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Chinese and European Perspectives on the Study of Chinese Popular Religions

Chinese and European Perspectives on the Study of Chinese Popular Religions

Thomas Jansen15 Mar 2014Leave a comment


Written by Jana Hermanova

Clart, Philip (ed.). Chinese and European Perspectives on the Study of Chinese Popular Religions/Zhongguo minjian zongjiao, minjian xinyang yanjiu zhi Zhong Ou shijiao 中國民間宗教、民間信仰研究之中歐視角. Zhongguo minjian xinyang xilie 中國民間信仰系列, vol. 2. Taibei: Boyang wenhua 博揚文化, 2012. xxvi, 394 pp. NT$500 (pb). ISBN 978-986-6543-66-1

The twelve texts published in this book were originally presented at a workshop on the history of Chinese popular religions held in Leipzig in October 2010. Academics from Shanghai Normal University with research interests in Chinese popular religions met with their European colleagues researching Chinese and Taiwanese popular religions. The papers are published in either one of the two conference languages, English and Chinese, but each is prefaced by a short abstract in both languages. Every paper is followed by a short bibliography; an index concludes the volume.

The first article is an introduction to the study of Chinese popular religions in China. Shao Yong 邵雍 briefly introduces seven books on Chinese “popular beliefs” (minjian xinyang 民間信仰) published in southeastern China between 1992 and 2010. Based on the contributions to a conference on popular religions held in Beijing in 2010, Shao identifies four main themes in the study of popular religion: research methods, impact and benefits of popular beliefs, characteristics and functions of popular beliefs, and administration of popular beliefs.

The next contributor, Tang Lixing 唐力行, focuses on some important aspects of local religion in Huizhou 徽州, emphasizing the role of powerful clans and Neo-Confucianism in local religious beliefs. While worship of ancestors was the predominant religious phenomenon, the importance of the cults of various local deities, Tang argues, ought not to be underestimated.

Gao Hongxia 高紅霞 focuses on the cult of the goddess Mazu 媽祖 among Fujianese and Cantonese merchants in Shanghai. Having briefly introduced research on this goddess in China, Gao then goes on to discuss belief in Mazu in Shanghai during the late Qing dynasty and Republic, dividing the spread of belief in Mazu into two main strands: one official, through worship in temples, the other popular through worship in gilds.

The origin and spread of the nationwide cult of Longwang 龍王 are the topics of Andreas Berndt’s contribution. Berndt examines the geographic conditions which he believes to be key factors in the expansion of the cult of this water deity.

Xiaobing Wang-Riese raises the question of popular elements in a cult normally associated with the elite segment of society. In her article on popular religious elements in the modern Confucius cult, she traces the renewal of the cult of Confucius in the PRC and demonstrates that, in addition to being part of an official cult, the rituals used to worship Confucius are also part of the repertoire of popular religion.

Adam Yuet Chau focuses on another religious practice, namely “the cherishing of written characters” (xi zi 惜字). This practice was popular in Ming and Qing China, but today it can only be found on rare occasions in Taiwan. Even though it is often seen as an effort to “confucianize” society, Chau argues that the practice is more akin to Buddhist and Taoist ideas on writing, especially with regard to the magical qualities ascribed to written characters.

Sorcery scares are the topic of Xu Maoming’s 徐茂明 contribution, in which he provides readers with a basic historic outline and an analysis of the social background of these outbreaks. Times of social unrest were also times during which sorcery flourished, especially in areas with weak local government. While Xu acknowledges the link between sorcery and traditional belief in spirits, he emphasizes the specific cultural and social conditions of the lower Yangtze region as causal factors in these mass panics.

Vincent Goossaert looks at the role of Daoism in the creation of spirit-possession cults in his article on Daoism and local cults in modern Suzhou. Using the format of  a case study of a leading elite Daoist, Shi Daoyuan 施道淵 (17th century), he shows that elite Daoists played a role in the regulation of unorthodox deities by co-opting popular deities, thereby “turning demons into gods.”

Volker Olles’s text analyzes the connection between one Daoist temple in Sichuan—Laojun miao 老君廟 at Mt. Tianshe 天社山—and the Liumen 劉門 community, a quasi-religious movement based on Confucian doctrine. Olles bases himself mainly on the Gazetteer of Mt. Tianshe (Tianshe shanzhi 天社山志), written by an adherent of the Liumen movement who was also the temple’s caretaker from the 1960s to 1980s.

A different set of historical sources is examined in Zhou Yumin’s 周育民 contribution on the Jiugongdao 九宮道 (Way of the Nine Palaces). Zhou aims to elucidate the life and teachings of the leader of Jiugongdao Li Xiangshan 李向善 by examining historical sources that are connected to both the sect and the Buddhist monastic community on Wutaishan 五臺山, thus allowing him to unravel links between the popular religious milieu and an important Buddhist community.

Barend ter Haar likewise looks at an example of interreligious dynamics in his article on the Non-action Teachings (Wuwei jiao 無爲教) and Christianity, both of whom were new religions in China and hence often confused due to some shared characteristics.

Nicolas Broy concludes the volume with an essay about Zhaijiao 齋教 (Vegetarian Teachings) in Taiwan and the different categories used to categorize this religious movement. Whereas ‘Asian’ scholars usually label  Zhaijiao as ‘popular religious sects’ or ‘secret societies’, European researchers refer to it as ‘lay Buddhism’, another example to support the argument that demarcation lines between religious groups are often less clear-cut than these labels seem to suggest.

The theme that links  these different papers together is popular religion, understood in its double meaning in Chinese as  minjian xinyang 民間信仰 (“popular beliefs”) and minjian zongjiao 民間宗教 (or minjian jiaopai 民間教派), the former referring to local and communal religious expressions, the latter referring to popular religion in its organized manifestations. As a result of this broad topic, we are presented with a wide range of papers focusing on particular cults, religious practices, sorcery scares, religious movements, as well as the relationship between official religions and popular religions. The sequence of the individual articles suggests an effort by the editor to arrange the papers thematically in order to give it coherence, despite the wide range of topics covered; texts on particular cults follow each other, articles on “religious sects” are placed side by side. The different texts indeed represent and illustrate different approaches to the study of Chinese popular religions—historical, anthropological and analytical as well as combinations of these— with historical perspectives clearly prevailing, especially in the Chinese articles.

Not all articles are equally suitable for specialists and non-specialists alike. Zhou Yumin’s paper on Jiugongdao, for example, enters straight into a discussion of the historical evidence without even a brief introduction to the problems discussed in this paper. As a result, the volume often reads like a digest of current research topics in Chinese popular religions rather than a systematic introduction to research in this field. Even so, the well-researched case studies offer thought-provoking perspectives on the study of Chinese popular religions from a variety of disciplinary angles. Anyone interested in this area should read this book.

Jana Hermanova
PhD candidate, Institute of East Asian Studies
Charles University, Prague

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