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  • Beatrice Tamagno

Editorial - Superstition in the air: belief under the Chinese sky

“One person’s religion is another person’s superstition,” famously wrote American sociologist David Gibson. Depending on the country you are from, when hearing the word “superstition,” different images will come to your mind. Black cats, shamanic rituals, lucky or unlucky numbers. Our concept of superstition is, in fact, closely related to our culture and religious (or non-religious) upbringing.

Anthropologists have long tried to figure out how to describe superstition in universal terms. Malinowski, for instance, argues that superstition is rooted in human psychology as “it reduces anxiety by filling the void of the unknown.” If we think of superstition in these terms, it does not come as a surprise the fact that it still persists, to some extent, in our post-modern, science-oriented secular societies.

But how should we understand superstition in the Chinese context?

Like many other things in China, it’s complicated. Traditional studies on Chinese religion, such as The Religion of China (1920) by German sociologist Max Weber shaped our understanding of faith in China by creating a dichotomy between religion and superstition. This discourse is nowhere to be found in Chinese tradition and is deeply influenced by evolutionist theories and Eurocentric concepts of religion. By delineating a system of Three Religions (namely Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism) and ascribing everything else to superstition, Weber de facto ignores the complexity of Chinese faith. Overlooking the rich plethora of Chinese folk beliefs is now widely recognized as a conceptual mistake, and the research in this field has been booming in the past two or three decades.

One more element we should take into account when thinking about superstition in China is the Cultural Revolution. Since the foundation of the PRC in 1949, the Government has declared religion a thing of the past and strictly regulated it, as any good Communist country should. It is during the bloody years of the Cultural Revolution, that the fight against religious practices escalated; all forms of religion (institutional and non-institutional) were declared “feudal superstition” (封建迷信 fengjian mixin). Ironically, at the same time, one specific cult was encouraged: that of Mao Zedong.

A student asks Confucius for help as they wish to be admitted into Haizhong Middle School. Taken by the author at Shanghai Confucius Temple. 10/2020

After the economic reforms, the boundary between religion and superstition shifted once more, creating the complex scenario we try to describe in our December Issue. Folk religions, Confucianism, Buddhism, and even Christian practices have been blossoming throughout the country. Technology and a brand-new array of social problems have brought a new dimension to superstition/religion. From TikTok monks to AI fortune tellers, from worried parents visiting Confucian temples praying for Ivy League admission letters to ghost marriages in the countryside, there truly is something for everyone under the Chinese sky.


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