Religion in China Today

By Kipnis, Andrew | The China Journal, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Religion in China Today


Kipnis, Andrew, The China Journal


Religion in China Today, edited by Daniel L. Overmyer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. viii + 235 pp. US$24.99 (paperback).

This volume from The China Quarterly will serve as a useful desk reference for those interested in the relationship between religion and governance for years to come. It emerged from a conference structured around the analysis of religious institutions, providing an historical feel that helps illuminate aspects of contemporary China.

The book's difference from the ordinary overview is most apparent in the historical scope and chronologies that the authors utilize. While political and economic overviews are usually structured in relationship to the transformations of modernity, the questions that religions attempt to answer about life and death or the nature of the universe have lineages much older than anyone's definition of modernity. The Chinese state has interacted with religious institutions for at least two millennia. Consequently, while the post-Mao divide is still an important turning point for the authors, many see echoes of pre-Mao, pre-Kuomintang and sometimes even pre-Qing dynamics in the contemporary dilemmas of religions. For example, in a chapter on communal religion in southeast China, Kenneth Dean finds that contemporary patterns of religious revival have their roots in processes of religious institution-building that go back to the Song dynasty. In another chapter, Nancy Chen draws parallels between the Falungong protests and the White Lotus Rebellion of the early nineteenth century.

Though the book includes chapters on Taiwan and Hong Kong, these are clearly supplements to a volume that draws its logic from PRC patterns of governance. A brief introduction is followed by a study of the legal institutions that regulate religious practice in China today, surveys of each of the five official religions in the PRC (Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism), three chapters on forms of popular PRC religious phenomena that fall outside the five official religions, and comparative chapters on Taiwan and Hong Kong/Macau. All of the chapters focus on dilemmas that arise from the interactions between state officials and religious practitioners, reflecting the sensitivity of religious practice to the Communist Party.

An issue that comes up repeatedly is the process by which religious leaders are selected in the PRC. The Party wants control over the selection and training of religious leaders, but Party-selected leaders are often unacceptable to the faithful of diverse groups such as Catholics (for whom Vatican approval is paramount) and Tibetan Buddhists (who revere the Dalai Lama). In other contexts, such as with Daoist priests who operate from their private homes rather than monasteries, unofficially trained religious leaders are available and popular, outside any official processes. The ability of the Religious Affairs Bureau and local religious practitioners to compromise on this issue often determines the extent to which religious practices are driven underground and into conflict with the state.

The chapters by Kenneth Dean, Raoul Birnbaum and Richard Madsen are particularly stimulating. …

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