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  • Superstitious Regimes: Religion and the Politics of Chinese Modernity by Rebecca Nedostup
  • Joseph Tse-Hei Lee (bio)
Rebecca Nedostup. Superstitious Regimes: Religion and the Politics of Chinese Modernity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009. 459 pp. Hardcover $45.00, ISBN 978-0-674-03599-7.

Superstitious Regimes is a fabulous addition to the growing literature on the centrality of religion in Republican China. Focusing on the anti-superstition campaign in Jiangsu Province during the Nanjing decade (1927–1937), Rebecca Nedostup examines how the Nationalists implemented an ambitious social and cultural engineering project to reshape urban and rural religious space, how such a top-down transformation affected the organizational structure and ritual practices of both institutional and diffused religions, and how different religious actors devised innovative strategies to cope with this momentous change. Nedostup traces the roots of anti-superstition to the early twentieth-century reform of separating religion from superstition in order to reform traditional customs and spiritual conditions. By definition, “anti-superstition” meant an attack not only on local cults and temple religions, but also on all devotional and liturgical forms of ritual practices. The Nationalists thought that they needed to control religions that fostered localism, kinship loyalty, and ethnic pride in order to maintain national unity among the diverse populations. Through the anti-superstition campaign, they used suppressive and cooptative measures to restrict proselytizing activities, register religious property and personnel, and regulate ceremonial rituals and customary practices.

Thematically, this book has expanded the latest studies of religious space by Peter Carroll, Vincent Goossaert, Thomas DuBois, and Shu-Wah Poon to discuss the intense power struggles over the control of religious institutions and resources. It explores the ways in which secularism affected the making of a modern Chinese nation-state, from which commoners were supposed to benefit. Using religion and superstition as analytical categories, Nedostup presents fascinating case studies of the major Buddhist and Taoist institutions in Jiangsu Province and reveals the growing fears, worries, and concerns of those religious worshippers who were trapped in the state-building project. While some religious actors resisted the state’s modernist ideology, many religious communities adapted to the new ideological climate and appropriated the secular terminologies to empower themselves. A closer look at the process of adaptation by different religious actors throws light on the success and failure of China’s quest for secular modernity. The way in which religious actors manipulated the state’s anti-religion policies shaped the Nationalist expansion into the religious domain. This observation has rejected the teleological view associated with the rise of secular nationalism in the Chinese historiography.

Equally significant is the importance of dual agency in the religion-state encounter. The Nationalist party officials and the religious communities actively engaged one another in the anti-superstition campaign. Both sides frequently responded to the top-down institutional change by shifting their bargaining [End Page 387] strategies, which eventually affected the process and outcomes of the campaign. When most of the religious actors recognized the futility of opposing the powerful Nationalist government, they shifted from opposing the anti-superstition campaign to openly embracing it, partly for self-protection and partly in the hope that they could protect the local religious interests. Consequently, the anti-superstition campaign turned into a political weapon used by all sides to advance their independent agendas.

Furthermore, this study reveals the inconsistency of the state-making process in the religious domain. When the Nationalists established themselves in Nanjing, they employed the ideology of secularism to recast religious principles and practices in political terms and to organize an anti-superstition campaign that brought a diverse group of activists with different political visions and interests on board. The conflicts between the Nationalists and community religions had a strong property dimension even though the ostensible reasons given were different. The control over religious properties turned out to be an integral part of the anti-superstition campaign. Because of irreconcilable differences between the pragmatic government administrators in Nanjing and the local dogmatic party activists, the focus of the anti-superstition campaign was always in a flux. Some political actors favored full-scale attack on religion by criminalizing religious sectarians, disciplining worshippers’ behaviors, and secularizing...


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pp. 387-389
Launched on MUSE
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