Benzhu religion of the Bai

 

The Bai spiritual tradition consists of a set of syncretic beliefs, imbued with a strong local flavor, represented by the Benzhu or Local Lords/Gods tradition.

Most of the Bai have believed in Buddhism since the 7th century. In fact, Guanyin, the Buddhist bodhisattva of mercy, plays an important role in the oldest myths of the Bai. Chinese influence is also manifest in the importance that Daoism and Confucianism have among them. It is very common to find Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian and Benzhu temples or shrines within a single Bai village, or even within a single temple complex.

This last tradition, the Benzhu (translated as the Local Lords/Gods) religion is the most characteristic of the Bai people. It coexists with the Chinese religions, but its importance in the collective life of the people is much larger and unique to the Bai.

The Benzhu or Local Lords/Gods religion is by far the most extensive spiritual tradition among the Bai and is one of their most unique characteristics. A fascinating amalgamation of history, fable and devotion, each village has its own god, who receives the worship of the people, and who protects them. In general these gods are historical heroes, warriors, sages or popular leaders, deified. Thus we refer to Benzhu as the Local Lords/Gods tradition. They are both. It is believed that they are able to protect crops and livestock, to avert illness, and to bring peace and prosperity to the village. Because of this they are honored before any important event.

The Benzhu religion preserves the memory of numerous legends and mythological characters associated with these legends, as well as what were probably historical figures. In every village around Erhai Lake the Bai people have developed a singular mythology around their own Local Lord, a mythology completely different from that of neighboring villages. This is a system similar to that of the City Gods Temples (chenghuangmiao in Chinese), common to every Chinese city until 1949 and maybe, in turn, similar to the function served by the Buddhist lohans (skt. avatar), the semi-enlightened beings portrayed in statues that adorn the walls of many Chinese Buddhist temples.

In the more remote places there are still vestiges of Bai primitive animism. It is not difficult to find places where different gods are honored, such as the God of the Mountain, the God of the Crops, the God of the Hunt, the Dragon King or the Mother Goddess of the Dragon King. The Bai believe that spirits can cause illness, but can also protect them.
In some of the villages there are female shamans, sometimes with enough power to enter into trance, who still play an important role in the spiritual life of Bai villages.

The Nama branch of the Bai, which live near the Mekong River, still preserve the cult to the white stone. This cult relates the Nama culture and religion to that of other peoples living further north, as this is a common cult among those minorities that descend from the old Qiang nationality. The Nama themselves don't know very well why the white stone is important, some of them attribute its sanctity to be the ancestors' bones that should not be moved, others say that they are demons' bones, dangerous of being moved, others talk of vague legends where the goats become stones; and other more say that the white stones are a representation of the Fire God, a deity worshipped around China.

The Bai believe that the soul does not die with the body, but rather goes to the Kingdom of the Shades. To send it there, after the death of a person they perform numerous ceremonies.

For the Bai the number 6 is the most auspicious.

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