- State and Religion in China: Historical and Textual Perspectives
This short book represents the collected insights of an immensely well-read and fecund scholar near the end of his career but clearly at the height of his powers. Originating in a public lecture and series of articles, the book reads less like a research-driven monograph (although some of the empirical insights are considerable), and more like a series of vignettes. Ostensibly, the goal of the book is to demonstrate the continued importance of religion to Chinese political thought, specifically that “there has never been a period in China’s historical past in which the government of the state, in imperial and post-imperial form, has pursued a neutral policy towards religion” (p. 3). As a thesis, this is hardly the stuff of controversy, but it provides a frame-work for each of the chapters to address the indivisibility of statecraft and religion in its own manner, often deviating into a wilderness of minor points and tangential themes along the way. However, what the book lacks in linear focus it more than makes up for in variety and insight, and warrants the effort of multiple readings.
The book begins with an examination of the terms used for religion, their origins, and the question of whether such ostensibly modern concepts can be retroactively deployed to analyze historical data. The crux of the argument is, of course, zongjiao , a term that is frequently traced back to the nineteenth-century Japanese neologism shūkyō, which was itself one of many possibilities coined to approximate a German term (Religionsübung), and all of this in the interest of treaty revision. In the minds of many Western and Chinese observers alike, the very foreign genealogy of the term for religion confirms an image of traditional China that was fundamentally secular, and to which religion in the Judeo-Christian sense was clearly a Western import. However, like many of the terms introduced by Meiji Japan (other examples would include political and legal vocabulary), zongjiao/shūkyō is less a neologism than a re-ologism, a resurrection and redefinition of preexisting words. Using a database of the electronic Wenyuange Siku quanshu , Yu demonstrates that the term zongjiao was employed as early as the fifth century, and generally in reference to Buddhism.1 Deriving the significance of the term as used in this earlier period is no easy matter, as each of the two component characters brings its own semantic chain of meanings. Zong can refer either to an ancestral lineage or to an ultimate principle. Jiao, commonly translated simply as “teaching,” is interpreted variously by texts such as the Mencius as “socialization,” or more precisely, “behavioral modification,” and by Han theorists as “a form of ritual intended for communication between the human and non-human realms” (p. 22). [End Page 292]
The significance of this argument becomes clear in the subsequent discussion of Confucian sacrifice. In a pattern repeated everywhere that Christian missionaries were active, Iberian Jesuits working in China were forced to determine what of the local culture could be incorporated into Christianity and what would have to be discarded in the act of conversion. Here, as elsewhere, the former was branded as culture, the latter as idolatry or, in kinder moments, as religion.2 While not the first, the best-known and in many ways most decisive moment of this debate in China was the Rites Controversy, in which Mateo Ricci famously placed Confucian sacrifice clearly in the camp of culture as nothing more than a laudable expression of respect toward one’s own parents. The later need to create a new term for religion is often taken to be both proof that the dominant traditional culture of Confucianism was fundamentally secular and conversely as the first glimmer of the “modernization” of Chinese religion, here signifying its relegation to a private sphere. Yu’s contribution is not to assert any direct continuity between the premodern and current uses of zongjiao, but rather...