Making Religion, Making the State: The Politics of Religion in Modern China

By Billioud, Sébastien | China Perspectives, October 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Making Religion, Making the State: The Politics of Religion in Modern China


Billioud, Sébastien, China Perspectives


Yoshiko Ashiwa and David L Wank (eds), Making Religion, Making the State: The Politics of Religion in Modem China, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2009, 294 pp.

akin g Religion, Making the State is an important contribution to the field of religious studies in that it constitutes a sophisticated attempt to escape what the editors consider a prevailing paradigm in today's research, namely the analysis of "state and religion in dichotomous frameworks of antagonism and conflict" (p. 3). Instead, the volume emphasises the complexity of a religious field in which actors are plentiful (government agencies, the clergy, religious associations, overseas Chinese, etc.), engage in strategies that, beyond conflict or competition, also include cooperation and adaptation, and ultimately all attempt to implement the modern category of religion. The institutionalisation of religions therefore takes place in a context in which state and religion are mutually constitutive (pp. 5-6).

To some extent, the book's inspiration comes from the work of Talal Asad and the idea that "the processes by which situations are adapted to the modern definition of religion are political" (p. 7). Four types of political processes are identified in Yoshiko Ashiwa and David L. Wank's stimulating introductory essay and are exemplified by the various articles (pp. 12-17): Politics within the state (i.e., debates within the state apparatus about how to institutionalise religion); state imposition of "religion" (as a category) on religion and its outcomes; accommodation of state institutions by religions (i.e., strategies of the different religions to adapt to the category of religion, for example by suppressing activities that might be considered superstitious); and popular institution and the politics of religion (i.e., how popular religious undertakings may contribute to shape the politics of religion).

The contributions included in the volume cover the five main religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam) plus a case-study of popular religion and an article on qigong. In addition, a study by Timothy Brook provides some insight into the late-imperial origins of the regulatory state, and highlights elements of continuity between Confucian and Republican/Communist hostilities to religion.

With examples drawn mainly from Buddhism, Yoshiko Ashiwa discusses two periods (the Republican period and the era beginning with reform and opening) and shows how state and religion "have aggressively moved to create their systems and position themselves vis-à-vis the other (...)" (p. 70). Richard Madsen and Lizhu Fan study the case of the Catholic pilgrimage to Sheshan, on the outskirts of Shanghai, and explain the various layers of meaning it has had across history up to the present, as a result of which no one is able to fully control the cult. Carsten T. Valla explores the training of China's Protestant leadership and shows the totally counterproductive nature of state attempts to shape "compliant pastors" (and impose state views on religion). David L. Wank's article builds on fieldwork conducted in Xiamen (Nanputuo monastery) to introduce the diverse phases of a local Buddhist revival and the evolving strategies of the different actors to accommodate the religious discourse of the state and strengthen their position. …

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