AuthorSmith, Anthony
PositionBook review


Editor: Stephan Feuchtwang

Published by: Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, 2020, 472pp, 139.50 [pounds sterling].

One critical means to understand the 'worldview' of another society is to consider its religious streams. In China's case, this is a more complex story than most. This starts with the question of what actually constitutes religion, which has been endlessly debated in the Chinese context (consider the centuries-long debate known as the 'Rites Controversy' within the Catholic church about whether Confucian ancestor rites were or were not compatible with monotheistic belief). Even defining a term like 'religion' for the purposes of Chinese law, as Stephan Feuchtwang (emeritus professor of anthology from the London School of Economics) tells us in the introduction, has had to borrow from Western constructs of that term. Feuchtwang takes an expansive notion of what constitutes religion for the purposes of this volume centred on China, which he posits is 'about ways of transmitting and forming moral personhood, transcendence and immanence' (immanence meaning the divine in the material world). That would seem very appropriate for a country where Chinese folk religion, Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism (the latter often said to be more a philosophy or a 'spiritual tradition' than a religion) have all coexisted and intertwined. Furthermore, Islam and Christianity have old roots in China, and Protestant forms of Christianity in particular --often in localised Chinese forms--have grown exponentially. All of this occurs against a backdrop of an evolving relationship with the Chinese Communist Party, officially atheist in orientation, which went through periods of trying to suppress or even eliminate religion from the Chinese landscape (notably during the Revolution and Cultural Revolution phases) before shifting to some recognition by the late 1970s that some accommodation would be necessary. As Feuchtwang notes, religion is still strictly monitored and much of it controlled through government recognised peak organisations. Furthermore, as Richard Madsen (University of California, San Diego) notes, the 1982 legal arrangements enacted by the Chinese state referred to five religions that had both hierarchical institutions and systematic doctrine--namely, Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism--while everything was regarded as 'superstition', at least some of which is viewed as unscientific...

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