Matters of religion with the Empire are highly localized affairs. To understand the reasons behind the highly independent and disconnected nature of such organizations, even within the same province of the Empire, one must first understand the social factors behind the appearance of such organizations and their historical interactions with more secular centers of authority.
The first evidence of spiritual practices are truly ancient. Of the few surviving pieces of human art or construction in the Pre-Draconic period, some four in five artifacts are related to matters of the spiritual. It is widely agreed among scholars that the world of this period was much less materially stable than the world which we inhabit now. Evidence suggests that it could not even be guaranteed that such simple matters as weather patterns and physical distances were consistent outside of localized zones.
Those who lived in such a chaotic environment, with so few tools for observation and lacking the cultivation to master such phenomena, were pitifully vulnerable to the caprices of local spirits. As such, spiritual belief during this period largely pertained to the appeasement of very small spirits. However, such spirits, being small and mutable things, were vulnerable to the change which mankind imposed on their environment.
It is from these early folk practices that we find the roots of modern belief. Among the ancients, stability was the most important concern, and as such, the rituals devised in those days were focused upon the establishment of patterns and regularity. Here, we see the establishment of flooding festivals in river valley regions, of ceremonies of the moon and stars upon the coast, and of regularized appeasement ceremonies in hunting and harvesting.
The sun and the moon were the most conspicuous of the early objects of worship. As two of the very few constants in the changing world of the Pre-Draconic period, this was only natural.
In the Draconic period, early human culture was largely erased or co-opted by the rising Dragon Gods. As the Dragon Gods established their sovereignty over certain spheres, the churning chaos of earlier times receded, and a more recognizable world began to emerge. Worship focused on the holdings, mobile or otherwise, of the new gods and achieved a higher level of organization and standardization across regions.
This is the time of the earliest temples. Great structures were carved, built, and shaped under the eyes of the Dragon Gods. The first complex priesthoods began to emerge in this period for dragons could not abide a lack of hierarchy among even their meanest servants. Many monastic practices and submissive ritualism date to this period.
The Cataclysmic period ended the vast majority of draconic traditions. However, the foundation of a stable world created by the dragon’s sovereignty did not fade, and surviving humans continued many of their earlier practices in new forms. It is to this period that the oldest and most widely worshipped terrestrial spirits, such as the Bountiful Earth or the Restful End, date.
In these days, many of those who rose to power over settlements held significant spiritual power, acting as intermediaries between the common folk and the Great Spirits. Some, such as the tribes of the Celestial Peaks region, maintained continuity with the priesthoods of the Dragon Gods, acting as mighty Priest Kings venerating their predecessors and tutelary deities connected with their primary Great Spirit patron. Some, such as the Weilu clans, reverted to earlier animistic practices, establishing complex webs of obligation and ritual to maintain the order of their lands.
The Bai and Zheng were and continue to be noted for their highly confrontational methods, which was often a rallying point for their neighbors, who saw their methods as blasphemous and disrespectful. These attitudes toward spiritual matters can largely be traced to their founding figures, whose primary legends tend to emphasize their unmatchable lethality. Even the Bai and Zheng maintained some religious institutions however.
As the Empire coalesced under the aegis of the Sage and his heirs, regional religious institutions also began to grow in prominence. In many regions, monastic orders and temples rose to a prominence that could match noble clans, and indeed, in some regions, such as the Alabaster Sands and the Golden Fields, who maintained the traditions of the Priest King structure, they were not separate entities at all.
However, this led to problems. As religious institutions grew in power, their leaders, swollen with their own self-importance, began to chafe at proper Imperial authority. This came to a head during the Strife of Twin Emperors when many major temple organizations and clans took advantage of the civil war to demand further autonomy and authority separate from the proper chains of such things.
The true emperor naturally did not forget this, and the later half of the period we now know as the Strife came from breaking up such rebellious institutions and returning the Empire to proper order. It was this event which led to the establishment of the Ministry of Spiritual Affairs. Henceforth, no longer would temple hierarchies be allowed to grow out of control. With the Ministry in place to take care of all necessary administrative functions and maintain contact between temples of different settlements, local priests and monks would be free to concentrate their efforts on the people under their care, rather than being tempted by temporal power.
In the modern day, temples and the festivals they hold are important tools for social cohesion, maintaining the morale and morality of the people under the eyes of their lords. While it is often the local lord or lady who renegotiates bargains with their land’s spirits, it is the priests of the temples which see to the day-to-day activities and rituals which maintain those agreements. The priests also officiate many ceremonies from funerals to weddings to minor spirit exorcisms in the name of the local lord.
By necessity, there is still a great deal of regional variation. While festivals are typical at each solstice and equinox, what events and rituals such festivals include will vary from settlement to settlement and even the exact dates may vary. Outside of these seasonal festivals, the only certain day of celebration throughout the Empire remains the Day of Unity, a celebration of the concord wrought by the Sage and the founding families.
All other days of significance are regional, and a wise traveler makes sure to study the rituals of their destination in advance to avoid giving offence to the local spiritual leaders and the lord or lady who oversees them. Ignorance is no excuse to the spirits or to the law.
As it has always been, priests and monks serve as the intermediaries between the common man and higher beings, and although the precise nature of the role has varied over time, it remains a vital one to the maintenance of any healthy community.
-From Temples and Festivals, by Imperial Scholar Mu Li