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  • From Secularization to Categorization:A New Paradigm for the Study of Religion in Modern China
  • J. Brooks Jessup (bio)
Vincent Goossaert and David A. Palmer. The Religious Question in Modern China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. xi, 464 pp. Hardcover $40.00, isbn 978-0-226-30416-8.

Vincent Goossaert and David Palmer’s new book offers an impressive survey of the complex religious landscape in China from 1898 to the present. The grand scope of this project is reminiscent of C. K. Yang’s 1961 publication, Religion in Chinese Society: A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religion and Some of their Historical Factors. Particularly within the last decade, the secularization thesis advanced in Yang’s classic Weberian study has been buried under an avalanche of research asserting the continued vitality and relevance of religion in modern Chinese society and culture. Defying categorization as a volume of essays, a research monograph, or a textbook, The Religious Question in Modern China offers a powerful new synthesis of this recent scholarship from two scholars who have long established themselves as leaders in the field. The book leverages the complimentary strengths of the “anthropologically minded historian” Goossaert in the social history of Daoism during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and of the “historically minded anthropologist” Palmer in the sociology of cultivation and redemptive movements during the second half of the twentieth century (p. 5). However, the authors have also gone to great lengths to integrate meaningfully and thoughtfully a vast range of scholarship across numerous disciplines and languages into a highly fluent and coherent historical narrative that, nevertheless, remains grounded in sociological detail. The result is a valuable and provocative work that promises to “return religion to the center of modern Chinese history” (p. 4).

In crafting the book’s analytical approach, Goosaert and Palmer have brought to fruition a discursive turn in the study of modern Chinese religion that was pioneered by Prasenjit Duara and Rebecca Nedostup, as well as the authors themselves, and inspired by theorists such as Talal Asad. Accordingly, the book approaches “religion,” together with its foils, such as “superstition” and “evil cult,” as new discursive categories that were imported in the twentieth century and stretched imperfectly across the Chinese religious landscape primarily by the interventionist programs of the modern secular state. The inherent incompleteness of these state programs, and the consequent instability of their discursive categories, is signaled by the authors’ designation of “religion” in modern China as an unresolved question. Within this approach, the secularization process, which had once been seen by C. K. Yang and others as the inexorable march of history, is reinterpreted as an ever incomplete “ideological project” (p. 5); the old secularization thesis becomes displaced from its position as dominant paradigm by a new categorization thesis that has been gaining ground in the field for over a [End Page 432] decade. In order to avoid reproducing the official categorization of religion that they seek to problematize as an object of analysis, the authors adopt an ecological metaphor to construct a more flexible framework for conceptualizing the Chinese religious landscape. They conceive the Chinese religion not as an autonomous system, but rather as part of a larger “social ecology” (p. 13) in which religious elements constantly interact with each other as well as with the broader social, political, and economic environment. A major advantage of this loose alternative framework is that it allows for the incorporation of elements such as martial arts and qigong, which are excluded from official definitions of religion in China yet undeniably partake in the shared heritage of Chinese religious traditions and practices. The central narrative of the book, therefore, traces how the modern Chinese state’s coercive imposition of “religion,” and other related modernist discursive categories, resulted in fundamental yet often unintended reconfigurations of the religious elements within China’s social ecology.

This central narrative is firmly established by the seven thematic chapters included in the first of the book’s two parts, covering roughly from the nineteenth century into the early decades of the People’s Republic (post-1949). During the late imperial era, the authors argue, Chinese religion enjoyed a condition of equilibrium within...