HONGLIUTAN, China - A rutted track wends through plots of ripening corn, a sea of dazzling sunflowers, and vines sagging with tomatoes, then finally comes to a soaring gate carved with elaborate dragons and lions, whirling clouds and a gilded inscription - Black Dragon Temple.
This is Zhang Zhitang's destination, as he emerges with his girlfriend at dawn and begins clambering up a steep flight of stone steps. Tendrils of sweet incense dance from brass censers, and an ancient, slightly stooped man strikes a bronze bell to mark the couple's ascent.
"This is my second time here," says Zhitang, a construction worker who has traveled by motorcycle from a nearby town. "I pay respects to the Dragon King. If you have a problem, you come here and cast lots. That can tell you how to solve your problems."
In villages large and small across the north-central Chinese province of Shaanxi, temples to local gods are springing up in a revival of traditional folk religion long banned under Communist rule. In Shaanxi alone, about 1,300 temples have been built in the last decade, researchers say. And in some villages, especially the poorest, temples such as those of the Black Dragon have begun to take on the work of local governments, effectively supplanting the authority of the Communist Party.
"Black Dragon . . . is like a small country," says Luo Hongguang, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences whose work has focused on the emergence of rural religious practice. "It's a little like a small empire that has sprung up from nothing."
Amid the hills and gorges of Shaanxi, where Mao Zedong's Red Army prepared for its final assault on Beijing, the Black Dragon Temple has not only become a magnet for the faithful, it has gradually revealed itself as the most influential institution in rural life.
The temple's influence extends into nine surrounding villages and lures many from well beyond the province's borders. Devotees come not just out of faith, but because of an expanding web of social-welfare projects funded by the temple.
The projects include irrigation of parched farmland, reforestation of denuded hillsides, and construction of the most successful primary school within hundreds of miles - all amenities the local government has proved incapable of providing. By focusing on these services, the temple has earned what Hongguang, the sociologist, calls the "moral authority" that the local government appears to no longer have.
"The resurgence of folk religions," he says, "reflects the pursuit of folk symbols of authority and new ways of communicating. It represents the rise of a new kind of rural power and authority."
Although the temple and other animistic shrines are not officially recognized, the government has had little choice but to allow them to continue, generously labeling them as Taoist. Unlike the Falun Gong, a quasi-Buddhist exercise and spiritual sect that the government has brutally suppressed, folk religion and its superstitious practices are largely ignored.
In 1980, here in Hongliutan, Wang Kehua, a local farmer, wandered into the hills where villagers had once paid homage to a local god they called the Black Dragon King. He rebuilt the small temple, which had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
"I've always had reverence for the Dragon King," says Wang, a soft-spoken man with sad, deeply lined eyes.
When local villagers came to the small temple, bowing three times to the image of the Dragon King, placing incense sticks before it, and casting lots of numbered bamboo sticks, they also made donations to the temple, sliding bills into a locked red box. As donations increased, Kehua expanded the temple, demarcating dozens of acres for the temple complex. He began holding a temple festival each year that draws 200,000 people from Shaanxi and neighboring provinces who come seeking the beneficence of the Dragon King.
Perhaps more importantly, Wang began to funnel increasing amounts of money into nearby villages.
"We have planted 200 acres of trees," he says. "We've been planting trees since 1988, and we won't stop."
The temple also has built a primary school for 327 pupils. "This is the best school in the district," says Yang Caiqin, 37, its principal, as she shows off a computer room with 38 new personal computers. "There's not another primary school in this part of Shaanxi that has a room like this. If there were no temple, there would be no school."