Democracy's Dharma: Religious Renaissance and Political Development in Taiwan

By Pacey, Scott | The China Journal, July 2008 | Go to article overview
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Democracy's Dharma: Religious Renaissance and Political Development in Taiwan


Pacey, Scott, The China Journal


Democracy's Dharma: Religious Renaissance and Political Development in Taiwan, by Richard Madsen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. xxvi + 191 pp. US$55.00/£32.95 (hardcover), US$21. 95/£12.95 (paperback).

Richard Madsen's book on the relationship between religion, modernity and democracy in contemporary Taiwan is a welcome addition to the existing literature on Taiwanese religious practice and society. The book provides case studies of three Taiwanese Buddhist organizations: Tzu Chi (Ciji), Buddha's Light Mountain (Foguangshan) and Dharma Drum Mountain (Fagushan). To this he adds a Daoist establishment: the Enacting Heaven Temple (Xingtiangong). The inclusion of this latter organization establishes the study as being about the broader religious scene in Taiwan, rather than just its Buddhist organizations. One feature of these groups is that many of their members are drawn from Taiwan's middle class. They are also notable for their social activities, which include the establishment of hospitals and universities and the mounting of responses to natural disasters. These and other social aspects of the groups, as well as their relation to processes of democracy and modernization, form the focus of the study.

The book is structured around the four case studies, with a chapter devoted to each establishment. There is also a chapter introducing the contemporary Taiwanese religious landscape, and a concluding chapter in which Madsen summarizes his theoretical considerations. In addition to archival research, one of the strongest features of this study is its use of anthropological and sociological methodologies, including interviews and participant observation. As he states in the preface, Madsen was in Taiwan during the "9/21" earthquake of 21 September 1999. This enabled him to gain first-hand knowledge of the ways in which each of these organizations responded to the disaster, since they all engage in social welfare projects. From the perspective of understanding how religious groups operate within the social and secular spheres in Taiwan, this was clearly important.

At the theoretical level, the study is founded on Madsen's questioning of the established approaches that have been used to understand the relationships between modernization, democracy, civil society and religion. The four organizations that form the focus of this investigation are analyzed within the context of Taiwan's transition to democracy and civil society, as well as how the period of coinciding religious growth has both contributed towards, and benefited from, these political and social changes. Another theoretical consideration is the relationship between Confucianism and democracy. Madsen challenges the notion that Confucian values are incompatible with democracy, pointing out that the organizations under consideration each retain Confucian elements in various ways (some more so than others). However, they have flourished during, and contributed to, the rise of democracy. Therefore, so-called "Asian values" can indeed provide a basis on which to establish democracy.

That these organizations have played an important role both in Taiwan's transition towards and its maintenance of democracy is a central theme of this study. On the one hand, they have cooperated with the government both during and after Taiwan's transition to democracy.

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