks and Shamans were hired to chant incantations and pray”, for forgiveness in light of the catastrophe.[3] Following the example given by Courtney, this allows us to see how the role of government rose within this relationship between understanding how space, religion, and government all facilitated a wider belief system for many people at the time. As described by Courtney, municipal authorities in spite of denouncing belief in the Dragon King as superstitious, Courtney observed that they still however paid lip service to belief in the deity in times of inundation, even if this was only to appease members of the population. Thus, supporting the idea that space, religion and government all serve to facilitate a wider belief system employed by residents during times of disaster. By ultimately affirming how “the disaster had revealed that in spite of vigorous criticism, popular religion continued to exert a powerful influence over conceptualizations of the environment.”[4]

 

 

Bibliography

 

Courtney, Chris. “The Dragon King and the 1931 Wuhan Flood: Religious Rumours and Environmental Disasters in Republican China.” Twentieth-Century China, vol. 40 no. 2, 2015, p. 83-104. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/tcc.2015.0018.

 

Courtney, Chris, The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Yangzi River Flood, (Cambridge, 2018).

 

Esherick, Joseph, ed. ‘Wuhan’s Search for Identity in the Republican Period’. In Remaking the Chinese City: Modernity and National Identity, 1900-1950, Pbk.ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2002.

 

[1] Chris Courtney, ‘The Dragon King and The 1931 Wuhan Flood: Religious Rumors and Environmental Disasters in Republican China.’, Twentieth-Century China, Vol.40 no.2, (2015), p.84.

[2] Joseph Esherick, ‘Wuhan’s Search for Identity in the Republican Period’. In Remaking the Chinese City: Modernity and National Identity, 1900-1950, Pbk.ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, (2002), p.7.

[3] Chris Courtney, ‘The Dragon King and The 1931 Wuhan Flood: Religious Rumors and Environmental Disasters in Republican China.’,p.96.

[4] Ibid.,p.83.

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