Friday, March 21, 2014


I thought that researchers on religion in China might find their way to New School after I spent a year there making connections, but why wait? We're on Chinese time now!

Yesterday we hosted a symposium called "The Religious Revival in Contemporary China," with two ethnographically oriented sociologists from Fudan University in Shanghai. Both presentations were fascinating, providing on-the-ground descriptions of emerging formations in the spaces between an officially atheistic state and the limited list of "religions" it officially condones. Even if weren't already a lived religion fan, these amazing category-stymying thick descriptions would make clear the need for theories more supple than our understandings of religion - even world religion - for understanding what's going on.

Fan Lizhu described the wave of new and restored ancestry halls in southern China, nominally no more than public spaces and representations of family pride but in fact the continuation of ancient popular religious practices which predate all the official "religions." Na Chen described the emergence of a new religion that calls itself Confucianism 儒教 - a term scholars shun (preferring 儒学 and 儒家), in part because Confucianism is not one of the five recognized religions. This new "Confucian congregation" combines popular religious practices - healing, talismans, chanting and veneration of ancient worthies as well as its three still living founders. Its main texts and teachings are ancient Confucian but it also chants parts of the Daodejing and, cannily, Confucian-sounding government policies such as Hu Jintao's "Eight Honors and Eight Shames" and Xi Jinping's talk of "harmonious society."

Fascinating stuff, which led to a wide-ranging discussion in our standing-room-only crowd. I was the moderator, and framed the discussion with Wilfred Cantwell Smith's famous claim that "The question, 'Is Confucianism a religion?' is one that the West has never been able to answer and China never able to ask" (The Meaning and End of Religion, 69). This may no longer be true, I suggested. In any case western attempts to understand Chinese practices and ideas involving heaven, human nature, fate, ancestors, morality and ritual long predate the modern discourse of religion, and provide a great starting point for a rethink of this discourse - especially as folks in China have been wrestling with it for over a century now. How exciting that I get to explore this, there and here!

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