Religion and the Early Modern State. Views from China, Russia, and the West

By Woodworth, Cherie | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2006 | Go to article overview
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Religion and the Early Modern State. Views from China, Russia, and the West


Woodworth, Cherie, The Catholic Historical Review


Religion and the Early Modern State. Views from China, Russia, and the West. Edited by James D. Tracy and Marguerite Ragnow. [Studies in Comparative Early Modern History, Center for Early Modern History, University of Minnesota, Vol. 5.] (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2004. Pp. xvii, 415. $85.00.)

In fifteenth century Ming China, a soldier turned religious teacher, Luo Qing, came to a critical insight of "Vacuous Emptiness" and "actionless action" (pp. 22-24). Luo Qing then laid out a text that was to become the germ of a heterodox, widespread, and persistent group of sects centered on the Eternal Mother, which inspired fear and provoked violent repression among imperial state officials. Though the Eternal Mother sects shared a belief that the predestined faithful would be saved from impending world catastrophe (p. 30), they branched into many forms. A branch of the sect in the 1570's was led by an adolescent girl and group of nuns (p. 32); the Red Sun sect preached that the youngest son of the Eternal Mother would descend to earth to save the elect (p. 33); the Unity Sect and Dragon Flower Vegetarian Assembly centered on a kind of Mater lacrimosa, "with tears running continuously from her eyes and drenching her clothes," mourning her fallen children (p. 35); and the apocalyptic Incense-Smelling sect had somewhere near two million followers and led a full-scale rebellion in 1622 (pp. 33-34). Although foEowers were sentenced to death by decapitation or slow-slicing, imperial officials recognized that the martyrs (to use the western category) "show no regret ... as they are eager to return to heaven" (p. 38).

The account of the rise and eventual suppression of the Eternal Mother cult in China might seem a perplexing opening chapter to a book that declares in the first line of its introduction that it "owes its origins to a desire to bring together two divergent approaches to the English Reformation." But this excellent and fascinating chapter by Richard Shek clearly and persuasively answers the initial skepticism natural to readers-Why should one read so far from one's geographical area of specialty? The account of the Eternal Mother cult lucidly lays out key conceptual categories that give structure to a collection of essays that could have fallen short of its challenging task in many ways, yet instead yields astonishing insights both through close focus and conceptual flexibility.

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