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Reviewed by:
  • Superstitious Regimes: Religion and the Politics of Chinese Modernity
  • Vincent Goossaert
Superstitious Regimes: Religion and the Politics of Chinese Modernity by Rebecca Nedostup. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009. Pp xiv + 459. $45.00.

The study of the modern transformations of religion in Chinese society, under the radical political reforms of the late imperial, warlord, Nationalist, and Communist governments, was for a long time a blind spot in Chinese studies. Scholars of religious studies have primarily been interested in ancient history, texts, or “traditional” rural practices, while historians of modern China have asserted or implied that religion became irrelevant after (if not long before) the Revolution of 1911. Over the course of the past decade, however, the field of modern Chinese religious history has grown rapidly, as contemporary political and religious developments have encouraged historians to search for their origins in the recent past.1 Nedostup’s book is an outstanding example of this recent flurry of scholarly production.

Nedostup is a historian of modern Chinese politics, particularly of the Kuomintang (KMT); she explores the formation and the effects of the KMT’s religious policies in order to shed new light on processes of state building and social reforms. But, in stark contrast to the many previous historians who have broached such topics in rather naïve ways, she has a solid and nuanced understanding of what religion actually was in Republican-period Chinese society and never confuses ideological categories with social practice. She has notably taken stock of the most recent research on Republican-period redemptive societies (by Prasenjit Duara, David Ownby, and David Palmer) and has thus been able to astutely critique the characterizations of such religious groups by politicians. Her work is therefore extremely useful for scholars in the fields of religious studies and political, intellectual, and social history. For this alone, Nedostup’s study is a historiographical milestone that demonstrates that the subject of religion is entering mainstream scholarship on Chinese modern history. That this milestone reflects an impressive command of a staggering body of primary and secondary [End Page 433] literature, features sophisticated theorizations, and is rendered in finely crafted prose, speaks further to the importance and desirability of Superstitious Regimes.

Superstitious Regimes evolved from a Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University, submitted in 2001, that has already achieved must-quote status.2 About the same time, other scholars also began to engage questions similar to those raised by Nedostup. Notable is the work of Shuk-wah Poon, who has researched the modern transformations of religion in the Guangzhou area. Unlike that of Nedostup, Poon’s work is based more on newspaper reports than on archival resources; it therefore follows a different analytical trajectory, focusing more on events such as festivals and less on processes of administrative control.3 Indeed, although Nedostup is not the first scholar to utilize archival resources for the study of modern religion, hers is by far the most sustained and ambitious study to date, employing a here-tofore unimagined wealth of existing data to present a fascinatingly complex picture of conflicts and negotiations between local leaders and state agents of all stripes vying to control temples, celebrations, and ritual businesses. Mainland Chinese scholars are just now moving in similar directions, and uncovering many more archival documents and stories.4

Although the introduction to Superstitious Regimes provides a historical and comparative background running from the late Qing to the 1930s, the core of the book really deals with the Nanjing regime (1927–1937). Chapter 2 describes policy making, leading us down the intricate pathways that led to the formulation of the regime’s religious policies; its compartmentalized (and benign) management of Christianity, Tibeto-Mongol Buddhism, and Islam; its reluctant recognition of corporatist Buddhist and a few other associations; and its campaigns to eradicate almost all the rest under the label “superstition.” The major [End Page 434] Nationalist laws on religion (the 1928 “standards” on temple destruction; the laws of 1928, 1929, and 1936 on temple management and registration; and the laws of 1928–1931 against superstition) are known to scholars, but Nedostup provides a novel account of how they were produced and implemented. Although she takes us inside the...


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