Religious Diversity and Public Religion in China

Article excerpt

Religious Diversity and Public Religion in China, by Zhibin Xie. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006. viii + 160 pp. £45.00 (hardcover).

Zhibin Xie has written an ambitious and commendable book that makes a timely contribution to academic discussions about religion in China. This book is a revision of his doctoral dissertation for the University of Hong Kong and in the course of completing it he was able to interview numbers of religious believers in Xiamen, Quanzhou and Guangzhou. His knowledge of contemporary practice ably complements his theoretical analysis of the place of religion in both public life and political debate. He then applies this knowledge and analysis to the present situation in China, and hypothesizes about the role religion and religious believers might play in a future China. To do this he considers, in Chapter 8, "the abortion debate in China" as a case study. Xie divides his work into three parts: "the publicness of religion, and religion in public political culture", "religion and its political context in China" and "the appropriate role of religion in public political culture in a democratic China: a proposal".

As can be seen from these headings, Xie leads the reader towards a vision of what the contribution made by religion might be, based on his analysis of what presently seems to be the situation. The first section establishes the theoretical framework for his analysis. In his own words, "my study of religion in public life, and especially in political debate in the West, is drawn mostly from the academic resources developed by scholars in the United States" (p. 3). These scholars include John Rawls, Robert Audi, Michael Sandel, Michael Perry, Nicholas Westerhoff and David Hollenbach.

Xie recognizes that this might seem strange, given that the book focuses on contemporary China. Thus, in his introduction, he seeks to answer the question of whether it is possible and even appropriate to apply to the Chinese situation a set of academic resources developed for and within another social, cultural and political setting. He argues that the debate among Western academics concerning the significance of religion in a global context is able to make a valuable contribution to the discussion of the public role of religion in China. Furthermore, he maintains that this contribution would be particularly helpful in relation to the extensive discussion that has taken place among such scholars regarding the problems raised by religion's participation in public discourse, especially in relation to religious pluralism and the issue of institutional church-state separation.

As an historian of religion in China I do not feel qualified to judge the merits of this argument, or the relevance of the resources drawn from the fields of Western philosophy and political science. …