In the Chinese cultural-religious world, seeking a fortune stick in temples is “by far the most common form of divination—costless, simple, and not very time-consuming” (Feuchtwang 1992). Previous studies focused more on standardized divinatory poems or the role of elite interpreters in defining this activity. My recent field work in East China, however, indicates that the practice is essentially a self-help ritual technique allowing ordinary temple-goers to open up a realm of possibilities through conversation, and to recreate their self-knowledge by involving a broad range of interlocutors. In a Buddhist temple setting in the late socialist regime, on the one hand, professional diviners are institutionally excluded; on the other hand, temple-residing monastics as a socially accountable group explicitly forsake any status authority over divinatory knowledge. Also, considering that individual monastics, in fact, approach divination or spiritual matters quite differently, the talk suggests that Buddhist temples in China have opened up important casual conversational spaces where a broad public can reconsider issues of value and self-orientation. Seen more broadly, the case reveals a spatial-interactional sphere of religion within China, in which religious authority and social trust are diffusely distributed and fluid. The institutionalization of temple spaces as commonly-accessible spatial-interactional spheres of religion has allowed flexible reconfiguration of the state’s secularist project in the late socialist period.
Yang SHEN is a cultural anthropologist of religion and secularism. She received her PhD from Boston University in Anthropology in October 2019 and was a post-doctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany. Currently, she is a post-doctoral fellow at the Louis Frieberg Center for East Asian Studies and an affiliated lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.