Benzhuism of Bai Ethnic Group
Worship of the Communal Gods or Benzhuism (Benzhu)
The worship of the communal gods is a sort of religion peculiar to the Bai nationality. In the Bai language, the communal gods are also named as “Wuzeng,” or “Laogu (ancestors),” or “Laotai (ancestress).” In some places, there are also names like “Wuzengni,” “Zengni” and “Dongbo,” which have some meaning of ancestor or master. However, their worship is not simply ancestry worship, but is generally regarded as a form of worship that derives from the communal gods worship and farming sacrifice in primitive societies. It has already been formed in the Nanzhao period and had become a religion of great importance in both the Nanzhao and the Dali period for the Bai people. After hundreds of years of further development, the number of the communal gods has increased a lot. With richer cultural ingredients, the worship of the communal gods has come into its present form.
To the Bai people, the communal gods perform different social functions: they protect the local village, take charge of the destiny of the local people, maintain people’s happiness and plentiful harvests, and keep the health and thriving of domestic animal. In every Bai village, there are one or more shrines for their communal gods, whose clay or wooden figures are worshipped there. According to a census in 1990, there are altogether 986 shrines in Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture.
The worship of the communal gods is a sort of polytheism. Every village has its own communal gods; sometimes however, several or even tens of villages share a common communal god. The communal gods are in charge of different domains: some are in charge the business of “the infernal world,” some of the human world, some of the army of “the infernal world,” some of illnesses and diseases, some of domestic animals, and so on so forth. The communal gods can be divided into the following types:
Natural objects such as stone, tree blotch, water buffalo, monkey, and white camel;
Deities such as the god of mountains, the god of harvest, the god of hunting, the dragon king, and the god of the sun;
Heroes such as Du Chaoxuan, Duan Chicheng and Madam Bai Jie;
Characters in folk legend such as the Dali Nanmen communal god;
Kings and princes, generals and ministers, and ancestors such as Nanzhao, the King Nuluo and the senior general Ge Luofeng of Dali kingdom;
People of other nationalities such as Zheng Hui and Du Guangting;
Gods of Buddhism and Taoism, such as Kwan-yin, Guan Yu, and Li Jing.
As a matter of fact, every communal god has his own title and oral or written legend stories.
The communal gods worship of the Bai people has two basic characteristics:
First, it is a sort of polytheism centered on the communal god. The communal god is the main subject of worship and other subsidiary gods as less important subjects. The subsidiary gods also have their special religious functions. For instance, the Offspring-offering Mother gives sons and heirs to a family; the god of fortune is in charge of wealth; and the dragon king is responsible for rainfalls. The powers of subsidiary gods are effective supplementary to those of the main god. This combination meets the spiritual needs of the Bai people and shows their practical motives of religious worship.
The second feature is that most of the worshipped gods are ancestors, or those who have done good to the people or promoted the development of their national society, economy and culture, or those who are set as moral examples.
The worship of the communal gods has the basic characteristics of a religion and the rudiments of most religious organization. There are many manifestations. First, nearly all people of the Bai ethnic group believe in some communal gods, and very few do not. Second, every village has its fixed shrines and figures of gods for worship. The shrines are often independent buildings, which are grand in size and splendid in style. Third, there are people or organizations that are specially assigned to the supervision of public worship rituals. Fourth, beside frequent individual worship rituals, every year there are two temple fairs with a set of fixed rituals: one in Spring Festival to welcome or see off the communal god, the other to celebrate the birthday of the god, or the day of his or her passing away. Fifth, there are worship rituals, the Volume of The communal Gods, and a set of commandments and moral principles, such as loyalty to the nation, finial piety, respect for the old and affection for the young, hardworking and no misdoing.
In the two important worship ceremonies, every villager, man or woman, old or young, is dressed up. They kill swine and chicken, play dragon and lion rituals, burn incense and paper, and light firecrackers, to worship of the communal god, and bid him to drive away the ghosts and the evil, eliminate disasters, and maintain the peace of the country and the people.
Intertwined with their politics, history, philosophy, production, daily life, culture and art, and customs, the worship of the communal gods is deeply rooted in thoughts and consciousness of the Bai people. It has already become a colorful culture form peculiar to the Bai people.