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"After all, he will be a god one day" : religious interpretations of Mao in modern China



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In the years since Mao Zedong’s death, the people of China have been impelled to reevaluate the legacy and character of their still iconic leader. One of the more notable trends in this process of posthumous reevaluation is the tendency of some individuals and groups (most often, the rural peasantry) to interpret the deceased Chairman along “theological” lines, assuming that his still efficacious spirit will provide protection and good fortune to those who honour him.In exploring the genesis (and continued salience) of these beliefs and practices, the present research delves into popular Chinese religiosity, exploring the porosity of the traditional cosmology, the centrality of perceived spiritual efficacy (ling) in determining the popularity of religious cults, and the theological and cosmological resonances extant within traditional understandings of political leadership. The body of metaphors, narratives, and tropes drawn from this historical overview are then applied to popular characterizations of Mao, with the resulting correspondences helping to explicate the salience of these modern religious interpretations. To further investigate the source of Mao’s persistent symbolic capital, the present research also explores the role of Cultural Revolution-era ritual in valorizing and reifying the power and efficacy then popularly ascribed to the Great Helmsman’s person and teachings. This study’s conclusion, in brief, is that participants in the posthumous cult of Mao are utilizing these cultural materials in both traditional and creative ways, and that such interpretations speak to the exigencies of life in the turbulent, ideologically ambiguous culture of modern China. In performing this evaluation, the present research makes use of the standard phenomenological/historiographic approach of religious studies scholarship, though it is also informed by narrative methods, cognitive science, and current perspectives on the role and function of ritual. In particular, the analysis of Mao-era rituals (as a source of Mao’s continued symbolic potency) is performed using the cognivistic typology of ritual proposed by E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley, with additional materials drawn from the research of Catherine Bell, Roy Rappaport, Pascal Boyer and Adam Chau.



spiritual efficacy (ling) in Chinese religion, spiritual power and political leadership in China, Mao Tse-tung, cult of Mao, apotheosis of Mao, modern China, religion in China, Cultural Revolution ritual, ritual studies, Mao Zedong, diachronic study of Chinese cosmology



Master of Arts (M.A.)


Religious Studies and Anthropology


Religious Studies and Anthropology


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