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Imperial Fantasies: The Chinese Communists and Peasant Rebellions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 June 2001

David Ownby
Université de Montréal


The spectacular confrontation between the Chinese government and the Falungong spiritual movement has focused attention on the very visible conflict between state and religion in China's urban areas. Conflict and violence have also accompanied the explosion of popular religious activities in the rural areas of post-Mao China, where much of the conflict is subdued and largely invisible to the outside observer. Christians are denied the permits necessary to make “home worship” legal; popular religious temples are confiscated and occupied by authorities hungry for physical and cultural space; proselytizers seeking to spread the Word or the Way are run out of town on a rail. Other examples, however, are much more spectacular, and recall the mobilizing force enjoyed by certain religious groups in imperial times. Wu Yangming was arrested in 1995 for having founded the “Anointed King Sect” in eastern Anhui, which was to “unite the country” in its spirit (Maclean's 1996). The “Lightening from the East” sect preached the second coming of Christ as a woman, and prophesied the end of the world according to a mixture of folk Buddhist and Christian soteriological motifs (China Study Journal 1997). In the context of the group studied in this essay, the Way of the Temple of the Heavenly Immortals, a sect leader summoned village cadres to a Temple festival in 1985 and delivered—in trance—a message to village cadres:

Research Article
© 2001 Society for Comparative Study of Society and History

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In addition to the editors and the anonymous readers of Comparative Studies in Society and History, I would like to thank Timothy Cheek, Kenneth Dean, and Michael Szonyi for their valuable comments on previous drafts of this essay.