The gulf between intellectuals and peasants, in which the latter are perceived to be a drag on the modernization led by the former, is usually self-aggrandizement. When, as in China, peasants have the ambivalent status of being the base of revolution and the drag on political reform in the direction of democracy, anthropologists are in a good position to challenge the intellectuals' pretensions. But we don't. This article asks why, points out the ways in which we can, and then refutes the notion that Chinese peasants have no democratic tradition with an example. It is an example of self-organization around an incense burner, a religious tradition of territorial association. I put it to the test of a number of concepts of democracy, most of which it passes. But its leaders are chosen by divine selection, raising the question whether this is a form of benign charisma rather than standard electoral democracy. The institution persists into the present of the People's Republic of China and the government of Taiwan, where it functions as a public good, a test of local loyalty, and a moral basis by which the conduct of state officials and elected representatives are judged. It is a civil institution, but now the issue is whether it will last or be soaked up by central state cultural policies. Whatever the answer, the example also throws down a challenge to anthropologists in other regions to explore 'peasant' self-organization and cultural resources for democracy and civil judgement
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