restricted access Chinese Religious Life ed. by David A. Palmer, Glenn Shive, and Philip L. Wickert (review)
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Reviewed by
David A. Palmer, Glenn Shive, and Philip L. Wickert, editors. Chinese Religious Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. xii, 277 pp. Map of China, glossary of terms, suggested further readings, index. Paperback $90.00, isbn 978-0-19-973138-1.

Chinese Religious Life is a collection of thirteen research articles, culled and edited from an international conference held at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 29–30 June 2007, on the theme “Religion and Social Integration in Chinese Societies.” Organized to “explore sociological approaches to the study of religion in the Chinese world” (p. vi), the conference was jointly planned through the collaborative effort of the Chung Chi College Center of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the Ecole Francais d’Extreme-Orient (Paris), and the Societies-Religious-Secularisms Institute (GSRL, Paris). The cost of the conference, as well as the publication of chosen papers, was generously funded by a variety of foundations and sponsors.

Attended by international scholars of Chinese religion, the papers selected for publication include topics that go beyond a sociological approach to religion. The disciplinary methods of history, philosophy, and sinology (including the definition of Daoist phrases used during rituals) make the work a timely and extremely important contribution, made more difficult by the ongoing changes in the religious world of modern socialist China today.

The three editors, David Palmer, Glenn Shive, and Philip Wickeri, have organized the book into four major segments: “Ways of Being Religious,” “Culture and Society,” “Politics and Economy,” and “Global Perspectives.” By so doing, they have provided to the reader a heuristic model for organizing and editing what would otherwise have been a wide variety of disparate research presentations, giving a much deeper educational meaning to the papers chosen for publication.

David Palmer, assistant professor and research fellow of the University of Hong Kong, presents a particularly effective historical outline, in part 3, chapter 9, [End Page 658] which (this reviewer feels) might well be read immediately after Philip Wickeri’s clear and theme-setting introduction. Both articles help the reader understand the clear structural plan, uniting the various research topics, in each of the four sections.

In chapter 9, Palmer summarizes in seventeen pages the salient points in the historical development of China’s culture-based (as opposed to faith in a revealed scripture) religious practices. Ancestor rites provide political legitimacy in Shang dynasty oracle bones, Heaven’s Command (Tian Ming) allows the Zhou dynasty ascendancy due to “virtues found in a ruler blessed by heaven,” Yinyang Five Element cosmology (also translated as “five phases,” “five movers”) unites Confucian ethics and Daoist nature during the later Zhou and Warring States period (771–256 b.c.e.), then helps forge China into a single empire (Han dynasty, 221 b.c.e.-220 c.e.). A newly organized religious Daoism and then Buddhism unify China’s “rites of passage” and annual festivals. Tang dynasty trade and then Song dynasty religious reformation add to the evolution of China’s religions and spiritual practices. Finally, the modern demise of empire and the reestablishment of China’s strength and respect in the modern world make a readable introduction to the remaining chapters (chaps. 1–8, 10–12).

Among the many topics and themes, three of the presentations are chosen for supplementary comment, in order to promote further research and suggest other sources, and to enhance the use to which Chinese Religious Life can serve as a resource for upper-division college lectures and graduate seminars.

Wai Lun Tan’s “Communal Worship and Festivals in Chinese Villages” (chap. 2) provides an abundant and fertile source for further field research, as well as suggestions for textual verification. In an all-too-brief summary, the topics of architecture, fengshui (geomancy), lineage and ancestor veneration, lion dances, and the continuing role of “gods (spirits), ancestors, and daemon[s]” in village life and ritual are expertly and colorfully described. The mention of “Lü Shan” Daoism (p. 46) evokes the comment “ritual specialist (who must) cross dress as a woman which is a very small part of a much larger ritual-as-drama tradition, described more thoroughly by John Lagerwey (Taipei, 2009) in a multivolume...