2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

Praying for A Revelation: The Mental Universe of Song Examination Candidates

Hsien-huei Liao

Department of History, National Chi Nan University

This study explores the complex interactions between the Confucian-educated elite and popular religion during the Song period. First, I argue that the examinees’ resort to local deities not only revealed the pressures resulting from the increasingly competitive examinations, but it also demonstrated the power of popular religion in infiltrating the mental universe of the Song elite. In contrast to prevailing views, I suggest that the examinees’ appeals to local deities were not entirely subjective choices. The divine power of local deities and reputation for efficacy also helped convince examinees to pay close attention to them. Second, I maintain that through their appeals to local deities, examinees not only became major worshipers and patrons of certain local cults, but they also played an important role in the evolution of popular religion. Their worship of local deities suggests that popular cults were not confined to commoners, but open to and recognized by the literati as well. As well, literati patronage of local deities significantly contributed to the growth of popular religion in many respects. This growth manifested itself in the enlargement of the divine territory of certain deities, the dissemination of the lore of the gods and their miracles, the increase in the number of worshipers, and the genesis of cults specifically devoted to patronage of literary pursuits and examination success. By stressing the impact of examinees on the evolution of popular religion, this argument modifies the current consensus that the nationwide commercial network and increasingly mobile merchants were the keys to the proliferation of popular religion during the Song.


Keywords: Civil Service Examinations, local cults, praying for dreams, Song elite, popular beliefs