Lai Chi Tim is Professor of Daoist Studies at the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he is now serving as Director of the Centre for Studies of Daoist Culture and Associate Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies. He received his MA and PhD from the University of Chicago's Divinity School, specialising in Daoism, the history of religions, and social scientific theories of religion. He is currently working on Daoist ritual tradition, Daozang Jiyao of the Qing, and the history of Daoism in Guangdong and Hong Kong. He is the author of Daoist Temple Inscription in Guangzhou (2013); Guangdong Local Daoism: Daoist Temple, Master, and Ritual (2007); Religious Studies and Hermeneutics (2003); Hong Kong Daoism (co-author, 2009); and History and Transmission of Daoist Temple Ritual in Hong Kong (co-author, 2007). He has also edited Changes of Local Daoism in China since the 19th Century (2014), Conflict and Peace in Religions (2007), Daoism in Hong Kong and South China (2005), Daoist Studies and Chinese Religious Culture (2003), Interpretation of Hope in Chinese Religions and Christianity (2002), and Daoism and Popular Religions (1999). His major articles cover the Six Dynasties Daoism, Daoist ritual studies, and the history of Daoism in Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau, and have been published in international refereed journals.
Professor Lai Chi Tim first pointed out the importance of local temples in China. They not only enriched people's religious belief, but also had a close relation with the economy and politics in Chinese society. Different from the sacred space as defined in Western concepts, local temples in China reflected a subtle combination of sacredness and secularity. Professor Lai stated that, "although local officials and middle-class gentlemen in traditional Chinese society considered local primary schools, academies and ancestral temples as fundamental institutions for the Confucius doctrine, they did not necessarily abolish local temples for folk belief. Instead, Confucius education institutions and folk temples in China coexisted in local society with mutual growth and sharing among them, forming a rich and diverse picture that demonstrated the social order, management policy and public life shaped by the complex interaction and combination of the secular and scared world."
Professor Lai went on to introduce the development of Daoist temples in Guangzhou since the Ming and Qing dynasties through materials collected while compiling the book Daoist Temple Inscription in Guangzhou and preparing for the establishment of the Daoist Digital Museum. When inspecting the ancient Daoist temples in Guangzhou, Professor Lai often found temple inscriptions which contained important records of temple history. In addition to Guangzhou city and its suburbs, Professor Lai also explored village temples in Xiqiao (Nanhai), Huadu, Shunde, Dongguan and other areas. He discovered 121 Daoist temples in Guangzhou city and its nearby towns, together with 282 documents of temple inscriptions dated from the Song and Ming dynasties to the late Qing era. The inscriptions, among which 104 were original inscriptions discovered in field work, reflected a cultural history of Guangzhou city and its nearby towns and villages, as well as a rich history of Guangzhou temples.
Professor Lai has been studying Daoism for a long time, during which time he has switched his focus from history of Daoism to local Daoist temples. One of the reasons for this is that he wanted to understand the way Daoism exists, develops and appears in a specific region. In his opinion, "it is not accurate for some scholars today to consider the temples of the Quanzhen School (Longmen School) with their masters as the whole picture of Daoism. Studies that focus on Daoist temples and masters cannot fully explore how Daoism influences people's social life and customs broadly and permeably." He also wanted to study how Daoism was spread effectively to different regions through the large number of local temples, and the complex relations and interactions between local temples and people's Daoist beliefs. Professor Lai pointed out that, when studying the relation between Chinese village lineage and temple institutions, some scholars have regarded the development of Confucianism and local deity temples as opposed to each other, with the latter defined as heresies. The dichotomy of orthodoxy and heterodox temples served as a framework in which scholars could analyse and understand the development of Confucianism, lineages, and gentrification in the villages of Southern Guangdong during the Ming and Qing dynasties. However, Professor Lai stated that early in the mid-Ming dynasty some local officials were supporting "temples for deity worship", which implies that worship of deity and worship of people were not contradictory. Education through belief in a deity played a very important role in building a safe and harmonious environment for people. Both ancestral halls and deity temples served to provide support for harmony among people.
Professor Lai proceeded to illustrate the distribution of temples in Guangzhou using maps. He explained that in official local chronicles, maps of Guangzhou were highly political in orientation, with the government office and its affiliated institutions marked in detail for political and military purposes. Few marks of temples can be found on these maps, except those temples approved by officials for formal ceremonies. But changes took place during the reign of Daoguang. The Complete Map of Guangzhou City produced in this period was no longer drawn using the traditional Chinese map-marking method. Instead, the traffic network and the names of streets were clearly marked on the map. On another map (〈縣治附省全圖〉) — in Nanhai Xianzhi (Gazetteer of Nanhai County), edited by Pan Shangji, Deng Shixian and others in 1835 — not only were the government office and official schools of local authorities marked, but also a good number of deity temples, Daoist temples and Buddhist temples. On the Complete Map of Guangzhou City, 36 temples were marked clearly, with specific temple names, including official temples as well as the so-called "unorthodox" temples.
Besides the 36 temples marked on the Complete Map of Guangzhou City, Professor Lai also searched local chronicles and other documents, and discovered another 42 temples in Guangzhou with names and specific locations during the Daoguang reign, which means that at least 78 temples existed in Guangzhou at the time. Of these 78 temples, 36% were located in the Old Town of Guangzhou, and 32% in Xiguan. During the Qing dynasty, many important official institutions were located in the Old Town of Guangzhou, while clan associations and banks gathered at the New Town. Accordingly, most of the 28 temples in the Old Town were official temples, and a large proportion of these official temples were Guandi temples. Among the 11 Guandi temples in Guangzhou city, seven were located in the Old Town. Adding the temples that worshiped Guandi along with other deities, 11 temples in the Old Town worshiped Guandi, making up 40% of all the temples in the Old Town. Professor Lai suggested that this gathering of Guandi temples in the Old Town should be of interest to scholars, as it might provide clues to the popularity of Guandi worshipping in the Pearl River Delta since the Qing dynasty.
On the other hand, at least eight Tianhou temples and seven Beidi temples existed in Guangzhou during the Daoguang reign, making a total number of 15, which exceeds the number of 11 Guandi temples. This indicates that the worshipping of Tianhou and Beidi in Guangzhou during the Qing dynasty was very popular. Among the 15 temples that worshiped gods of water (sea), only one was located in the Old Town, at the North Gate Street, while most of the remaining temples gathered in the New Town and Lower Xiguan, where commerce and manufacturing industries had prospered since the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Beside the orthodox temples, many other folk temples for the worship of different gods existed in Guangzhou city and its suburbs. As recorded in documents, these temples were prosperous, and, especially during the days of the gods' birthday and of thanksgiving rituals, the temples were bustling with great celebration. Official chronicles often described the "unorthodox temples" that people in Guangdong worshipped as "absurd gods in Cantonese custom", but in fact a good number of temples existed in Guangzhou during the Qing dynasty, and folk belief has always been popular among people. Moreover, Professor Lai pointed out that orthodox belief was not necessarily always in conflict, contrast or opposition with folk belief. Instead, by looking carefully into each folk belief, we can understand the important religious, cultural and social roles that the large number of local temples played in the region. However, this tradition of folk belief in ancient Chinese society was forgotten later. During his research, Professor Lai discovered that in 1923, Sun Ke, the mayor of Guangzhou at the time, announced an auction of 631 temples to raise funds for the development of the new Guangzhou city. Eleven auctions were held from 29 May to 20 June 1923, which indicates again the large number of temples in Guangzhou and the important part they played in people's daily lives. At least 64 traditional temples still existed in Guangzhou in 1931, but most disappeared quickly within the next few decades, reflecting the radical change brought about by China's modernisation, and its profound impact on traditional belief.
Professor Lai concluded that local temples played a major role in spreading Daoist belief in Guangzhou from the Ming and Qing dynasties up to the nineteenth century. Through local temples, Daoism was localised and popularised, and permeated people's lives. These roles and functions of local temples should not be ignored in studies of local Daoism. Some anthropologists and historians have considered local temples simply as "folk temples", resulting in an ignorance of the close relationship between local temples and the history of Daoism and Daoist belief. In fact, deity temples and beliefs have been prevalent and broadly supported in Guangzhou from the Ming and Qing dynasties through to modern China.