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In the countryside, secret sects, `classic religion'

WANG XIAOQUAN and his fianc'ee consulted a geomancer when they decided to get married in a south China village last year. ``Our family has always done such things,'' Mr. Wang explains as his mother-in-law nods her approval.

The couple paid 20 yuan ($6) to a retired farmer known locally as Mr. ``Feng Shui'' to choose the wedding date. The elderly man was said to be an expert on the forces of feng (wind) and shui (water), which, according to ancient Chinese beliefs, influence objects on the earth, especially the site of a house or tomb.

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Asked why he had consulted a feng-shui man and not an astrologer, who would be most concerned with fixing dates, Mr. Wang said that this was the best advice available. In the absence of an astrologer in this remote village in Guangdong Province, the intuitions of a geomancer were better than no counsel at all.

Chinese geomancy is a form of divination which assumes that supernatural forces for good or evil, often described as dragons, reside in the earth and its environment and influence daily life.

Sophisticated residents of Peking and Shanghai might scoff at these things. But after almost 40 years of communist rule, the ancient practices, or what scholars call ``classic religion,'' along with the formal religions such as Taoism, Buddhism, and Christianity, have survived the Communist Party's antireligious campaigns and are again widespread in rural China. It is a situation that is taxing the ingenuity of the party's reform-minded leaders.

The party-controlled press has often warned about the effects of this upsurge in superstition in the countryside.

``Many wizards and witches have started their business again,'' says a press report from Changsha, in Hunan Province. ``They defraud people of their money and belongings under the pretext of driving out spirits. Their usual activities are telling fortunes by face and palm lines, drawing divination sticks before gods, and so on. They visit every household in many villages. ... They have caused a resurgence of those feudal and superstitious activities which prevailed in the old society.''

One report in a national newspaper, the Peasants' Daily, last year said that in a county in Sichuan Province, 100,000 people had burned incense and made sacrifices to local gods to bring rain and end a spring drought. This ``confused and poisoned people's minds and disrupted the normal production,'' the newspaper claimed.

In another county in Sichuan Province, people had built more than 100 temples for only 75 villages, an excessive number, the press report said.

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Two years ago, former party secretary Hu Yaobang told officials in Gansu, one of China's poorest provinces, that one of the main obstacles to rural development was ``belief in gods.''

Many progressive reformers, along with those who still favor the forcible suppression of such beliefs, would agree.

China's social scientists are studying the situation, and the Institute of World Religions in Peking is conducting a major research project on rural religion. Du Jiwen, director of the institute, will submit a report with recommendations to China's State Council at the end of its current five-year work cycle. How does Mr. Du explain this phenomenon?

``In my opinion, it has to do with the success of the current reforms,'' he says. ``In southern China people have become very rich. The first thing they do is build a house. The second thing is to spend money on a big marriage ceremony. After that they don't know what to do with their money, so they spend it on religion.''

The government should find a way for these people to spend their money more productively, Du comments. ``So far the government hasn't interfered, but I think this is a waste of resources,'' he says. Du dismisses the idea that religion should be accepted as a normal part of rural life.

With the revival of ``classic religion,'' there is also the return of secret societies, sects, and clan organizations that often have a religious character. Such groups were powerful in imperial times, challenging the government's control in some areas of the country. The Chinese police are especially vigilant against anything they consider counterrevolutionary, and they routinely break up illegal associations.

``There are secret organizations of every description, established in accordance with the feudalistic, patriarchal system, and on the basis of feudalistic superstition to intimidate and deceive the masses,'' the Nanking Daily wrote last year.

News about these groups rarely appears in the Chinese press, but the revival of clan organizations that were once widespread in southern China appears to be a common threat to the party's control. Many now-prosperous families find it natural to strengthen clan ties that offer security and enrich social life.

Clan rituals once centered on ancestral halls that were converted into schools, offices, and communal living quarters in the 1950s. But ancestor worship in the form of memorial meetings and ceremonies is returning, and some officials don't consider this a violation of the party's ban on superstitious activity.

``Ancestor worship is different from religious and superstitious activity,'' says Ho Tse-jin, director of the Religious Affairs Bureau of Jiangsu Province. ``We have had this tradition from many years ago,'' he explains.

Rural temples and churches can also be active places of more conventional worhsip.

The famous Buddhist temples of the Yangtze River Valley, restored partly with state funds, are not merely tourist attractions. On weekends, tens of thousands of people throng the courtyards of Hangzhou's famous Lingyin temple, founded in AD 326, where incense burners billow perfumed smoke like industrial furnaces in full production.

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