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Beyond Rational and Utilitarian Action: Moral and Emotional Giving Within Chinese Folk Religion


Despite a trend to use rational and utilitarian paradigms to interpret the revival of folk religions, other human motives need to be acknowledged. Humans do behave in their economic and spiritual self-interests. But wider social and structural factors bind people into a moral community. To obtain a broader and more nuanced interpretation of exchange relationships, we apply Marcel Mauss’ paradigm of “The Gift” to the ritual life of a Miao Tzu village (an ethnic minority of Southern China). This interpretation accounts for individual motives, such as for physical cures, healthy well-being, and favorable position in the afterlife. Simultaneously, Miao Tzu ritual life binds the community together with reciprocity to restore moral and emotional relationships. Our broader perspective aligns with David Palmer’s “religious gift economy” that legitimizes exchange relations with the supernatural as appropriate as with gifting to other humans. Maussian theory lays the foundation for understanding religion, ritual, exchange, and reciprocity in a fundamentally inclusive and holistic way in a Miao Tzu village subject to the state development program.

Rationalizing the Intangible: Non-utilitarian Approaches to Chinese Folk Religion

The underpinnings of belief among China’s ethnic minorities can be elusive, possibly because some contemporary scholars have interpreted folk religions of China in ways that emphasize rational and utilitarian action (Wu 1996; Lin 2007; Hou and Fan 2001; Chen and Liu 2012). Although this research stream provides valuable insights, an emphasis upon rationality and utility unjustly skews the lived reality as understood by peoples’ day-to-day experiences in the modernizing villages of rural China.

Critical to this trend and its pervasiveness throughout the scholarly world, French sociologist Alain Caillé (2009) has argued that since 1970, the social and political sciences have increasingly embraced theories that are based upon rational and utilitarian economic orientations. Neoclassical economics that reduces exchange relations to a Western-oriented “economic man” concept, for example, dominate business thought, although increasingly supplemented by alternative paradigms such as behavioral economics (Mullainathan and Thaler 2000).

The underlying premise of such theories is that people’s thinking and actions tend to be driven by the quest for some overtly or covertly calculated “maximization” that is designed to achieve personal goals most effectively, typically related to scarcity, desirability, and consumption (Mullainathan and Thaler 2000). Hence, society is expected to benefit from the aggregate of individuals pursuing their self-interests by simultaneously making myriads of independent economic decisions.

Theories regarding Chinese folk beliefs may often reflect this trend. Scholars examining China’s “religious revival,” for example, point to utilitarian explanations. Yang and Yang (2008) “triachromatic” theory of Chinese religion, Xiao Fengxia’s “traditional regeneration theory” (Xiao 2003), and the work of Wang Ming-Ming (2000) are all built upon a foundation of utilitarian rationalism.

Caillé (2009), well-known for his anti-utilitarianist views, believed that The Gift: Forms and Reasons for Exchange in Ancient Society provides a useful heuristic alternative to such thinking. Mauss was the nephew of Emile Durkheim, the French anthropologist/sociologist who exerted a profound influence upon British social anthropology and its emphasis upon the maintenance of social equilibrium, an aspect of social structure that expands far beyond the pursuit of an ad hoc utilitarianism. As might be expected, Mauss and his work reflect the theories developed by his uncle Emile Durkheim (1912/1995) and deal with gifts in terms of their broad roles in structuring society, not merely concerning personal instrumental goals and their self-serving implications.

Mauss’ work partly draws inspiration from Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific ([1922]1950) in an analysis of the “Kula ring,” a process that involved gifting precious objects under precarious circumstances to solidify functional and utilitarian relationships between otherwise isolated island cultures of Melanesia. Mauss also draws comparable materials largely from Native American societies of the Pacific Northwest Coast, along with glimpses of other non-industrial world cultures to deal with a broad range of motives, goals, and implications involving gift-giving that symbolize deep historical meanings unique to the reciprocating parties. He also draws comparable insights from survivals in legal codes of ancient Rome, classical Hindu culture, and Germanic, Celtic, and Chinese cultures.

Regarding the folk societies of China, non-utilitarian aspects of gift-giving, of course, are commonplace. Anheier (2014) states that emotional and moral dictates inspire many acts of kindness and gratitude pervasive within folk communities of China (and throughout the world) that construct networks of social capital. Rational and utilitarian interpretations, valid though they are within their proper context, should not draw attention away from this more vibrant reality.

Mauss (2000: 76) thus challenges the “Homo oeconomicus” thesis and refutes the assumption of a “natural economy” (2000: 5) that necessarily guides human exchange activity. An assumption of calculated self-economic interest, of course, guides planners in designing state modernization projects, such as in China’s upland ethnic minority areas. Mauss could not have anticipated the post-World War II development era nor its twenty-first century globalized successor. But The Gift can be read in relief of the structure of modern capitalist economies, which Mauss argued (2000: 76) had “made man an ‘economic animal’” (2000: 76). This makes The Gift as relevant today as it was in the post-World War I milieu when Mauss published the work, as well as to applications to folk ritual revivals in rural China. In his introduction to the 1967 Cunnison translation, British social anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard (ix) put it best by stating the underlying message of The Gift is how understanding “archaic institutions…helps us the better to understand our own, and perhaps improve them” [emphases added].Footnote 1

A more contemporary rendering of Mauss comes from French philosopher and anthropologist Marcel Hénaff (2010) who finds the work relevant across the boundaries of time. Hénaff interprets the character of gift-giving as a cultural universal; vestiges even survive in modernized economies that would presumably give little shrift to its traditional intent of obligation.Footnote 2 This begs the question, “why it no longer emerges with the same self-evident social character” (2010: 120)? Instead, contemporary gift-giving persists in the “realm of civilities” of polite norms and courtesies between individuals deemed essential for sustaining community bonds, according to Hénaff (2010: 154). The difference is the scope of ceremonial gift-giving, as the contemporary survivals “do not define society as a whole” (2010: 154).

Gifting Meets Gods: Toward an Interpretive Synthesis of Chinese Folk Religion

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the necessity of creating a much-needed synthesis about gift-giving in folk religions. To do so, the authors documented the Miao Tzu folk beliefs and actions and interpreted their ritual life through Marcel Mauss’ gift exchange theory. By doing so, the explanation becomes richer and more robust than by focusing upon one theory or reductionistic influence. The authors believe that this approach will provide methods that are more relevant to interpreting the revival and persistence of folk religions in concurrent with the contemporary Chinese government’s economic development programs designed to uplift living standards. It is anticipated that qualitative findings from this research will help to generate future quantitative hypotheses for a more comprehensive review.

The significance of this study lies in deepening a scholarly understanding of folk beliefs in establishing a moral community within the state modernizing context. Besides utility, rationality, and self-interest, villagers long to express emotion that foster human relationships as a moral community of culturally relevant social groups. By “folk religion,” the authors mean local beliefs about the supernatural, and rituals, customs, and traditions pertaining thereof, that have been passed down orally through generations of members of a particular community and practiced in community life. As these beliefs are a matter of ritual performance, they were unwritten in pre-literate societies until members may have become educated to record them for posterity, or ethnographers recorded them for cultural analysis. Even if recorded, people adhere to these beliefs and practices without reference to a scripted doctrine from an established theological authority.

We use the term “religion” broadly, following philosopher-psychologist William James’ (2002: 31, 61) admonition that it be best considered a “collective name” for the vast and sundry range of human experiences and belief systems concerning an “unseen” or supernatural order.Footnote 3 We employ the adjective “folk” to distinguish these belief systems from institutional or contemporary “world” religions that ordain a prescribed theology advanced by a professional clergy and administered by a denominational bureaucracy (Wallace 1966: 5). Despite this distinction, folk religions may borrow aspects from world religions, as our Miao Tzu analysis will show regarding karmic ideas of reincarnation.

Mauss Points Beyond a World Ruled by Market Rationality

In The Gift, Mauss (as translated into Chinese by Ji Zhe 2016, as well as in the 2000 English edition translated by W.D. Halls) discusses gift exchange and its place within society and human life.Footnote 4 Drawing upon ethnographic and historical data (that was available in the 1920s), he theorized that gifts were an organizing component within ancient civilizations. According to Mauss (2000: 5, 6), gift exchange is a “system of total services,” which encompasses the entire field of social life, including politics, economics, law, religion, and so forth, as well as personal relationships.Footnote 5 This chain of thought appears to foreshadow the essence of substantive economic anthropology (Hann 2018) that envisions economic behavior from a social context and not reducing it to the neoclassical economic paradigm (Gaffney and Harrison 1994). Polanyi’s classic The Great Transformation (1944) and other writings (1968), of course, argue that the modern industrial world is a specific economic realm where rational actions and strategic decisions (mostly reflective of the neoclassical model) dominate. Like Mauss, Polanyi and his followers go on to argue, however, that this arrangement is not an inevitable or a universal pattern and that economic relations may be embedded in cultural understandings of human relationships. This view, Polanyi termed as substantivism.

That is not to say that a system of gift-giving exchange is exclusive to market relations. Hénaff’s view (of Mauss) is that a gift-giving system is not “totalizing” (2010: 121) in terms of the only kind of exchange occurring in a society. Neither is gift-giving an evolutionary precursor to the market economy, according to this interpretation. Gift-giving—and market relations for practical effects of obtaining everyday goods—can be simultaneous between societies; or according to Hénaff (2010: 121), “one is not an alternative to another.” Indeed, Mauss (2000: 22) distinguishes the Trobrianders’ kula exchange as a privileged practice confined to chiefs. Contemporaneously, the exchange of “useful goods” occurred in the form of the gimwali, a gathering of fervent bargaining involving commoners (Mauss 2000: 22, Malinowski 1950: 189–191).Footnote 6

Although religion functions to cohere a community together, Mauss (2000: 37–39, 74, 75) recognized individuals may be motivated by self-interest to participate in a total system of services. As an example, Mauss shows that in the chiefdomship political order, the leader acts reciprocally in lavish gift-giving ceremonies to sustain his “honor” or “prestige” to secure his ranking within the community or between tribes. Yet Mauss distinguishes the quality of chiefs’ actions from a capitalist’s pure individual self-interest in that chiefs’ hoarded riches given away in gift-giving ceremonies that benefit the recipients who are later obligated to reciprocate. In contrast, the capitalist purely enriches oneself without any continued obligation whatsoever of generosity toward the economic actors making one’s wealth possible. Furthermore, the sustained self-interest of gift-giving can extend beyond the here-and-now of this material world. In analyzing the classical Hindu legal code, Mauss (2000: 56) points out that the giver can self-interestedly expect returns of the gift “in this life and the next” according to the karmic principle that obtains favorable rebirth in the afterlife.

Philip Clart (2009) pushes the Maussian theory further by suggesting it can even apply to third-party exchanges involving an anonymous recipient. Clart studied members of a Taiwanese temple who placed “morality books” (shanshu) in public spaces such as bus or railway stations, in order to promote “goodness” to the general populace. According to Clart (2009: 135), the anonymous reader reciprocates “consecutive merit” totally unaware the act will help to assure the giver’s fortunes in rebirth of the afterlife. Although the analogy may be imperfect, Clart analyzes the process according to the Maori concept of hau, roughly translated as “spirit of things” that occupies the gift (taonga), which imputes an effect on the chain of previous givers, as cited in Mauss (2000: 12). However, Clart (2009: 142) does concede the Maussian gift-giving theory would have to be “significantly adapted” to the Chinese context of contemporary religion. This inserts Clart into what Hénaff (2010: 123) depicts as “a succession of quasi-Byzantine…debates” about the meaning of hau.

Consequently, Mauss (2016) argues that giving gifts is neither purely voluntary, as it requires obligatory reciprocity, and can contain utilitarian aspects. It can best be conceptualized as a “blending.” When it comes to material gifts, their emphasis is more related to economy and utility, whereas ceremonial aspects of gift-giving tend to be related to morality and emotion (White 1994). Nevertheless, these two distinct aspects tend to be intertwined and inseparable; as a result, gift exchange can best be viewed as “mixed” (Mauss 2016). This contrasts to Hénaff’s (2010: 121) interpretation, as earlier quoted, that gift-giving is not exclusive to market relations but can be conceptually separated as distinct practices occurring between societies at the same time. The authors’ position aligns with David Palmer (2011) who argues that one must consider the multiple dimensions of gifting to avoid reducing it to a single meaning. According to Palmer, gifting may combine “altruism and self-interest, freedom and obligation in subtle and ambiguous ways” [emphases added]. Hénaff (2010: 120, 121), too, is in concert with Palmer on this point, arguing that such disparate array of dimensions calls for a cross-disciplinary analysis.

Embracing this perspective, Yongjia Liang (2018) applies gift exchange theories to analyze the revival of folk beliefs accompanying the reconstruction of a temple in rural China, arguing that the repair simultaneously contributed to the re-establishment of traditional morality, including gift-giving relationships between people and their gods. Liang states that due to this restoration, conventional aspects of moral life were reinstated. This example suggests that the quest for a righteous life (or perhaps a reclamation of conventional morality) is a fundamental reason for the revival of religion in China.

This perspective closely parallels the work of nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (Middleton 1996) who argued that without a robust dominant force providing guidance regarding what is “right” and “wrong” (roles and evaluations traditionally offered by God and religion), people will lack a moral compass. Although an atheist, Nietzsche argued that a belief in God had long served as a moral foundation within society. Nietzsche’s most famous slogan, of course, is “God is dead.” Convinced that religion was declining, he anticipated a tremendous moral void. Using similar logic (but under reverse circumstances), Liang (2018) demonstrated that villagers clamored to rehabilitate moral structures of their community by re-introducing God and religion through the reconstruction of the local temple.

While Liang (2014, 2017, 2018), as well as Zhe (2008), among others, represent a welcome emerging field of potent alternatives to utilitarian and rationalization models, they tend to overstate their cases by failing to recognize the significance of alternative views that call for a blending. In contrast, Mauss (2016) facilitated interpretations that avoided purely utilitarian, or purely moral or emotional needs, by combining relevant perspectives in a holistic accounting of gift-giving. In the process of doing so, models that combine utilitarian goals, rational calculation, moral obligation, and emotional connections present a robust means of interpreting and modeling folk beliefs.

Gods Guiding the People: Functional Morality in Folk Religion and Psychology

Faith, in general, can be considered an intellectual and emotional system that provides a foundation of belief that influences thought and action (Thouless 1974). It was Max Weber (2002), of course, who postulated the classic example in explaining the advent of capitalism to the Protestant ethic that engendered a European mindset to delay instant gratification for a later reward. Also, religions consist of various conceptions of the supernatural as embodied by a god or gods, or animist beings such as spirits, saints, angels, or ancestral spirits, in addition to required actions, ceremonial behaviors, the obligation to act in prescribed ways, and so forth. According to classic social sociological analysis (as cited by Mauss, 2016), the function of religion is, most basically, to contribute to social solidarity for the smooth and coherent functioning of social life. Mauss states that religion can serve this role in a variety of ways, including providing rules, morals, and even the justification for practical actions (or inactions).

Hénaff (2010: 152) argues further that human gift-giving is predicated on the gift coming from creation at the beginning of time given by “the ancestors and gods,” exposing a predicament of how subordinate humans can expect to reciprocate to higher powers. Nevertheless, it is this “first gift” from the supernatural and reciprocal action that is the prime mover from which subsequent earthly exchanges flow, exchanges that bond not just humans together but entrench connections to all living and inanimate nature “and the totality of the world,” according to Hénaff.

Other functions of religion, of course, are sometimes emphasized. Thus, Karl Marx (1843/1970) argued that religion is the opium of the masses, explaining that it lulls the consciousness of working classes to accept their exploitation in expectation of a reward in the afterlife. This view of religion, known as conflict theory, however, focuses upon social tensions, not positive and uniting structures. Marx argued that social conflict ultimately shapes the contours of history, and Mauss (2000: 69) did agree that individuals should protect personal and group interests against injustices of the capitalist system. However, as a social structuralist avant la lettre, Mauss analogized culture as a living organism in which all parts of the system can function in synchronization for the greater good of all. Mauss’ argument admonishes the rich of modern economic systems to bestow social generosity by advocating for economic fairness and social welfare for everyone, particularly the less endowed. Extreme tensions and rivalries found in the Marxist conflict model are not present in Mauss’ analysis.

These examples can be bolstered by William James’ views of religion (2002). Genuinely accepting peoples’ varieties of self-reported religious experiences, James observed that personal belief in something more significant and more profound (regardless of its variety) than one’s own being tends to develop attitudes, perspectives, and modes of action that are in the social interest. Having analyzed individuals’ reports of encounters with supposed supernatural entities, James argued the empirical validity cannot be necessarily refuted. However, as another matter, religion’s role in helping people to live and cope more effectively is a significant matter of substance, and it is worthy of discussion and analysis (Durkheim, 1912/1995).

James articulated nuanced dimensions of religion in what he terms “healthy-mindedness” and “sick soul” outlooks of religious practitioners. “Healthy-mindedness” refers to a positive outlook that religion engenders in the individual. The pitfall is that a cheery disposition can delude one to ignore the peril of the world’s evil. The alternative “sick soul” dimension is a state of persistent melancholy of which the adherent’s mindset is occupied with “the sense of incapacity for joyous feeling” (2002: 165). This person’s thoughts are obsessed with the dread of corruption in the world.

Philosophically, James bends toward the “sick soul” as more realistic, as the alternative “healthy-mindedness” mindset does not account for life’s misfortunes in terms of relieving “sorrow, pain, and death” (2002: 184). In this way, James argues that Christianity and Buddhism rationally embrace the “sick soul” programmatically as they offer a means to salvation from the inevitable corrupting influences upon the material world and the flesh. Or as James (2002: 184) put it, “They are essentially religions [Buddhism and Christianity] of deliverance: the man must die to an unreal life before he can be born into the real life.”

As James is a psychologist, we can understand the Miao Tzu villagers’ cognitive motivations to engage in ritual practices to harmonize their personal well-beings with the otherworldly universe to seek spiritual salvation. In contrast, the Maussian framework centering on gift-giving can explain how the aggregation of villagers’ individual motivations support the social coherence of their community. By combining the work of Mauss and James, then, a model embracing a multi-faceted linking of (1) rational/utilitarian thought and (2) moral, social, and emotional concerns can help to unite society and its people in robust and constructive ways. This paper embraces such an approach.

Participant-Observation to Lift the Spiritual Veil of Village Life

Anthropological research methods of participant-observation and in-depth interviewing were the primary tools to collect data for this project, which helped the field researchers to obtain sensory experience and to understand folk beliefs from the points of view of the Miao Tzu. An essential feature of anthropology is the holistic view of ethnographic methods, which emphasizes the comprehensive and in-depth observation of a field site rather than just certain quantitative aspects (Foster et al. 2003). Ethnography seeks to uncover meanings people attribute to their actions, rather than merely reporting quantitative frequencies of practice. Foster and colleagues state that a cultural phenomenon never exists in isolation; it must relate to other social facts in one way or another. The authors of this article think that that villagers’ beliefs are ultimately manifested in daily life, so in the specific field research, the authors paid close attention to grasping and understanding the villagers’ everyday activities to perceive the overall ritual logic of local folk beliefs.

Reaching Ritual Understandings Through Miao Tzu Adults

Field research for data collection began in the summer of 2017 after the Human Subjects Committee at Hunan Normal University approved the research proposal, and access to the Miao Tzu village was granted. Since access to the village was kept confidential, the pseudonym “The Village” is used to identify the community. A linguistic research colleague introduced the research team to villagers, who launched the investigation by interviewing elderly adults in the 70- and 80-some age ranges. From the elderly, the researchers identified 15 ritual experts, of whom 13 were interviewed. Overall, including the ritual experts, roughly 10% (n = 172) of the 1762 village members were interviewed as adult participants.

Interviewers spent time with different families, joining them for meals, or observing other aspects of their daily routines and lifestyles via unstructured and nonverbal methods. The research team observed rituals ranging from birth (sanzhao in Miao language) to funerary ceremonies, as well as healing propitiations for young family members. Through these participatory activities, researchers gradually built rapport, and villagers eventually began volunteering their help as informants.

As participants in village life, researchers literally called upon the ritual expertise of the villagers to find a student researcher’s lost notebook. An elderly villager directed her to a local expert in divination. Although skeptical of the expert’s powers, team members followed his direction to a certain villager’s home. There, the student found the notebook located on the villager’s television set. Participating in the ritual life furthered the bonds of trust as it demonstrated the researchers’ respect for Miao Tzu religious practices.

All aforementioned activities were rich experiences designed to elicit the emic and etic views of the ritual practitioners. We follow Marvin Harris’ (1968: 576) definition that the “emic” view is the informants’ “native distinctions, significances and meanings” (cf. Malinowski: 18, 19) of their cultural world, while “etic” refers to the observer’s qua researchers’ categorizations of those cultural phenomenon for ethnological comparison. Many queries were used by the researchers to avoid mistranslation and misinterpretations of the ritual meanings. Only subjects who were proficient in Mandarin were asked as research subjects. Potential subjects who were suspicious of the research purpose were excluded from the interviews as well. However, as in all aspects of qualitative research, words can be misinterpreted, and results were presented to the village at the research conclusion to obtain clarification from the villagers themselves.

Both handwritten and recording devices were used to collect data. Several smartphones were used to record the oral responses and documented the events of ritual performances. For clarity, the smartphones were assigned codes. For example, 2.1 was used as phone number 1. Once the data transcriptions were completed and entered into either Word or Excel spreadsheets, the hard copies of handwritten notes were shredded, and the voice recordings were erased. Only the authors still have possession of the Word and Excel documents.

In all, the two primary authors and four student assistants made five trips lasting 15 days or more to the village. Additionally, a student assistant spent 3 months in-residence collecting data. Upon concluding the research, the team presented the results to the villagers and obtained their approval. Even after research concluded, researchers stayed in contact by telephone with ritual experts to clarify questions.

Modernization Escaping a Village Economy

The Village is situated at the borders of Hunan and Guizhou provinces and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in south–central China. It is the only Miao Tzu village in the region and is surrounded by the Dong ethnic minority. Within The Village, community bonding is powerful; a bond of paternity and blood relationship, typical of a patrilineal kinship system, unites those with the same surname. Each clan has its own customary rules, which stipulate the rights and obligations of each member. Interactions among community members and leaders occur through the clan structure and are the primary basis of social life.

As a tradition, the village’s primary livelihood is farming. Some villagers raised poultry and grew tree seedlings in greenhouses mainly for selling for cash income. As reported by the village chief, since 1985, many individuals migrated out of the village for work in southern coastal cities in Guangdong Province and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Lacking professional skills and training, most of these migrant workers perform hard manual labor. In addition, it was stated that at least one family member in each household either had or is working in the logging industry in such coastal areas as Guangxi and Fujian. Village families’ primary source of income is the wage-earnings sent home by these manual laborers.

The central government’s recent economic reform has had limited impacts on the livelihood of the villagers. A part of the land reform has been to encourage small rural communities throughout China, such as this small village, to grow crops as commodities and to exchange them for cash in the market. The government has distributed free cash-crop seedlings and subsidized fertilizers to the farmers. As a result, almost every family is involved in such economic activities. Unfortunately, these cash crops generate a low level of income, typically less than they earned from outside of the village.

Nevertheless, people believe their lives are improving. They believe that they have more options and choices, such as working as migrants or farming at home. Besides, people are increasingly willing to invest more time and money in education, resulting in more young people receiving university degrees. Most people now believe that a college-level education, coupled with advanced training, is the proper transitional way to move from village-level poverty to economic stability for the future.

A Community with Pervasive Religious Faith

Although significant economic and cultural norms throughout China have shifted in the past few decades, folk religion and common standards among the villagers remain intact.Footnote 7 When walking into the village, their deeply religious atmosphere and symbols are immediately apparent. The main bridge entering the village is richly decorated with religious artifacts. Fairy birds (nuo in Miao language) stand on top of the bridge, and there are flower belts with names of the believers attached. The residents’ housing units are decorated with an eight-diagram mirrors hung on the gate to the house, spiritual shields are hung at the front porch, and various charms are posted on the house beams to honor their local gods. The town has a wide array of temples that further underscores their profound religious heritage and their shared cultural customs.

More importantly, while the researchers were there, activities associated with folk beliefs and religious ceremonies were performed routinely. Traditional yin and yang masters (wizards), who have distinct and complementary gender roles regarding the ritual services, dominate these activities by performing various rituals to meet the needs of residents (Feng 2018). These gendered roles are an apparent ancient tradition as reported by Ling Shun-sheng and Ruey Yi-fu among Miao peoples of Western Hunan in 1947 (as quoted in LeBar et al. 1964: 71).

The villagers honored the wizards who engage in ritual services by addressing them as “master” (xiansheng in Miao language) who play the role of shamans in the Miao society. According to the division of authority, these wizards are divided into yin masters and yang masters (Feng, 2018). Feng states that yin masters are believed to possess psychic skills, including an ability to practice zou yin: the process of entering the other world to visit gods and ghosts to diagnose peoples’ problems. Feng states further the basis of this skill. Yin masters diagnose difficult and complicated diseases. Yin masters function as “doctors in charge” to the villagers when serving in this role. In contrast, Feng states that yang masters prescribe the proper course of action and the rituals that are needed to remedy the problem that has been diagnosed. This procedure is obviously an old tradition as it corresponds to an account by Ling and Ruey in 1947, as quoted by LeBar et al. (1964: 71), “identification [of the malevolent spirit] is made by a female specialist, and the exorcism ritual carried out by a male priest.”

A Spiritual Blend of Gods, Ritual Healing, and Ancestors

In a glance, ritual beliefs and practices of the villagers can be summarized into three main categories:

  1. 1.

    First, the worship of the gods in clan-supported temples supported by clan members, which involves the gods of Feishan King. Feishan King is the main folk belief deity of Miao, Han, and Dong ethnicities in the Hunan and Guizhou provinces and thus reflects a diffusion of folk belief across cultural boundaries. Such activities are often carried out by clans, usually without ritual experts. These ceremonies focus on the family unit or specific members.

  2. 2.

    Second, individual ritual therapy, which mainly deals with various “abnormal occurrences” that local people encounter in their lives. Ritual therapy usually serves the following purposes: stop children crying at night, sudden discomfort, family troubles, and issues related to infertility or illness, and so on. Such problems usually need to be diagnosed by yin masters. The yang master performs appropriate treatments according to the yin master’s recommendations. These activities tend to be rational and utilitarian in solving immediate problems but carry broader meanings in the cosmic realm of karmic action.

  3. 3.

    Third, religious activities, which seek collective well-being for an extended kin group or the community. Such activities include burning incense and offering sacrifices at the graves of ancestors during the Qingming Tomb-Sweeping Festival. The Qingming Festival is used for temple worship, and activities honor the dead on the first day of the lunar new year. As James (2002: 184) would argue, these activities might have some rational and utilitarian functions in “deliverance” from life’s corrupting vagaries. But Maussian (and Durkheimian)-wise, they tend to enhance social solidarity in ways that promote or are consistent with emotional or moral concerns. These culturally oriented activities provide the means that people get to know each other to construct social networks upon which they call for each other for resources when needed. As such, we can specify these activities as their cultural and social capital that engender generalized reciprocity.

A comparison of the three categories is presented in Table 1. A listing of specific ceremonies is provided in Appendix A. The reader is encouraged to consult this list for more detailed insights regarding religious rites in The Village.

Table 1 A typology of rituals

Thus, religion pervades the lives of the people of The Village, and they practice a rich array of ceremonies and activities. Some of these practices have rational and utilitarian purposes, such as to source supernatural protection for the village and its residents; relieve immediate personal problems related to health, discomfort, and well-being; and maintain harmony with cosmic powers to ensure a positive reincarnation into the afterlife. As discussed earlier, assuring a favorable rebirth in the next life is a personal motivation that Mauss addressed in Hindu societies or as Mauss (2000: 56) put it, a gift [of food] given in this life “is not lost, it reproduces itself; in the next life, one finds the same thing, only it has increased.”

Other reasons for Miao Tzu participation appear to lack specific agendas, and if there is an individual motivation, it would be to maintain favorable social relationships with member villagers. As such the non-specific methods give coherence to collective relationships of family and community and build social networks for times of need. Such generalized reciprocity creates a kind of folk “insurance policy” upon which villagers draw in times of privation. Hénaff (2010: 124, 125) analyzes the Maori concept hau as the basis of such a system of open-ended delayed and continued reciprocal exchange. The point is that the “gesture of recognition” comprises “the spirit of the gift” that is more important than the gifted objects. Through supernatural character ordains mutual commitment that engages the parties into deeply bonded communities.

In sum, the aforementioned Miao Tzu practices demonstrate a multi-dimensional religious system based on indigenous concepts and centuries-old borrowing from neighboring peoples. LeBar et al. (1964: 70) describe it as “an ancient cultural complex” that even includes Taoist and Buddhist elements, as well as features of the Lolo who are a Tibeto-Burman tribe, and of Tai cultural categories.

Gifts, Goals, and Altruism

In this section, we discuss the meanings of gifts, goals, and altruism, as expressed by the villagers in their practice of a wide range of religious rituals. Rational and utilitarian motives occur along with other moral and emotional functions. Some were associated with gift-giving in ways that involve the blending discussed by Mauss (2016). Several such practices are discussed below.

When walking over rustic paths around the village, comfortable benches (deng young in Miao language) are often found in shady places. They are called “merit chairs” (shoushe in Miao language) because donors provided them to win favor with their gods. People in the community believe that by doing so, after death, the person’s soul can go positively to an afterlife or is capable of reincarnation. Like Christianity and other faiths, it is said by the practitioners that they attain salvation by going to heaven. The truly evil-doers go to hell. According to this view, most people, however, lie somewhere in the middle. A person’s good deeds accumulate a lot of merit in this life that assures a better reincarnation outcome. Because reincarnation is the most common fate, people are concerned about their future destiny. As a result, people act in this life in the hope of achieving a positive outcome at rebirth.

Also, some people in the community believe that those who have acted immorally will probably be punished later in this life. To mitigate potential suffering and misfortune while living, some people perform helpful acts such as building benches. This process is referred to by residents in The Village as “cultivating merits and virtues.” In the Buddhist world, such karmic ideas are prevalent. As Keyes (1977/1995: 117) observed in Southeast Asia, karmic beliefs “serve not only to make the world meaningful but also to define ways of acting in the world.” Later Keyes (1983: 865) argued in the Thai-Lao context of Northeastern Thailand that peasants act not only out of economic self-interest but also out of their fidelity to a “moral community” based on Theravada Buddhist precepts: “…the Buddhist villagers have a distinctive economic ethic and, thus a distinctive moral economy not because they are peasants, but because they are Buddhists who are also peasants.”

Other evidence of civic or infrastructure improvements associated with the quest for redemption also exist. When a child suddenly cries at night, such behavior is often interpreted as evidence that the child lacked sufficient merit in a previous life, which is a typical Buddhist idea based on the law of karma (Keyes 1977/1995: 117). To address this concern, ritual experts often advise the parents to set up road signs at intersections that provide useful information to both local and distant travelers. During the installation, a yang master holds an opening ceremony to involve a god. After the road marker has been put into service, those who benefited from it will help the child accumulate merits and, thereby, overcome the transgressions of an earlier life. This corresponds with Keyes’ (1977/1995: 119) observation “that merit can be made not only for oneself, through ritual and ethical acts, but that it can also be shared with others.” The typical incentive given to the yang master is the word of thanks and a small monetary donation of RMB10-20, which equates to USD 1.5–3.

Similarly, when a couple suffers infertility problems in bearing children, it is often thought to result from a lack of virtue. Under these circumstances, ritual experts might suggest that a “merit chair” be placed in the shade so tired pedestrians can rest and cool down. The placement of merit chairs requires the aid of a religious leader who embodies a secular object (the chair) with sacredness so it can mitigate the negative ramifications of the couple’s past deeds. The well-placed merit chair not only improves the quality of life of the tired pedestrians, but it also simultaneously accumulates merit for the people who provided it. The belief is that as more people benefit from the chair, the woman will have a higher probability of becoming pregnant.

These actions go beyond merely appealing for cosmic influences to intervene in one’s affairs. In the Miao Tzu world view, the path to salvation is in obtaining merit, which is ensconced in reciprocal actions expressed by generosity and kindness to others. Such beliefs transform any semblance of self-serving tendencies into the altruistic act. The transformations have strong social significance. Specific rational and utilitarian goals exist, but the emphasis is upon the broader community and providing service to it. Thus, blending community cooperation occurs.

In summary, although such actions possess rational and utilitarian components, they transcend these narrow goals by emphasizing moral action and obligations to others. A three-dimensional interaction emerges between (1) human beings to God, (2) God to human beings, and (3) human beings to each other.

Applying Mauss to Gifting to Gods

A significant proportion of villagers stated that those who sponsor a road sign or a bench do not expect rewards from those they serve. Instead, they seek the favor of cosmic powers, which confers merit after altruistic deeds have been performed. Religious and spiritual beliefs play a major role in the lives of many individuals (Kalu 2019). Mauss (2000: 14–17) does suggest that human gift-giving to supernatural forces is a line of inquiry that needs further development. Mauss acknowledges some examples of ritual actions termed “contract sacrifice,” which Northeast Asian people perform to gods to ensure future prosperous hunting and to solidify honorific titles in a parallel spiritual realm. This raises the question whether the Maussian theory can be applied to individual action such as merit-making without effect across the wider social spectrum of groups, clans, and tribes. Additionally, does Maussian analysis apply to The Village’s collective of anonymous recipients who are unaware that resting on a bench or getting directions from a road sign is benefitting the position of the giver’s status in the afterlife?

The answer to the two aforementioned questions lay with the gods. The situation so described in The Village corresponds to what David Palmer (2011) theorizes as a “religious gift economy” involving a continuity of exchange between humans as sanctioned by supernatural/cosmic forces such as gods or karmic belief. The gods or karmic principles represent kinds of third parties that bestow benefits to the giver without any obligation expected of the ultimate earthly recipient of the good deed, that is, from travelers who rest on merit benches or benefit from directions of road signs. Palmer distinguishes this form of gift-giving from classic Maussian two-party group exchange—kula ring or potlatch—which does not involve direct supernatural interactions.Footnote 8 Furthermore, in The Village case, there may be no direct contact between giver and human recipient, although the latter may happen to express generosity, if aware, for kindness given. To the extent that one can accept belief in supernatural/cosmic forces, this circumstance squares with what Maurice Godelier (2001: 239) describes as “a self-interested form of gift-giving” in which the giver expects a return obligatory benefit in response to doing a good deed. In any event, Palmer (2011) explains the “giver need not expect anything in return from the actual [human] receiver,” and the “third partner opens the way for charity and other forms of religious altruism.”

In Hénaff’s (2010: 140, 141) view, this sort of three-party exchange could not be considered Maussian, as the ultimate recipient, the traveler benefitting from a bench or road sign, does not knowingly reciprocate to the giver, and neither does the act apparently forge a social bond between communities. Instead, the exchange elaborated by Mauss envisions a public event that christens recognition and alliance between groups. Nevertheless, the fact that an avenue for public generosity is opened to travelers takes us back to Hénaff’s (2010: 152) exposition of the “first gift” given by the gods, which serves as a prime mover of bonding between all people, non-human beings, and elements of nature in the “totality of the world.”

In our view, the religious gift economy is an elaboration of the Maussian model that is apt to the circumstances of the Miao Tzu village. The yin and yang masters are nodes of the cult that intercede between the villager and the gods, who suggest a gratuitous act for favors granted. The villager gains merit at two levels, one in building a bench or making a sign and, secondly, when such objects are used by the public, which generates continued merit with time. In this way, the yin and yang masters also maintain their status and function to bring to bear their healing skills for the entire village.

That gift-giving to a third party opens “the way for charity and…religious altruism” (Palmer 2011) lays the foundation for a moral community in which villagers are united by a collective belief in merit for kind acts. In this way, people are motivated to maintain a right relationship with the gods, spiritual forces, or cosmos, a relationship which creates harmony among villagers, with the recipients of kind acts, as well as its implications for the villagers’ fate in the afterlife. Both Palmer (2011) and Liang (2014:427) emphasize the Maussian concept that equates to postponed gratification, or expectation that reciprocal exchange will come at some future time. Liang (2014) relates the moral community to Chinese villagers’ temple construction dedicated to the God of Exam Success.

Across the spectrum of supernatural observances in The Village, we find a total field of integrated religious experiences similar to what Stanley Tambiah (1970) reported in the Isan region of Thailand regarding spirit cults among Buddhist devotees.Footnote 9 The total religious field in The Village consists of merit-making, taken together with rituals to the god Feishan King in clan-supported temples, and kin group ancestral veneration. The combination of these activities, as depicted in Table 1, bind villagers in a perpetual cycle of gratitude to the supernatural powers-that-be for collective benefits that protect the village and kin groups and for granting individual petitions. This ritual synergy of and between parties—human actors and non-human forces of the cosmos—exemplifies Palmer’s religious gift economy.

What was found from The Village is like the Mauss (2016) argument that gift-giving involves a blending of various rational/utilitarian, emotional, and moral aspects. In the examples discussed above, rational/utilitarian goals are blended with moralistic behaviors and actions that have an overall beneficial effect on the community and with outsiders who engage with it. The people benefit not only in this life and the afterlife, but the village collectively gains from supernatural protections, and kin groups are aided by ancestors.

Eating Red (Put): an Emotional Example of Gifting

Villagers demonstrate the collective emotional and social aspects of gift-giving through an important tradition known as “Eating Red” or Put, which involves specially prepared banquets that adult villagers are obligated to attend. Put refers to a required process of eating sacred food in a conventional manner that has a reciprocal social context between villagers and ritual specialists and the gods. The feast exemplifies Palmer’s religious gift economy and Liang’s (2014: 428) moral community “enacted through veneration by which everyone cares for everyone else.”

Eating Red is the culmination of gifting reciprocity after a significant religious ceremony, and it requires two customary elements. The first must involve the host family inviting one or more ritual experts who had performed a ceremony for the family’s benefit. The second involves the choice of location of the ritual. If it is in response to a minor issue, such as a crying baby, then the Eating Red takes place at the host’s residence. In the case of more critical family issues, such as the passing of a loved one, the Eating Red must be performed at the ritual expert’s house. A typology of different circumstances to Eating Red events is provided in Appendix B.

The villagers believe that human foods are sacred; therefore, they are obligated to be shared. This approximates Mauss’ (2000: 10) “spirit of the thing given,” in which the gift embodies supernatural forces that endow blessings to the participating parties. Once meals are consumed, the sharing process can confer health to the guests; in turn, the process bestows prosperity to the host family. Inviting people to “Eating Red,” therefore, is a process of sharing joy and luck with relatives and friends with reciprocal consequences. Doing so can also multiply the blessings of the gods to more people, an action that helps accumulate merit and virtue for the hosts, again an exemplification of Palmer’s religious gift economy.

Guests attending these events not only gain luck for themselves but they also “do good” for the host. In other words, without guests, the host necessarily cannot be reciprocated with merit for doing a good deed. Only by guests’ attendance will the host’s good will be realized in a pragmatic way. Food sharing and participation are the liaisons that mitigate the punishments for past negative deeds and can portend a prosperous future. A case study is presented below to illustrate the good deeds of “Eating Red.”

Eating Red (Put) to Honor a Spiritual Master

As stated above, this particular Eating Red event was a critical one; in turn, it was performed by one of the most acclaimed ritual experts of The Village. This Eating Red event was held at the home of Master Long (pseudonym), one of the 15 ritual experts on August 3, 2018. The event was held immediately after death rituals were completed for an older man who recently passed. Before the banquet was held, the ritual expert set the proper gifting protocol. Following the usual etiquette, before the dinner, the host family sent two relatives of the household to Master Long’s house. The relatives took with them a pig’s head, several kilograms of meat, a chicken, a bucket of wine, and some other amenities to show their respects to Master Long and to thank him for his efforts involving the ceremonies performed for their deceased loved one. The relatives also informed Master Long of the intended dinner and asked him to invite his family and other relatives to join the family for the evening.

Before dinner, together with the host family, Master Long invited his friends to help with the cooking process and called and informed all other relatives along with Master Long’s relatives to the dinner. Although the Eating Red was taking place at Master Long’s residence, the sponsor’s mother and uncle were busy butchering chickens and ducks. Master Long’s friends in the kitchen were handling the dishes delivered by the sponsor, while Master Long himself was preparing tributes for his ancestors.

Before the Eating Red began, the ritual expert performed his usual duties; afterward, the banquet officially began. Master Long and his relatives and friends took the lead in saluting the host of the banquet. After the host had finished his wine, Master Long was greeted with a toast. When the food and wine had been consumed, the sponsoring family completed additional tasks to thank Master Long for his ritual performances at the passing of their elder and for allowing the host family to hold the Eating Red at his house. The host family also gave Master Long a small monetary value for his service.

The dinner was completed with joy and conviviality. Everyone talked and laughed, and the guests and hosts were polite and respectful of each other. The guests thanked the host for his kind invitation, praised the cook’s cooking skills, and so forth.

Based on this case study, three conclusions were observed: (1) sharing food enhances affectations among the villagers, (2) community gathering strengthens the identity of the residential clan, and (3) the ritual practice consolidated their collective consciousness and enhanced social solidarity. These three observations support Mauss’ statement about the emotional rational and utilitarian pursuit. Mauss (2000:71) states:

Thus, from one extreme of human evolution to the other, there are no two kinds of wisdom. Therefore let us adopt as the principle of our life what has always been a principle of action and will always be so: to emerge from self, to give, freely and obligatorily. We run no risk of disappointment. A fine Maori proverb runs:

Ko Maru kai atu

Ko maru kai mai

Ka nghoe

“Give as much as you take, all shall be very well.”

Transcending Tit-for-Tat: Multi-faceted Interpretations of Ritual Behavior

The total field of religious activities we report from The Village, and, especially when practiced by ethnic minority groups, is often interpreted as utilitarian behavior that benefits the practitioners in some self-interested tangible way. Thus, the interaction between believers and supernatural forces is often conceived as an economic transaction (Stark and Roger 2004) in which believers “bribe” the supernatural who grant individual benefits such as health, wealth, and success. This narrow and one-dimensional utilitarian interpretation ignores the structural significance of villagers living in a moral community embedded with social roles, faith obligations, and cultural context. The simplistic and reductionistic result is an incomplete interpretation that misconstrues villagers’ relationships based upon purely Western cultural assumptions.

Findings from this small-scale research do provide evidence of both rationalization and utilitarian aspects of folk religion. But as the study demonstrates, individual propitiations to gods serve to link people in ways that have high moral significance. Thus, both individual worship and collective activities build and maintain the connections between people and groups that contribute to social solidarity, doing so has both emotional and moral aspects. The evidence from the village soundly squares with Fei’s (1992: 72) explication that morality sanctions “established social norms in order to maintain the existence and continuity of the society.”

Yan Yunxiang (1996) is among other Chinese scholars, such as Fei Xiaotong (1992: 73–76) and Mayfair Mei-hui Yang (1994: 67–72) to name a few, to expound upon the relationship between the Chinese concept of ren qing and gift exchange. Ren qing equates to generalized reciprocity or an open-ended relationship of exchange based on friendship and social relationships. Ren qing is an ancient concept, explicated in Confucian discourse, that integrates the moral features, or “ethical qualities,” that one applies situationally to close relationships (Fei 75, 76). Yang (67–69) explicates a more contemporary meaning of ren qing from her fieldwork sources as (1) fundamental feelings of humanity separating people from beasts, (2) the proper conduct accorded to persons of status or with which one shares deep personal emotional affect, and (3) a long-lasting indebtedness to those with which one shares enduring personal bonds, such as family, kinfolk, co-workers, or colleagues. In contrast, Yan believed that ren qing included personal interest among three intertwined dimensions that cannot be separated: (1) rational calculation, (2) moral obligation, and (3) emotional connection. In his writing, Yan states that human relations are the pronoun of “gift exchange,” which has been employed among Chinese anthropologists.

We concede that the Han concept of ren qing may be imperfectly applied to the non-Han ethnic minorities such as the Miao Tzu. However, the dimensions explicated by Yan and Yang give us a heuristic device to analyze folk beliefs and related traditions of gift exchange across proximate societies sharing certain cultural beliefs. Doing so avoids oversimplification that is inconsistent with the wealth of social science scholarship of multiple ethnic societies in China.

Clarion Call for Holistic Approaches to the Holy

When focusing exclusively upon rational and utilitarian aspects of human life—more importantly among ethnic minorities in China—it becomes easy to ignore their moral, ethical, and affective structural significance to rural societies. Such studies impose an outsiders’ belief system qua Western individualistic assumptions without reference to the cultural explanations given by the research subjects themselves. We seem to have come no further from Fei’s (1992: 64, 65) immediate post-World War II admonition to avoid applying Western universal moral assumptions to a Chinese cultural context that underscores the contingencies of personal relationships. In contrast, the anthropological approach champions the emic view that Fei (6, 7) inherited from Malinowski (1950) and later amplified as “thick description” by Clifford Geertz (1973). We need to build on Fei’s legacy to conduct more in-depth quantitative and qualitative studies needed to fully understand the meanings that ethnic minorities in China bring to rituals, gift-giving, and faith to mediate their indigenous conceptions of past lives, their current living conditions, and future prospects. Furthermore, we need to document the nuanced understandings of folk religion that distinguish ethnic minorities from majority Han cultures.

Our analytical model combines relevant aspects of Marcel Mauss’ perspectives of gift-giving with American psychologist William James’ theory of religion and furthering it with Hénaff’s contributions to the subject. Mauss emphasized social structures and social solidarity, which have implications that expand beyond narrow, ad hoc, and individualistic interpretations. As a result, the Maussian model points to more collective roles of gift-giving and does so in broad and multi-faceted ways. William James (2002), in contrast, views the roles of religious beliefs within the psychological life of individuals that aggregate to motivate the collective consciousness of groups. Combining these two perspectives provides a more satisfying means of viewing gifts, in general, as well as how they function within a religious context, as exhibited by a Miao Tzu village in southwestern China. Furthermore, the ethnographic approach considers the meanings underpinning religious behaviors important to the Miao Tzu and expands upon our understanding of their world view.

The analysis suggests that folk beliefs and religious practices possess at least three intersecting dimensions, including (1) rational/utilitarian calculation, (2) moral obligations that strengthen community ties, and (3) emotional connections through social networks, all of which demand a holistic analysis. Complexities can arise because the power of these dimensions and their roles vary, depending upon the circumstances and the specific religious practice being performed, even though each aspect tends to be present to some degree. This was demonstrated by comparing a variety of rituals within the village. Thus, consistent with the perspectives of Mauss and James, a blending takes place, although the mixtures vary with the circumstance, we nevertheless obtain a more satisfying analysis of Miao Tzu religious life.

As Mauss (2016) suggested, gifts and gift-giving are complex behaviors that blend a variety of motives and underpinnings. Parents who place road markers to calm children who cry at night are simultaneously serving travelers who need to know where they are. Similarly, a couple who donate a bench for weary travelers seeking respite may be simultaneously hoping to start a family to perpetuate the lineage and its clan functions. So envisioned, gift exchange between people and the assumed supernatural forces has rational and calculated components. Still, it is blended with emotional and moral content that involves altruism and generosity to travelers who may be entirely unknown to the sponsor. In other words, such examples of gift-giving include both a sacred exchange with forces in the cosmos and social exchanges between people. Ad hoc goals are pursued; social relations and unity are enhanced, as the moral order is reinforced. These roles transcend pure rational and utilitarian individualism by incorporating social aspects of life and encouraging its moral and emotional elements.

Current religious revivals have provided means of more effectively dealing with the broader dimensions of life’s everyday challenges. Our findings are not unique as they blend with experiences reported elsewhere in China, for example, Mayfair Mei-hui Yang (2004), Richard Madsen (2010) regarding Christianity, Vincent Goossaert and David Palmer (2011), and Liang (2014, 2017 and 2018) among copious other research to name a few. As a result, the emerging consensus of research shows people increasingly embrace traditions contemporaneously with the state economic “modernization” project. Because this religious lore is a part of established folk heritage, the people apparently see no contradiction between economic development and folk practices. The people feel comfortable with folk religion and possess an understanding of how it operates. As a result, people are increasingly practicing traditional religious customs in more overt ways by an increased number of ethnic minorities in China.

Hénaff would argue that a Maussian analysis would only apply to exchange between disparate groups seeking recognition for alliance. In the Miao Tzu, we find a Maussian semblance that emphasizes the meaning of the gesture, or “spirit of the gift” that permeates exchanges between people (Hénaff: 125) albeit within a village context. The spirit of giving undergirds a system of generalized reciprocity that cannot be replicated by commercial exchanges requisite of economic modernization.

Finally, considering the religious economy studied by Palmer (2011), this study has proposed religious morality as another approach to study the subject of folk religion. It is suggested that as part of local culture, folk belief can play a decisive role in the process of social and economic development. Despite the central government’s attempt to develop the Miao Tzu economy through the introduction of scientific farming methods, the folk religion fills a “void” to quote Robert Hefner (2010:1043) that the modernization project cannot provide. As Hefner (2010:1043) argues: “The example reminds us that in eastern Asia, as in much of the world, domination in the market and state does not guarantee hegemony in the lifeworld and moral imaginaries of ordinary people.” In other words, folk religious practice is not antithetical to modernization, but people themselves embrace these rituals as part of the process to improving the quality of their lives regardless of any deliverable economic metrics.

Villagers’ fear of the outcomes of their transgressions in the context of a village moral order rises to a kind of self-imposed moral restraint. The limitations of this study demand specific details on the extent of our arguments across the Miao Tzu cultural terrain. A future study should further probe the significance of folk beliefs in surrounding villages so that a more comprehensive analysis can be made to support the perspective given here.


  1. 1.

    In the foreword in the Mauss (2000: xv) translation, Mary Douglas argues Mauss’ attempt to apply gift-giving to industrial societies falls “weak” on grounds that social democratic political institutions “lack any power mutually to obligate persons in a contest of honor.”.

  2. 2.

    As an example of its ubiquity, historian Richard White (1991) documents gift-giving as central to forging military and trading alliances in the negotiable “middle ground” between Algonquian-speaking Indians and the French colonial government in the Great Lakes region of North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

  3. 3.

    James’ lectures (2002) given at Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902, and referenced in this article, largely concerned Christianity, and to some extent Buddhism, but his emphasis on religious experiences leaves room for applying it to folk societies.

  4. 4.

    In the interest of judging the consistency of the Ji Zhe translation commonly available in China, the authors have also consulted one of the more recent English translations of W.D. Halls.

  5. 5.

    Hénaff (2010: 117) submits “total social fact” as translation of “total services” as quoted in W.D. Mauss 2000 version. Hénaff points out his own and Mauss’ concern about the “inadequacy of these categories” in representing the social facts they purport to describe. Hénaff (2010: 129) even proffers that Mauss’ use of the term gift (French: le don) is problematic and equivocal in meaning.

  6. 6.

    We note Mauss (2000: 22) seems to express an ambiguity of the nature of the exchange involved in kula, as he refers to it as “trade,” which under other circumstances, would imply a commercial relationship without the obligatory condition between parties.

  7. 7.

    Chinese religions scholar Peter Tze Minh Ng estimates 95% of the national population practice some form of religion ranging from local folk practices to major denominational sects (as quoted in Madsen 2010:239).

  8. 8.

    Although Hénaff (2010: 152) doubts gift exchange could serve economic purposes in the context of human exchange, he does not address the possibility of a gift economy between humans and the supernatural.

  9. 9.

    We recognize an imperfect comparison to Tambiah’s study as he investigated the contradiction between doctrinaire Theravada Buddhism and folk religion. Our study involved various strands of pure folk belief, which taken together—like Tambiah’s argument—integrate peoples’ material and eternal concerns.


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Appendix A


Table 2 Typology of Religious Rituals


Appendix B


Table 3 Varieties of “Eating Red” Dinner (Put)


Appendix C Narrative Description Regarding Eating Red (Put).

The rituals in Appendix B are very elaborate, and beyond the scope of this paper, so we only provided a brief introduction where necessary.

Usually, for rituals # 1 through 5 listed in Appendix B, the host family needs to (1) pay the ritual experts certain amount of money and (2) provide a certain amount of food for ritual experts and guests’ consumption, which usually includes a pig head, a bucket of wine, a chicken, a few kilograms of rice and several kilograms of meat, which are generally sacrificed to the gods in the rituals. In short, the food contributed must meet the needs of ritual experts. The food is usually delivered to the ritual expert’s house by the host or by members of the host family on the morning of the second day after the ritual. Participation in the “Eating Red” dinner is not exclusive to ritual expert but includes guests from associated families or kin folk.

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Weihua, T., Chun, L., Zolvinski, S. et al. Beyond Rational and Utilitarian Action: Moral and Emotional Giving Within Chinese Folk Religion. Soc 58, 365–379 (2021).

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  • Folk religion
  • Gift-giving
  • Morality
  • Utilitarian
  • Ethnic minorities