The Religious Question in Modern China

The Religious Question in Modern China

by Vincent Goossaert, David A. Palmer


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Recent events—from strife in Tibet and the rapid growth of Christianity in China to the spectacular expansion of Chinese Buddhist organizations around the globe—vividly demonstrate that one cannot understand the modern Chinese world without attending closely to the question of religion. The Religious Question in Modern China highlights parallels and contrasts between historical events, political regimes, and cultural movements to explore how religion has challenged and responded to secular Chinese modernity, from 1898 to the present.

Vincent Goossaert and David A. Palmer piece together the puzzle of religion in China not by looking separately at different religions in different contexts, but by writing a unified story of how religion has shaped, and in turn been shaped by, modern Chinese society. From Chinese medicine and the martial arts to communal temple cults and revivalist redemptive societies, the authors demonstrate that from the nineteenth century onward, as the Chinese state shifted, the religious landscape consistently resurfaced in a bewildering variety of old and new forms. The Religious Question in Modern China integrates historical, anthropological, and sociological perspectives in a comprehensive overview of China’s religious history that is certain to become an indispensible reference for specialists and students alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226005331
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/22/2012
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 480
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Vincent Goossaert is deputy director of the Groupe Sociétés, Religions, Laïcités at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Paris. He is the author of The Taoists of Peking, 1800-1949: A Social History of Urban Clerics, among other books. David A. Palmer is assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China, among other books.

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The Religious Question in Modern China


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-30416-8

Chapter One

The Late Qing Religious Landscape

The twentieth century was a time of uninterrupted, rapid, and often violent change for religion in China. By contrast, it is tempting to describe what preceded as stable tradition. It was not. Our purpose here, however, is not to describe the nineteenth-century history of Chinese religion but to provide a point of departure for the narrative that we chose to start in 1898. Therefore, in this chapter we will consider the Chinese religious landscape as a system in dynamic equilibrium, privileging structures over change. Like any system, it was an easy prey to unsustainable demands and to built-in contradictions and conflicts, and we will pay particular attention to those contradictions and conflicts as forerunners of the twentieth-century mutations. Here, as a way of introducing the basic categories and actors of Chinese religious life—cults, traditions, specialists—we will sketch the basic structural elements of Chinese religion as they stood in the nineteenth century—elements that we will follow in later chapters as they evolved along different trajectories in the twentieth century, following beaten tracks, crisscrossing, or breaking into new territory. In this general sketch of the religious landscape at the beginning of our historical survey, we proceed first from the basic structure of Chinese religious practice in late imperial times and the state's management of these practices, and then look at the causes of instability: challenges from inside and outside, and built-in tensions and dynamics of change.


Western descriptions of Chinese religious life have long tended to emphasize its motley, disorganized nature. However, with better knowledge and a more neutral outlook, twenty-first-century social scientists can describe the varied field of China's religious practices, beliefs, and organizations as belonging to a coherent system (but a system with several hierarchies) that we choose to term "Chinese religion" (sometimes called "Chinese traditional religion"). This system integrated traditions of individual salvation, such as self-cultivation through meditation and body techniques, moral living, and spirit-possession techniques, including spirit writing; kinship-based rites, such as life-cycle rituals and ancestor worship; and communal religion, such as cults to local saints and deities—all of which were only partly framed within the three institutionalized teachings of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Islam and Christianity were later arrivals; owing to their exclusive claims of truth, they did not become fully integrated into the system, even though they gradually became thoroughly sinicized and, in the period covered by this book, had a powerful impact on the changes to the religious landscape.

As Chinese religion does not have a single canon that could be a source of textual authority, there is no unified formal theology. All communities and religious specialists, however, share common cosmological notions, even though these notions are interpreted in many different ways. In its classical form, this cosmology, formed during late antiquity and the Han period (210 BCE–220 CE), dictates that the material and spiritual realms are not separate. The universe is an organic system, constantly evolving according to knowable rules, described through operative symbols (including yin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and yang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the five phases [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and the eight trigrams [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). All beings—humans, animals, and even plants—are in constant interaction (ganying [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), even at long distances. Due to their different inherent qualities and histories, beings are more or less pure and endowed with spiritual power (ling [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), which can be understood as efficacy and charisma. All beings can purify themselves through morality and self-cultivation before and after death, and thereby ascend the ladders of the spiritual hierarchy and increase their ling. Dead humans become, according to the circumstances, ancestors, gods, or ghosts, and each of the three types has a particular kind of ling, and receives a particular kind of cult. Humans who suffer unnatural death and do not receive postmortem sacrifices become ghosts (or demons) and are a major cause of unrest, hence a highly developed demonology. Miracles and the answering of prayers are manifestations of ling. Beyond these basic principles, the formulation of cosmological and theological thinking was entrusted to clerical specialists who were invited by cult communities to write texts (such as stele inscriptions, scriptures, hagiographies, and liturgical hymns) to legitimize their cults and practices and place them in a larger orthodox framework, usually but not exclusively defined in terms of one of the Three Teachings.

Communities and individuals by and large shared similar values within the framework of a common ethics, integrating elements of Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist origin, that were expressed in morality books (shanshu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), the most widely read and revered normative texts in pre- 1900 China. While often overlooked by philosophers and highbrow intellectuals trying to define moral norms, they reflect common thinking and practice as articulated by local moral authorities and their audience. Morality books were both authoritative (their core sections were revealed by gods and saints) and inclusive, seeking consensus in that they articulated a vision much more encompassing than strict Confucian morality. They agreed that actions carry good or bad retribution (conceived as either automatic karmic accounting or, more often, a postmortem judicial process administered in courts of hell), and this concept determines the fate of each human being after death. The theoretical elaborations on this principle provided by specialists were supplemented by an abundance of "popular theology," mostly in accord with clerical formulations, that expressed itself in vernacular genres such as the novel or the opera. Novels such as Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), Journey to the West (Xiyouji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), or Outlaws of the Marsh (Shuihuzhuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) played (and still play) a major role in transmitting lore on gods, rituals, and retribution; however, their authors were sometimes accused by some officials of encouraging heterodox interpretations and inspiring rebellions.

What we see at the level of ideas and values—common frameworks and varying interpretations—is also true at the level of the social organization of religious life. The Three Teachings were precisely defined, each with a distinctive clergy, a canon of scriptures, a liturgy, and training centers—the monasteries (Buddhist si [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and yuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Taoist gong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and guan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and academies (shuyuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) where the canon was kept and the clergy was trained and ordained. The institutions defined by these four characteristics can be referred to as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism stricto sensu. Within Chinese religion, the Three Teachings did not function as self-contained institutions that provided lay followers with an exclusive path to salvation, as in the nineteenth-century Western concept of religion; rather, their function was to transmit their tradition of practice and to serve the entire society, either through the teaching of individual spiritual techniques or through the provision of liturgical services to associations and communities. In late imperial times and well into the twentieth century, only clerics and a small number of devout laypersons (jushi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) would identify themselves as Buddhist or Taoist, but most people at least occasionally engaged in rituals officiated by Buddhist or Taoist priests. A state doctrine of the coexistence of the Three Teachings reinforced the increasing overlap and mutual influences between them after centuries of interaction and universal acceptance among the populace, although functional differences remained, with Confucians monopolizing statecraft and playing a privileged role in kin-based worship; Taoist liturgy often structuring communal festivals; and Buddhist priests often being the preferred choice for conducting funerals.

The Three Teachings served the whole of Chinese religion, within which they were expected to coexist and even cooperate with one another, but without merging. This form of pluralism was thus not equivalent to syncretism, such as that practiced by many salvationist groups, in which there was a conscious attempt to integrate, synthesize, and supersede all existing teachings. The myriads of autonomous groups that formed the social basis of Chinese religion—households, lineages, territorial communities, professional guilds, devotional associations, political entities—each chose, from among the shared repertoire of beliefs and practices, those services offered by clerics of the Three Teachings that served their needs. Certain scholars have suggested that the Three Teachings correspond to an elite religion, in contrast to "popular religion." However, the relationship between the Three Teachings and local cults hinged on socioeconomic, ideological, and theological considerations much more complex than an elite / popular dichotomy can suggest. Therefore, most communities were not Confucian, Buddhist, or Taoist: they are often placed under the label of Chinese popular religion, but this term does not necessarily imply a lower social class, lack of intellectual sophistication, or deviation from orthodoxy. On the other hand, while the Three Teachings had nationwide institutions, cult communities were fundamentally local in nature, and they have been therefore aptly described as "vernacular," "communal," or "local religion."

Most religious communities were organized around temples. A temple belonged to either the clerical or, more often, the lay community that built it. It was the meeting place for a community constituted through its alliance with its saints: local heroes, healing gods and goddesses, or ancestors, who all embodied local identity and history. Only temples built by and for clerical communities—that is, Buddhist and Taoist monasteries and Confucian academies, all three being training institutions for literate specialists—could be said to be specifically affiliated with one of the Three Teachings. For all other temples, community leaders were chosen, usually every year, through a variety of methods, including bids (leaders were usually wealthy locals who paid dearly for the symbolic capital of religious leadership), rotation, heredity, and election by the god through divination or drawing by lots. These lay leaders presided over the rituals and managed temple assets, including landed property and natural resources (ponds, trees, mountain lands, wells), and enforced temple regulations. If they wanted and could afford it, they hired Buddhist or Taoist priests and spirit mediums to conduct rituals and, in a minority of cases, to reside in the temple.

The typology and relative importance of the social structures of Chinese religion varied in the different regions of the Chinese world, between rural and urban areas, and between China proper and the diaspora. Some of these social structures were coterminous with local society (villages and lineages), and others, such as devotional associations and self-cultivation networks, were more purely religious. Thus, even though religious groups were often inseparable from secular social organization, the former did not merely reflect the latter, and religious communities had their own logic and agency. In the imperial order, many socioeconomic groups, such as lineages, guilds, or village communities and alliances, were officially sanctioned as cult communities. For instance, the important construction guilds were incorporated as associations devoted to the cult of their patron saint Lu Ban ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; the mythic creator of Chinese architectural techniques), and it is as such that they negotiated with the local officials, organized strikes, or regulated wages and prices.

What best characterizes the social organization of Chinese communal religion is the fundamental autonomy of each community. While they could, and often did, negotiate alliances and build networks for both religious and secular purposes, be it staging festivals, maintaining order, building infrastructure, or arbitrating local conflicts, all temples and religious groups were independent, not subjected to any external authority, be it secular or spiritual. For instance, in many parts of China all village temples within a given area cooperated for both festivals (rotating between themselves the responsibilities and the hosting) and funding and controlling shared resources, such as a large irrigation system. During a festival, the leader of each village community arbitrated disputes and promulgated regulations (taking an oath to observe them) in front of the gods. Some scholars have described such networks of cult communities as a potential site for China's much-debated and elusive civil society.

One highly operative distinction among Chinese religious groups is that between ascriptive communities, in which adhesion is compulsory for all households, and congregations characterized by free, individual participation. Three main types of ascriptive communities were common: territorial communities, lineages, and corporations. Territorial communities, such as villages and neighborhoods, united for the cult of either an impersonal earth god (she [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], tudi gong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) or a local hero. Participation, primarily in the form of financial contributions toward temple upkeep and the organization of the yearly festival, was compulsory for all residents of the territorial god's precinct (jing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), well delineated from adjoining precincts by a procession in the course of the festival. Lineages (that is, groups tracing their descent from a common ancestor) were also found throughout China, but with diverse modes of organization. While each household (jia [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], defined by common residence) honored immediate forebears, families also allied on a large scale to write genealogies and to worship at the tombs of more distant ancestors and, in some cases, freestanding ancestor halls. Some parts of southern China were famous for their large-scale lineages commanding huge corporate resources, including land and schools. Corporations included professional guilds and common-origin associations (huiguan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], gongsuo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), all of which were organized around cults to patron saints, either in the corporation's own temple or in a shrine within a large temple.

The voluntary congregations were extremely varied. Buddhist and Taoist pious societies financed, within or without monasteries, activities such as rituals, the making of scriptures or icons, and mutual aid between members. They were often under clerical leadership. The incense associations (xianghui [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) worshipped local saints and could be housed in temples. These devotional associations might organize rituals to celebrate the birthday of their saint or contribute to the upkeep of a temple by making specific offerings or by maintaining and cleaning shrines; the best-endowed ones built their own temples. Pilgrimage associations also developed on a large scale, as pilgrimages to holy mountains (such as Taishan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Wudangshan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and Miaofengshan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] near Beijing) drew hundreds of thousands of pilgrims a year during the late Qing. Amateur troupes for liturgical or paraliturgical music, dances, theater, and martial arts also performed during temple festivals, processions, or pilgrimages. Many congregations ran charitable programs, offering tea or food to pilgrims or beggars and providing medicine, clothes, or coffins to the needy. Groups focused on charity sometimes institutionalized themselves into philanthropic foundations (shantang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), without abandoning their devotional activities.


Excerpted from The Religious Question in Modern China by VINCENT GOOSSAERT DAVID A. PALMER Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


A Note on Translations, Character Sets, and Abbreviations


PART I     Religions and Revolutions

1. The Late Qing Religious Landscape   

2. Ideology, Religion, and the Construction of a Modern State, 1898–1937    

3. Model Religions for a Modern China: Christianity, Buddhism, and Religious Citizenship    

4. Cultural Revitalization: Redemptive Societies and Secularized Traditions    

5. Rural Resistance and Adaptation, 1898–1949    

6. The CCP and Religion, 1921–66    

7. Spiritual Civilization and Political Utopianism    

PART II     Multiple Religious Modernities: Into the Twenty-First Century

8. Alternative Trajectories for Religion in the Chinese World    

9. Filial Piety, the Family, and Death    

10. Revivals of Communal Religion in the Later Twentieth Century    

11. The Evolution of Modern Religiosities    

12. Official Discourses and Institutions of Religion    

13. Global Religions, Ethnic Identities, and Geopolitics    




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