Benzhuism of Bai Ethnic Minority

Benzhuism (Chinese: 本主教; literally: “religion of the patrons”) is the indigenous religion of the Bai people, which consists in the worship of the ngel zex, the Bai word for “patrons” or “lords”, rendered as benzhu (本主) in Chinese, that are local gods and deified ancestors of the Bai people. It is very similar to common Chinese religion. While many of the Bai are Buddhists, the local government of China has recently helped the revival of the Benzhu ethnic religion, for example through the promotion of the Gwer Sa La festival.

Though its popularity has waned throughout the years, it has recently made a comeback and, according to a census done in 1990, there were approximately 986 Benzhu shrines in Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture alone. Every Bai village has its own pantheon of gods which has formed throughout its existence, incorporating its history in deifying virtuous leaders, warriors, and heroes. These deities, who are tied to the immediate surroundings, protect the people against sickness and violence, foster local economy, and grant prosperity.

Generally, one village enshrines one benzhu, and there are also cases of multiple villages consecrated to the same benzhu. In every village around Erhai Lake the local people have developed a peculiar mythology about their local lord, differing from that of neighboring villages. This tradition is similar to that of the City God Temple of Chinese religion. Other benzhu are gods of the generation of the local place.These include 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 villagers believe that the benzhu protects their village and passes on their wishes to the heavens, effectively acting as an intermediary between heaven and earth. These gods are always historical heroes, warriors, sages, leaders, or ancestors that have some sort of link to the village they protect and have been deified. For example, according to legend, the royal Duan family came from Qingdong village near Xizhou and thus their local benzhu is Duan Siping, the founder of the Dali Kingdom.

The mythology surrounding each benzhu is wonderfully rich, as every one of them will have a magnificent story to justify their position as a god. They have considerable power and are able to protect crops and livestock, dispel illness, and bring prosperity to the villagers. Whenever a member of the community is born, is sick, dies, or gets married, the villagers will perform certain ceremonies at the Benzhu Temple.

Some scholars believe that Benzhuism was the Bai people’s way of reinforcing their entitlement to certain territories. By worshipping a historical figure who first settled the area or who saved it during some kind of catastrophe, they emphasised their right as the historical figure’s descendants to inhabit that area.

The Nama branch of Bai people, who live near the Lancang River, have preserved the cult of the white stones, which they are believed to have inherited from the ancient Qiang people. However, the origins of these beliefs aren’t entirely clear. Some believe these stones are the sacred bones of their ancestors, while others think they are demons’ bones that are too dangerous to be moved, and still others feel they are symbolic of the Fire God, a deity worshipped throughout China.

They also believe in the cult of the celestial ox, which is a godlike animal that has the power to protect the village, prevent disasters, and benefit the growth of crops and livestock. They believe that this ox, like the benzhu, can act as an intermediary between gods and men. The Nama perform a ritual sacrifice during the 6th lunar month of each year whereby they transform a regular ox into a celestial one, “help” the ox reach the heavens by sacrificing it and beseech it to present their entreaties to the gods. That being said, I can’t imagine the ox is too keen to help them after they’ve just killed it!

Sometime during the 18th century, Benzhuism was introduced to the Nama and intermingled with their religious beliefs, which is evidenced by the images of the celestial ox that can still be found in their Benzhu Temples. The term “nama” means “tiger” in their language, as the Nama people believe that they are descended from tigers and so worship the Mother Tigress as their ancestral benzhu.