Mao Zedong
Original publication:

The Overthrow of Religious Authority and the Eradication of Superstition (1927)

11 minutes | English | China

Originally section 7 (titled “Overthrowing the clan authority of the ancestral temples and clan elders, the religious authority of town and village gods, and the masculine authority of husbands”) of the Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan (1927).

Mao was 34 years old.

A man in China is usually subjected to the domination of three systems of authority:

  1. the state system (political authority), ranging from the national, provincial and county government down to that of the township;
  2. the den system (clan authority), ranging from the central ancestral temple and its branch temples down to the head of the household; and
  3. the supernatural system (religious authority), ranging from the King of Hell down to the town and village gods belonging to the nether world, and from the Emperor of Heaven down to all the various gods and spirits belonging to the celestial world.

As for women, in addition to being dominated by these three systems of authority, they are also dominated by the men (the authority of the husband).

These four authorities — political, clan, religious and masculine — are the embodiment of the whole feudal-patriarchal system and ideology, and are the four thick ropes binding the Chinese people, particularly the peasants.

How the peasants have overthrown the political authority of the landlords in the countryside has been earlier described. The political authority of the landlords is the backbone of all the other systems of authority. With that overturned, the clan authority, the religious authority and the authority of the husband all begin to totter.

Where the Peasant Association is powerful, the den elders and administrators of temple funds no longer dare oppress those lower in the clan hierarchy or embezzle clan funds. The worst clan elders and administrators, being local tyrants, have been thrown out. No one any longer dares to practice the cruel corporal and capital punishments that used to be inflicted in the ancestral temples, such as flogging, drowning and burying alive. The old rule barring women and poor people from the banquets in the ancestral temples has also been broken. The women of Paikno in Hengshan County gathered in force and swarmed into their ancestral temple, firmly planted their backsides in the seats and joined in the eating and drinking, while the venerable den bigwigs had willy-nilly to let them do as they pleased. At another place, where poor peasants had been excluded from temple banquets, a group of them flocked in and ate and drank their fill, while the local tyrants and evil gentry and other long-gowned gentlemen all took to their heels in fright. Everywhere religious authority totters as the peasant movement develops.

In many places the Peasant Associations have taken over the temples of the gods as their offices. Everywhere they advocate the appropriation of temple property in order to start peasant schools and to defray the expenses of the associations, calling it “public revenue from superstition.” In Liling County, prohibiting superstitious practices and smashing idols have become quite the fashion. In its northern districts the peasants have prohibited the incense-burning processions to propitiate the god of pestilence. There were many idols in the Taoist temple at Fupoling in Lukou, but when extra room was needed for the district headquarters of the Kuomintang, they were all piled up in a corner, big and small together, and no peasant raised any objection. Since then, sacrifices to the gods, the performance of religious rites and the offering of sacred lamps have rarely been practised when a death occurs in a family. Because the initiative in this matter was taken by the chairman of the Peasant Association, Sun Hsiao-shan, he is hated by the local Taoist priests.

In the Lungfeng Nunnery in the North Third District, the peasants and primary school teachers chopped up the wooden idols and actually used the wood to cook meat. More than thirty idols in the Tungfu Monastery in the Southern District were burned by the students and peasants together, and only two small images of Lord Pao [1] were snatched up by an old peasant who said, “Don’t commit a sin!”

In places where the power of the peasants is predominant, only the older peasants and the women still believe in the gods, the younger peasants no longer doing so. Since the latter control the associations, the overthrow of religious authority and the eradication of superstition are going on everywhere.

As to the authority of the husband, this has always been weaker among the poor peasants because, out of economic necessity, their womenfolk have to do more manual labour than the women of the richer classes and therefore have more say and greater power of decision in family matters. With the increasing bankruptcy of the rural economy in recent years, the basis for men’s domination over women has already been weakened. With the rise of the peasant movement, the women in many places have now begun to organize rural women’s associations; the opportunity has come for them to lift up their heads, and the authority of the husband is getting shakier every day.

In a word, the whole feudal-patriarchal system and ideology is tottering with the growth of the peasants’ power. At the present time, however, the peasants are concentrating on destroying the landlords’ political authority. Wherever it has been wholly destroyed, they are beginning to press their attack in the three other spheres of the clan, the gods and male domination. But such attacks have only just begun, and there can be no thorough overthrow of all three until the peasants have won complete victory in the economic struggle. Therefore, our present task is to lead the peasants to put their greatest efforts into the political struggle, so that the landlords’ authority is entirely overthrown. The economic struggle should follow immediately, so that the land problem and the other economic problems of the poor peasants may be fundamentally solved. As for the den system, superstition, and inequality between men and women, their abolition will follow as a natural consequence of victory in the political and economic struggles.

If too much of an effort is made, arbitrarily and prematurely, to abolish these things, the local tyrants and evil gentry will seize the pretext to put about such counter-revolutionary propaganda as “the Peasant Association has no piety towards ancestors,” “the Peasant Association is blasphemous and is destroying religion,” and “the Peasant Association stands for the communization of wives,” all for the purpose of undermining the peasant movement. A case in point is the recent events at Hsianghsiang in Hunan and Yanghsin in Hupeh, where the landlords exploited the opposition of some peasants to smashing idols.

It is the peasants who made the idols, and when the time comes they will cast the idols aside with their own hands; there is no need for anyone else to do it for them prematurely. The Communist Party’s propaganda policy in such matters should be, “Draw the bow without shooting, just indicate the motions.” [2] It is for the peasants themselves to cast aside the idols, pull down the temples to the martyred virgins and the arches to the chaste and faithful widows; it is wrong for anybody else to do it for them.

While I was in the countryside, I did some propaganda against superstition among the peasants. I said:

If you believe in the Eight Characters, you hope for good luck; [3] if you believe in geomancy, you hope to benefit from the location of your ancestral graves. [4]

This year, within the space of a few months, the local tyrants, evil gentry and corrupt officials have all toppled from their pedestals. Is it possible that until a few months ago they all had good luck and enjoyed the benefit of well-sited ancestral graves, while suddenly in the last few months their luck has turned and their ancestral graves have ceased to exert a beneficial influence?

The local tyrants and evil gentry jeer at your Peasant Association and say, “How odd! Today, the world is a world of committeemen. Look, you can’t even go to pass water without bumping into a committeeman!” Quite true, the towns and the villages, the trade unions and the Peasant Associations, the Kuomintang and the Communist Party, all without exception have their executive committee members — it is indeed a world of committeemen. But is this due to the Eight Characters and the location of the ancestral graves? How strange! The Eight Characters of all the poor wretches in the countryside have suddenly turned auspicious! And their ancestral graves have suddenly started exerting beneficial influences!

The gods? Worship them by all means. But if you had only Lord Kuan [5] and the Goddess of Mercy and no Peasant Association, could you have overthrown the local tyrants and evil gentry?

The gods and goddesses are indeed miserable objects. You have worshipped them for centuries, and they have not overthrown a single one of the local tyrants or evil gentry for you! Now you want to have your rent reduced. Let me ask, how will you go about it? Will you believe in the gods or in the Peasant Association?

My words made the peasants roar with laughter.

[1] Lord Pao (Pao Cheng) was prefect of Kaifeng, capital of the Northern Sung Dynasty (A.D. 960-1127). He was famous in popular legend as an upright official and a fearless, impartial judge with a knack of passing true verdicts in all the cases he tried. 

[2] This reference to archery is taken from Mencius: the expert teacher of archery draws his bow to showcase good form, but does not release the arrow. 

[3] The Eight Characters were a method of fortune-telling in China based on the examination of the two cyclic characters each for the year, month, day and hour of a person’s birth respectively. 

[4] Geomancy refers to the superstition that the location of one’s ancestors’ graves influences one’s fortune. The geomancers claim to be able to tell whether a particular site and its surroundings are auspicious. 

[5] Lord Kuan (Kuan Yu, A.D. 160-219), a warrior in the epoch of the Three Kingdoms, was widely worshipped by the Chinese as the God of Loyalty and War.