I’ve long been inspired by the work of Adam Yuet Chau on religion in China. His recent book
distils his wisdom, based both on his own fieldwork (notably in Shaanbei) and on his readings of a wide literature, along with his experience of editing volumes on the topic—notably Religion in contemporary China: revitalization and innovation (2008).
As he explains in his opening salvo “Why are you reading this book?”, Religion in China is aimed at a broad audience, including students taking courses on Chinese and East Asian religions, or on religious studies; seekers of spiritual wisdom, tourists, missionaries; and China-watchers concerned about human rights and politics.
Chau seeks to change the way we understand religion in China and the wider world, disputing the confessional model that produces so much misunderstanding, both in China and abroad.
Another equally prevalent approach is to view religion in China primarily in terms of philosophical and religious ideas, as sources of “Oriental spiritual wisdom”, useful antidotes to an allegedly overly materialist and rationalist West.
Instead, he advocates study of ways of “doing religion”, and a “relational approach”.
There is no need for us to identify and share the beliefs informing these religious practices. […] Having a personal religious or spiritual orientation in whatever form might potentially aid one’s understanding of other people’s religious practices […]. But it could equally well hinder one’s understanding because one might too easily identify the familiar and overlook the radically different, or one might feel threatened by practices that are radically different from one’s own, bringing into doubt the validity of one’s faith or spiritual pursuit. On the other hand, being an atheist also has its advantages and disadvantages in the cross-cultural study of religion.
He takes material primarily from mainland China, but also from Taiwan and Hong Kong. He reminds us of the dangers of statistics that are modeled on a confessional-affiliational understanding of mutually exclusive religious membership.
He discusses the different approaches to religion in China. By contrast with religious studies, which tend to focus on texts, doctrines, concepts, religious thinkers, and schools of thought, he stresses social interaction, history, sociology, political science, and anthropology offer alternative models. For a gendered approach, with a final bold suggestion, see here.
In Chapter 1 Chau presents his “five modalities of doing religion”, expounded in his previous work—a most useful framework, sidestepping the “conceptual fetishes” of “Buddhism”, “Daoism”, and “Confucianism”:
As he observes, such “internal diversity” is actually common to Christianity and the other major world religions.
A further question that is worth bearing in mind is whether or not you believe that religious diversity is intrinsically a good thing.
Whereas a religious-pluralist position
treats religion not just as an empirical fact but as a policy goal, Christian missionaries and other kinds of believers in any ultimate religious Truth would prefer to see their own religion triumph over all the others. And staunch atheists would want to see a completely secularized world with no religions at all.
However, religious diversity as a concept is alien to most Chinese people because their approach to religion is primarily instrumental and occasion-based (what can be called an efficacity-based religiosity) rather than confessionally-based, and their experience of religious diversity is embodied in the employment of different religious service providers on various occasions rather than abstract systems of religious doctrines and teachings.
what happens on the ground “religiously” is very much a congruence of local customs, historical accidents, social environment, personal temperaments, configurations of modalities of doing religion, and the makeup of the local ritual market.
He goes on to give instance of the five modalities in turn, noting that they may overlap.
At any one time in any locale of the vast late imperial Chinese empire—and to some extent today as well as in the larger Chinese world—all of these modalities of doing religion were in most probability available to be adopted by individuals or social groups, though factors such as class, gender, literacy level, accidents of birth and residence, position within different social networks, temperament, local convention, and the configuration of various modalities might channel some people towards certain modalities and not others. Most peasants in China have traditionally adopted a combination of the relational and the immediate-practical modalities into their religiosity; sometimes they adopt the liturgical modality and hire religious specialists when the occasion requires them, such as funerals and communal exorcisms. Illiteracy and lack of leisure would preclude them from most of the discursive and personal-cultivational modalities. The traditional educated elite tended to adopt a combination of the discursive and the personal-cultivational modalities, but they, too, often needed the services of the liturgical specialists.
However, it is the discursive/scriptural modality, with its high level of literacy and its penchant for philosophical and “theological” thinking, that holds a particular allure for many in the West (and indeed for the Chinese state), at the expense of the other forms.
The vast majority of the world’s population who “do” religion in other ways are thus silenced.
My own work focuses on the liturgical modality, while taking into account those further down the list (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, ch.1).
Chapter 2, “Interacting with gods, ghosts, and ancestors” opens with a cross-cultural reminder about deities:
We have to ignore the saint cults in Catholicism, the Sufi saint cults in Islam, the belief in angles and holy persons, etc., in order to preserve the monotheism illusion.
Chau points out that new deities have constantly been produced, at both elite and popular levels. He highlights the importance of ling “spiritual efficacity”, and the gods’ response to the problems of worshippers—which gave him the title for his book Miraculous response. As ever, he stresses
Whether or not we accept the possibility of real divine power, we need to understand ling as a sociocultural construct.
Many Chinese people have a practical approach to deity belief. […] One should not not believe, nor should one believe everything”; “If you worship him, the deity will be there; if you don’t worship him, he won’t mind”.
After listing the basic ways of worshipping deities, including offering incense, divination, and so on, he discusses appeasing “hungry ghosts” and ancestor worship. He considers the household as the basic unit of religious engagement (by contrast with Christianity), and stresses “hosting”—for both humans and deities—and “red-hot sociality”.
Chapter 3 discusses festivals and pilgrimages, with examples from both north and south China. Far from the dry portrayals of scholars who focus narrowly on the discursive meanings of ritual texts, Chau stresses the sensory stimulation of such “red and fiery” events—noises, sights, smells, tastes, and ambient sensations. He explains the temple associations that organize festivals, again stressing social relationships. On pilgrimages such as those of Mazu in Taiwan and southeast China, networks are consolidated as deities visit other deities. He broadens the scope by introducing New Age spirit mediumism in Taiwan, as well as the Hajj of Chinese Muslims, and ends by offering the concept of “mutual capturing” through cultural forms.
Chapter 4 unpacks the variety of ritual service providers and their clients. The former—again, engaged with a view to efficacy—include geomancers, occupational household Daoist and Buddhist groups, devotional sects, and spirit mediums. Different types of specialists may be invited for the same event: “ritual polytrophy”. He gives vignettes of a yinyang master in Shaanbei, a group of household Daoist ritual specialists in Shanxi (none other than the Li family!) serving the funeral market, and a Daoist jiao Offering ritual in Taiwan. He introduces the handling of troublesome spirit ties by means of exorcism. He’s ever alert to the social context—I like his description of the spirit medium’s home as
the rural equivalent of a hair salon, where people gather, information and gossip is spread, and there is plenty of red-hot sociality.
Chau contrasts this whole “efficacy-based” tradition with the more “dharma-based” religiosity common elsewhere in Asia.
He goes on to unpack the common lament of “rampant commodification”, revealing its long history.
Many people (including many Chinese) might think that the commodification of religion is somehow not right and therefore is a deplorable trend. However, this value judgment is out of place for observers who wish to understand the cultural logic behind native practices rather than passing judgment on these practices. The view that religion should somehow be a pure, spiritual pursuit freed from such “ugliness” as monetary transactions and “vile” desires is a fundamentalist, elitist, and/or modernist/reformist position that itself needs critical deconstruction.
Given that many fieldworkers may have their minds on higher pursuits, he goes on to prescribe a fine questionnaire pertaining to price-lists for all kinds of religious expenditure, from temple renovation and sponsoring opera performances to fees for minor domestic rituals, the costs of incense and paper money, and banqetting (pp.130–31). Finally he returns to the close relationship between providers and consumers of ritual services, and the benefits of the household idiom.
Having stressed the general paucity of confessional religious identities, Chapter 5, “Communities and networks”, gives some instances where they do indeed come into play. Notwithstanding all the instances that Chau has given to show the enduring vitality of communal and household ritual life,
In many locales in contemporary China there is a definite trend towards the atomization of society, where few people are organizing any collective or communal activities and people spend a large amount of time watching television in the comfort of increasingly nuclearized homes. People seem to be happy that they are no longer being forced to participate in collective labor, collective political study [discuss…], or mass campaign rallies, all prevalent features of Maoist collectivist life. Yet there is also ample evidence to suggest that people in many parts of China have revived pre-Maoist forms of communal social life, sometimes even borrowing techniques of Maoist mobilization and social organization to good effect. […]
both historically and in today’s China, there are a significant number of people who do have a strong and definite religious identity (e.g. being a Buddhist, Daoist, or Christian; belonging to a sect). Even though small in numerical terms (but still in the millions), they are very important in the Chinese religious landscape.
He gives examples of monastic communities and networks, the remarkably resilient Christian congregational communities, qigong groups (including Falungong), and lay Buddhist confessional groups like Foguangshan and Ciji. He ends by considering the impact of new technologies on religious transmission.
Chapter 6, “State-religion relations” unpacks issues in a popular theme. Chau observes that the Maoist antipathy towards religious institutions was part of a general intolerance of any social institution outside the orbit of the party-state, as well as an assault on their status as property owners. While household-based ritual specialists were also persecuted, the attacks on them were far less thorough when compared to those on temples, lineages, and major cult centres. Again, the “household idiom” of religious service provision was a key to survival.
He outlines the official regulatory framework, noting the further complexities of the recent Intangible Cultural Heritage and the fuzzy “religion sphere”. He chooses this translation rather than “religious sphere” to avoid any misunderstanding:
Not only is the religion sphere not religious in nature, its existence is constitutive of the overall construction of secularity.
Returning to the discursive-scriptural modality, Chau observes that its rise is also propounded by the secular state—by contrast with the vast majority of providers and consumers of religious services. And after observing a broad local tolerance towards the practice of “superstition”, he outlines recent reforms in funerary and burial practices.
In “Conclusions” he surveys the major theme: the religious revival, once again debunking a reified approach to tradition.
It would be easier to understand this continuity if we understood religious traditions as complex, dynamic, ever-changing clusters of institutions, practitioners, and consumers, knowledge and practices, sociopolitical relations and hierarchies, fully amenable to innovations, inventions, and reinventions all the time. Religious traditions are not static.
Finally Chau stresses the centrality of relationality in doing religion, far beyond mere texts. University courses on Buddhism and Daoism
are often presented as “Oriental thought”, emphasizing ideas at the expense of practice. Presenting a non-Abrahamic religious tradition “systematically” might seem a respectful thing to do, as if granting equal dignity to these traditions that only a century ago were considered unworthy pagan superstitions. This kind of scholarly and pedagogical systemizing owes its inspiration to the Christian tradition of systematic theology, which attempts to formulate Christian doctrines as a coherent whole (but of course ordinary Christians do not necessarily practice their Christianity “coherently”). We might not be able to readily throw off this intellectual baggage, but we must always be aware of such epistemological habits (or “habits of the mind”) when we try to understand any religious tradition.
In a succinct three-page list of basic sources in English, Chau includes John Lagerwey’s China: a religious state, a largely historical overview, and The religious question of modern China edited by Goossaert and Palmer. I might also mention C.K. Yang’s Religion in Chinese society (1961), a fine early study written at an exceptionally traumatic time for the PRC. And Chau might be sympathetic to my suggestion to include some ethnographic films in this list—always a more engaging medium than discursive, silent, immobile representations on the page.
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Like Ian Johnson’s The souls of China (2017) and the recent Handbook on religion in China (ed. Stephan Feuchtwang, 2020), this book should appeal to a rather broad readership. Some of the issues in reaching a wide audience are in presentation, such as in-text references and footnotes—both inimical to more populist publishers. But Chau’s book has sixteen photos, whereas Ian’s, curiously, has none.
The two books are very different. While also giving fine personal vignettes, Chau’s main aim is to illuminate social structures; whereas Johnson’s book, while also well-informed, revolves around portraits of a few figures (again including the Li family Daoists!), and may speak more vividly to non-specialist China-watchers. So The souls of China (“a book that could never have been written by a modern academic, and I mean that by way of praise”—James Miller) makes more welcome fodder for the Western Seekers of Truth, as well as for advocates of religious freedom and the triumph of spirituality over secularism. But I hope all those who admire Johnson’s book will also learn from Chau’s work.