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Religion in China and its Modern Fate

Religion in China and its Modern Fate

Thomas Jansen28 Jan 2016Leave a comment

Paul R. Katz. Religion in China and Its Modern Fate: The Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures. Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press/ Historical Society of Israel, 2014. 264 pp. 10 illus., 2 maps, 2 tables. $40.00 (pb). ISBN: 978-1-61168-543-5.

Written by Joachim Gentz

Academic books come in different genres to satisfy the great variety of readers’ demands. Short introductions have to tell a story to those readers who have no time to study the subject, essays in a Festschrift should be experimental and playful to entertain the person to whom it is dedicated with material and ideas that would otherwise never be published, PhD publications should introduce a new voice to a research field, and publications of lectures should combine a general introduction to a field of broad interest with an exemplary insight into some of the deep drilling research of the person that gives the lectures, adumbrating the differences between the general and the specific discourses in the field. Paul R. Katz’s newest book Religion in China & its Modern Fate belongs to the last of these genres, and it masterfully realises exactly what should be expected from this genre.

The book is divided into three chapters each some 40-50pp in length and highlighting a particular aspect of religion in modern China. These chapters serve as both general introductions to the respective fields and presentations of the author’s own research: temple destruction campaigns, new forms of religious publishing, and religious lives of modern Chinese elites with focus on Wang Yiting (1867-1938). Each of these chapters attempts to demonstrate the particular transformative character of religion in early modern China and to shed some light on a highly complex process in which certain institutions were destroyed to be replaced by others while “religion” appears to be something that had no fixed conceptual place within this process.

This impression is reinforced by the fact that the overviews at the beginnings of each chapter show very clearly how little control we have over the abundance of available sources, how fragmentary existing research in all these fields is and how much we are forced to generalise from case studies on small numbers of examples if we want to formulate a coherent narrative of these fields. Katz does this in my view as good as possible even though his overviews are mainly based on English and Chinese sources (that can only be found in the notes, the book has a short index but no bibliography). The overviews thus mainly formulate issues of the fields without always providing clear answers and by going back and forth between specific examples and general conclusions demonstrate very clearly where the limits of our current research lie and how far the sources allow us to go with our narrative. Katz does not try to hide these methodological constraints and openly admits several times (and he could have done this much more often) that there is only “limited amount of statistical evidence” (43), that “research on modern China, especially on the Republican era, is largely in its preliminary stages, and numerous questions remain to be addressed” (56), that evidence is “admittedly limited in both scope and depth” and “will require the completion of more case studies” (107), that accounts given by him “admittedly represent a very small sample, and more data will be required to determine how representative such beliefs and practices truly were” (116) etc. This tension between a conscious attempt to formulate general overviews and the critical awareness that and where these are based on limited evidence is one of the fine qualities of this book as it allows the attentive reader a glimpse into the (often quite problematic) research state of the fields. Katz points out that there are many long ways yet to pursue on many issues in the field of religion in modern China, and he points out in which direction these ways might lead us.

Having said all this I would like to return to the chapters and discuss where beyond the precarious yet careful overviews Katz’ contribution to the respective fields lies.

The first chapter deals with temple destruction campaigns. It builds on the meticulous work on local implementations of state strategies in dealing with temples by Poon (Guangzhou) and Nedostup (Jiangsu) as well as that on new terms and actors by Goossaert and adds further cases of regional variety (Shanghai region, Zhejiang) to fill the map of our knowledge on local temple histories with further archival evidence. It further discusses the significant variety of temple destruction campaigns and their different impact on the survival of individual temples by using statistical data.

The second chapter focuses on religious publishing in modern China by looking at the type of texts that were published in different kinds of outlets, the contents and its classifications, the costs, the distribution systems, and the audience of these new publications the most popular of which were quite affordable non-canonical vernacular and illustrated works intended for a mass market of general readers making Buddhism an integral facet of modern Chinese life. Using the Illuminating Goodness Bookstore as case study Katz demonstrates how religious publishing enterprises worked in economical efficient ways by serving a broad range of eclectic belief systems and by combining commercial and philanthropic motives.

In the third chapter Katz explores the religious practices, beliefs and belongings of a number of male elite Chinese all born in the 20 years between 1867 and 1887, including Master Hongyi (1880-1942), Huang Hanzhi (1875-1961), Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), and Chen Weiming (1881-1958) with a focus on Wang Yiting. This chapter could be read as a complementary piece together with chapter four on “Cultural Revitalization: Redemptive Societies and Secularized Traditions” of Goossaert and Palmer’s The Religious Question in Modern China (quoted only once in the last note to this chapter), that provides a perfect background reading to the case studies that Katz meticulously reconstructs from a broad range of diverse sources. Katz shows convincingly against a widely shared view and the self-representation of most modern Chinese intellectuals how many of these members of the elite were fundamentally influenced by a great variety of religious traditions and the central role that religion played in their life. The point is interesting but the choice of a figure that was referred to as “China’s foremost Buddhist layman” (132), and to whom Katz himself refers as “one of the most admired senior religious figures in Shanghai” (146) in whose life religion played a “key role” (140) is rather questionable if this figure is meant to be representative of a broader spectrum of the modern Chinese elite. The claim that “Wang was hardly alone or unique” (152) is difficult to sustain in the light of these superlative descriptions.

A most thoughtful conclusion is added to this book that does not exactly draw conclusions from the chapters but is a more general reflection on more fundamental issues such as the extent of continuity of traditionalist and early modern forms of religion and religious policy in China today, religion as means for the state to legitimise itself, questions of individualism, spiritual practice and Chinese vs Western conceptions in Chinese religiosities today.

The book is a wonderful read. Without pretending to present waterproof last truths, it draws the reader into the fascinating workshop of current research on religion in early modern China, provides the reader with a splendid treasury of detailed research data, points out the most current issues and methods in contemporary research on Chinese religions and underpins its own narrative with a wealth of pertinent secondary and primary sources. It is exactly the kind of inspiring teaser for further engagement with the field that we expect from a publication of felicitous lectures.

Joachim Gentz
School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures
The University of Edinburgh

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