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Reviewed by:
  • Buddhist and Christian Responses to the Kowtow Problem in China by Eric Reinders
  • Amos Yong
BUDDHIST AND CHRISTIAN RESPONSES TO THE KOWTOW PROBLEM IN CHINA. By Eric Reinders. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. ix + 187 pp.

The very brief acknowledgments paragraph by this Emory University associate professor of East Asian religions intimates that the subject of this book was researched and first written in the 1990s but does not explain the almost two-decade delay in [End Page 234] publication. The title of the published version correctly suggests a more comparative stance than the doctoral dissertation—“Buddhist Rituals of Obeisance and the Contestation of the Monk’s Body in Medieval China,” which was awarded a PhD by the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1997—although it is perhaps more accurate to say not only that the book engages with Christian resistance (not merely “responses”) to the bowing rite but that the original study that focused more narrowly on seventh-century China has been expanded into a broader historical approach that includes the modern Christian encounter with China and other more specifically history-of-comparative-religions concerns. Further, the bibliography of the volume under review indicates that the author has attempted to keep up with the literature on the topic that has appeared in the intervening years. Last, although perhaps most important, Reinders has in the intervening years built on and extended the line of inquiry charted in his doctoral studies—including two books: Borrowed Gods and Foreign Bodies: Christian Missionaries Imagine Chinese Religion (University of California Press, 2004), and Buddhism and Iconoclasm in East Asia: A History (with Fabio Rambell, Bloomsbury Academic, 2012)—and these have in turn now also influenced his revisioning, rewriting, and expanding of the original research and thesis.

Readers of Buddhist-Christian Studies will appreciate at least the following three lines of comparative inquiry. First, Reinders cut his scholarly teeth riding one of the first waves of research on religion and the body, and this book exhibits the expertise honed by one who has inhabited this realm of inquiry since it appeared in the religious studies academy. Although almost half of the book (chapters 2–4, of seven) is devoted to the imperial debate in 662 that pitted Confucian pro-bowing arguments against Buddhist anti-bowing apologetics—led by the monk Daoxuan (596–667)—Reinders helpfully situates the affair historically, textually, philosophically, and religiously. From an intra–East Asian perspective, the dispute exhibited how and why Confucians and Buddhists, while imbibing each other’s traditions over the millennia, have not always seen eye to eye (pun intended). On the one hand, both granted deferentiality was innate to the human condition, whether manifest in filial piety or when oriented respectfully to the Buddha as symbolic of human awakening and enlightenment; on the other hand, bowing to one’s parents, or to the emperor, was not the same as obedience to the Buddha and his representatives (monks in the Buddhist order and its various levels), and certainly not always to be demanded. While the more philosophically inclined will be drawn to assessments regarding bowing in relationship to power or authority, to the gendered aspect of postures of obeisance, or to theories of verticality and hierarchy as illuminating the sociality of the bow (all explicated in chapter 6), others interested in the materiality of religion will be treated episodically to how human relationships are structured spatially and habitually, how sacred space (Buddhist temples, for instance) is defined topographically and ritually, and how spiritual awakening is not only manifest in embodied practices but also achieved through acts of obeisance conducted on the proper occasions. The phenomenological insights into the kowtow that appear at crucial junctures throughout the book highlight the symbolic density encoded in the act of bowing, although it is not just what is socially and conventionally accepted about the import of the rite that may [End Page 235] be most important, but how its habituated intentionality expressed multiple layers of enlightened or awakened self-consciousness in approaching others or interacting with one’s environment (whether construed “naturally,” interpersonally, or apropos the Buddha and “his” representatives). Overlooked in the modern world as no more than a perfunctory...


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