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Reviewed by:
  • Understanding Chinese Religions by Joachim Gentz
  • Ying-kit Chan (bio)
Joachim Gentz. Understanding Chinese Religions. Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, 2013. 181 pp. Paperback £12.50, isbn 978-1-903765-77-7.

Both Vincent Goossaert and David Ownby have observed that, in the study of Chinese religion, philologically grounded sinologists study the texts of the Chinese classical religious traditions of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism, while anthropologists examine the living practices, particularly ritual practices, of contemporary Chinese religion.1 In his book, which forms part of the Dunedin series Understanding Faiths, Joachim Gentz clearly shows that he belongs to the former category of Chinese studies scholars. Combining both empirical and historical data with his own reflections on the main analytical concepts in Chinese religions, Gentz performs a close reading of ancient Chinese texts and attempts a new interpretation of existing secondary literature on the Chinese religious landscape. It is an introductory text aimed at general readers and students of comparative religion, and one of the book’s main arguments is that although religion is a Western notion and the Chinese language has no coherent notion of religion in premodern discourse (p. 3), it remains possible to examine the six main religious traditions—ancient religion, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, popular religion, and state religion—in China from four different angles: discourses, institutions, classifications, and terminology (p. 4). Having established in the first chapter the point that religion does exist in China, Gentz proceeds to present ancient religion, Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and popular religion in their historical perspective; state religion is conspicuously missing here.

Gentz contends that while groupings of religious affairs in premodern China existed in linguistic, institutional, and classificatory systems, no terminology specific to religion was present (p. 11). Because the Chinese saw no systematic distinction between the sacred and the secular, their generic concepts of ritual and rule were never differentiated terminologically (p. 18), and the cosmic order that rituals reenact was envisaged as a moral order not to be violated. The great fluidity [End Page 596] of religious traditions in a landscape of “regulated pluralism” in late imperial China was the product of centuries of contestation and negotiation between the three teachings of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. On the other hand, Western models were derived from the highly exclusivist monotheistic Abrahamic religions, churchlike institutions, independent priesthood, and public religious practices (p. 67), so they cannot adequately explain Chinese religions (p. 34) and how the basic structure of the Chinese religious landscape has remained in the present.

Although Gentz claims to have approached the study of Chinese religions more from the systematic than from the historical side, he divides his book chronologically according to the periods of emergence of the main religious traditions in China. For instance, the chapters on ancient religion and Confucianism discuss the innovation in Zhou religion from the idea of preordained cosmic forces to the humanization of moral and spiritual power, suggesting that the early Chinese notion of morality lay neither in heaven nor in man’s moral nature but in studying the laws of heaven and earth and the ritual and music of earlier sages. Gentz also describes briefly the evolution of the Confucius cult/worship to Confucianism and then Neo-Confucianism, explaining how Neo-Confucianism, in its repudiation of Han Confucianism, emerged as a response to the challenges of Buddhism and Daoism on the dual premises of heavenly pattern (li) and human nature (xing), identifying the Confucian tradition with Mengzi and Daxue instead. Wang Yangming’s school of the Heart-Mind, or xinxue, endowed Neo-Confucianism with cosmological concepts, mystic knowledge, and practical action—notions of virtue, power, and bliss that are analogous to the Buddhist religious tradition. Returning to the Eurocentric question of whether Confucianism is a religion, Gentz offers no conclusive statement but examines Jesuit and European Enlightenment interpretations of Confucianism as the roots of stereotypes associated with Chinese religions, insinuating that certain aspects or dimensions of Confucianism “accord with our mainstream understanding of religion” and that they possess “a kind of religiosity” (p. 53).

In the chapter on Daoism, Gentz identifies the ingredients of Daoism, which comprise celestial bureaucracy, cosmologies, correlative cosmology, astrology, wu-shamanism, fangshi, the cult of immortality, alchemy...


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