Wednesday, June 03, 2015


So my last official duty at Fudan is discharged: last night's talk on the impossible subject of The International Image and Impact of Chinese Spiritul Traditions. The subject was not of my choosing - a friend's rather over-the-top effort to avoid the word "religion," as I recall - but drew an interesting audience who let me distance myself from all the terms of the title and seemed happy enough to think together about what Chinese spiritual traditions might be, and how they have traveled or might travel beyond China.

The Norton Anthology of World Religions stood me in good stead as an anchor for my reflections. Since the talk was taking place under the auspices of a class, I was able to send out some readings, and chose the final five selections from the Daoism section. They're not meant to stand on their own (there are 118 others in the 700+ page section!) but it turns out they work well as a a mini-set: eminently teachable!
It's not just that they upend received ideas that "Daoism" is some airy-fairy gently paradox-riding nature mysticism inspired by Laozi, though they do that well. (Laozi here is deified, addressed as "August Emperor of the Chaotic Origin," and prayed to for this worldly success!)
The editorial choices and brief introductions also provide a beautiful sketch of the ways in which Daoist stuff spreads - whether in the Chinese-speaking world through priests (119 is an ordination) or, even more influential, spirit mediums (120 includes the speech of one such), or beyond it through texts (but not necessarily texts produced or authorized by Chinese or Sinologists: 121), the lore of martial arts (122, source of the wisdom at the top of this post), or in the international and national context through the quasi-governmental Chinese Daoist Association (123). We didn't settle the question of "image and impact" but managed to refine it in a manner congruent with current religious studies understandings of how religions work. In fact, one might well use this little bundle of readings to make the general point about religions, not just about Daoism.

The audience, half from the class and half curious members of the general public, got it and ran with it: an exciting discussion about whether there's a religious void in China, whether Confucianism is a religion and/or can exist without hierarchy, whether daily life can be spiritual, whether venerating ancestors is a religious or a cultural practice, whether individualism is compatible with religious practice, etc., etc...

So I was able to deliver a passable religious studies lecture after all. Thank you, Norton Anthology. And thank you, Fudan!

No comments: