Understanding Chinese Religions

Understanding Chinese Religions

Understanding Chinese Religions

Understanding Chinese Religions


Chinese religions are often represented as a unity in which each tradition possesses a number of features typical of a Chinese religious system. Some of these features have been described as non-religious, so that from the 17th century there has been debate in Europe as to whether religion in China exists at all or whether what appear as 'Chinese religions' are not atheistic, purely functional, superstitious cults and rituals. However Chinese religions have long been of interest and fascination for Western scholars. Abundant historical material makes Chinese religions a highly interesting case. With their entirely different philosophical and political context Chinese religions are a challenging field of analysis for Western systematic questions and theories of religion. There is a rich and expanding scholarship in Chinese religions. At the same time, Chinese religions provide students with new and challenging perspectives on the nature of reality, environmental contexts, health, and different types of self-awareness. These provoke the question as to whether it is not the Western religious tradition that is an exception amongst the religious traditions of the world. Joachim Gentz explains some systematic problems related to Chinese religions and examines the roots of stereotypes associated with Chinese religions. He then offers a new systematic approach to explain Chinese religions before presenting the main religious traditions in their historical perspective.


Moving from Chinese to Religious Studies ten years ago I decided to give a series of lectures that combined introductions to Chinese religions and to Religious Studies. When Frank Whaling asked me whether I would like to write an introduction to Chinese religions in the Dunedin series I immediately agreed. I planned to rework and publish those lectures. Meanwhile, and working again in Chinese Studies, my research had driven me into new areas of Chinese religions. Instead of the earlier lectures I have therefore included some of my more recent research in this book. In Chapter 1 I developed my article on Chinese notions of ritual (Gentz, 2006b) as well as some of the discussion on the Chinese discourse on the unity of the Three Religions (sanjiao heyi) (Gentz, 2011). Chapter 6 is, in large part, based on ‘Buddhism and Chinese religions’ (Gentz, 2008a), while Chapter 8 also makes use of earlier material (Gentz, 2009a).

Although very little from my 2002 lectures found its way into Understanding Chinese Religions, the basic objective of presenting the Chinese material as a series of conceptual questions still underlies the composition of this book. This is one of the reasons why there is a long reflective chapter at the beginning and a general weakness in historical details. During my years of teaching Chinese religions to Western students (especially when compared to teaching other non-Western religions, such as Hinduism and Islam, to students), I have felt increasingly that Chinese religions are particularly difficult to understand. This is another reason why I have tried to approach Chinese religions more from the systematic than from the historical side. My German academic training might have also contributed to a preference for this approach.

Frank Whaling, Joanna Chisholm and David McLeod have in a most supportive way and with kind patience helped to bring the book into a publishable form and to minimise at least the linguistic traces of my Germanisms.

In transliterating Chinese terms this book uses the Hanyu pinyin system. Some Chinese terms are more commonly known in English according to other systems of romanisation. In those cases the traditional versions have been added in brackets behind the first pinyin transliterations.

Joachim Gentz Spillersboda, 2012 . . .

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