Religion and the Making of Modern East Asia

By Lin, Yueh-Mei | Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

Religion and the Making of Modern East Asia


Lin, Yueh-Mei, Journal of Buddhist Ethics


Religion and the Making of Modern East Asia. By Thomas David DuBois. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, xii+ 259 pages, ISBN 987-1107400405 (paperback), ISBN 978-1107008090 (cloth) $81.00.

Thomas David DuBois states that the goal of his book, Religion and the Making of Modern East Asia, is to show "how religion also shaped the big themes of history--the economic, political and military transformation of modern East Asia" (3). He feels this is important because scholars who write on Asian history usually pay attention to popular themes, such as modernization, political change, and the "clash of civilization" between Asia and the West, but overlook the significant role that religion played in shaping the development of modern East Asia. As a historian of East Asian religion, DuBois observes that religion has played a similarly important role in the history of East Asia as it played in the West. DuBois argues that religion lives and breathes in human society, and it is not simply an idea, but an idea in action. Consequently, religion not only gives people a way to structure their world, mark time, and express their deepest fears and desires, it also "shaped countless historical process, as well as millions of ordinary lives over thousands of years" (5). In this book, DuBois aims to show the influence of these forces on modern East Asian history.

DuBois chooses to focus on the influence of religion on both Chinese and Japanese history as the target of inquiry, and points out three important characteristics of their religions at the outset of his book: first, the religion that caught the attention of Japanese elite was Buddhism whereas in China, it was Confucianism. DuBois's second observation is that religious doctrine in East Asia differs from the Western Judeo-Christian tradition, which is characterized by deities, angels, and other divine actors. Many Asian religions are "either agnostic or even atheistic, at least in their orthodox, scriptural form" (6). DuBois, thereby, defines East Asian religion as "an intellectual tradition of teachings and beliefs," or as "any community that organizes around religion" (5-6). It consists of both sacred and worldly institutions, and the latter may have "significant political and economic interests," and its representatives may "find their way into government and exert considerable influence" (5). Defining religion as such, the meaning of religion used in his book is larger than formal ecclesiastic institutions. This is because what DuBois articulates in this book is not confined to the religions in both Chinese and Japanese history, but also including their impacts on "the ideas, beliefs, and organizations that exist outside any identifiable church," (13) as well as the way religions shapes every aspect of human society, from growing food to spending money.

DuBois's third observation is in regards to the co-existence of the three teachings (Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism) in China. DuBois maintains that although each of these three religions has its own intellectual and organizational entities, in reality, "[t]he idea of exclusive religious membership, that one should be a Buddhist or Taoist, but not both, simply does not apply" (15). This means that even though some believers might be particularly devoted to one teaching, they would still incorporate elements of the other two, both consciously or, unconsciously, into their lives. This is because these three religions are "inseparable parts of a single system of beliefs, morals, and rituals that pervades Chinese life" (15). By identifying these three characteristics, DuBois lays a solid foundation for the reader to understand the core components and the major foci of his argument.

The layout of DuBois's book is primarily chronological, covering important religious events in the histories of China and Japan. Additionally, it connects the influence of a religion to its impact on politics and specific topics, such as Confucianism in Ming China, Buddhism and the shogun in Sixteenth century Japan, the failure of Christianity during 1550-1750, and religion in the late nineteenth century. …

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