The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence

By Andrew R. Murphy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 19
Violence in Chinese
Religious Culture

Barend J. ter Haar


Preliminary Considerations

Especially in popular and apologetic literature on China one still often finds statements to the effect that Chinese society is based on social harmony and by implication peaceful (for a recent example, see Li 2006: 583–603; for early revisionist work, see Lipman and Harrell 1990). It is also still often said that Chinese indigenous dynasties abhorred the use of military violence to solve its political problems. Although these are all largely ideological claims, it is against this background that specialists on Chinese society and history do their work, being influenced by such claims in setting their research agendas, but also by the response that they receive from a broader audience. The most common approach has been to ignore the topic altogether, because of its ideological sensitivity and analytical complications. Although not the topic of this chapter, it is important to observe that China traditionally was a society as filled with violence of all kinds as was our own – and probably still is today. The social harmony that is an important part of elite ideology was (and again is) a construct that covered up existing social tensions and needed to be enforced with considerable violence through the legal system, permitting all kinds of violence within the family, social control and enforcement, and otherwise (Johnston 1995; ter Haar 2000: 123–40; 2009a).

What we call “violence” is culturally, socially, genderwise, and even educationally defined. The same act of killing will be called violent when we disapprove of it (a mob killing) and counted as legal punishment when it is carried out by the state (an execution, even of someone who turns out to be an innocent person with legal hindsight). A distinction may be made between “real” violence and symbolic or metaphorical violence, and with some justification. Depending on one’s definitions of violence and religion, widely different statements can be made about the place of violence in China’s religious traditions. Violence is easily defined away as metaphorical and therefore not real enough to deserve the label “violence.” It can be described as a popular divergence

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