Shanghai Sacred: The Religious Landscape of a Global City by Benoît Vermander, Liz Hingley, and Liang Zhang
This commendable book, based on solid fieldwork, paints a comprehensive and vivid picture about the dynamic of people's religious/spiritual lives in Shanghai, the most modernized and internationalized metropolis in contemporary China. [End Page 54] In this vein, this book opens a window for those who are eager to better understand the "lived" status of Chinese religions and spiritual practices, thus being of interest for scholars from various fields, such as area studies, cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, geography, and so on.
Specifically, the contents of this book consist of seven chapters. The introduction chapter starts from discussions on the unique feature of Chinese religious life—the continuity between the sacred and the secular, based on which the authors legitimize the perspective adopted by this book—to examine how people dynamically and dialectically construct the sacredness under the influences of multiple influxes in everyday life.
Chapter 1 subsequently familiarizes readers with the historical background about the different religious traditions (broadly defined) in Shanghai, and, by means of the conception of civic sacredness, directs readers' attention to the sacred meanings of the metropolis as well as how this sacredness can be potentially diversified through city planning and landscaping.
Chapter 2 shifts gears to present the sacredness that is entailed by spatial and temporal markers. For the former, it mostly involves the prevalent festivals and ceremonies in China, either religiously (e.g., the Islamic Breaking-the-Fast Feast) or culturally (e.g., the New Year Festival); for the latter, it concerns the multifunctional sacred landmarks in different parts of Shanghai, including both the formal and publicly accessible religious sites (those of Christianity, Daoism, and Buddhism) and the informal and half-hidden worshiping spots (e.g., house churches).
Chapter 3 examines the religious compounds, as defined by the close-knitted enclosed groups that are featured with intimacy and solidarity. Representatives in this regard are local temples, Islamic compounds, Catholic parishes, geographically localized Buddhist groups, and expats adhering to minority foreign religions. Unique compound cultures have been illustrated with great field research details.
Chapter 4 focuses on the private aspects of sacredness. The spiritual practices at home confers a sacred quality on ordinary-life activities. Moreover, the church, such as that for unofficial/unregistered followers and immigrants, can serve a quasi-home function by providing religion-based supports and belonging. In Shanghai, the private sacredness can be also embodied by the popular spiritual groups related to food and health. Although the private home-like sacredness-ridden groups are highly valued and somewhat relied on by members, personal space is not scarified. On the contrary, it has been negotiated so as to maintain the collective-individual boundaries.
Chapter 5 uses the metaphor of waterway to describe the various strategies deployed by different religions and spiritual groups to grow and thrive in Shanghai. This part of discussions concern the trans-local communities established by formal religion followers (e.g., Catholic fishermen), as well as [End Page 55] informal networks built up by marginal groups (e.g., gay and lesbian). This chapter also covers the different strategies of promoting exposure and popularity that have been deployed by Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Baha'i, Yoga, and Reiki in Shanghai.
The last chapter concludes this book with several key words—zheng, xie, dong, jing, xu, shi, and ganying. These traditional features of Chinese people's spiritual worldview are used to reiterate the continuum between the sacred and the secular space-time in contemporary Shanghai, or China in large.
The merits of this book can be discussed both substantively and methodologically. From the perspective of the substantive study of religion, several features are worth praising. First of all, to the best of my knowledge, this study is the first one that perfectly illustrates the overlap and interactions between religious space, social space, and physical space. Through various research endeavors, this book well informs how sacredness is constructed by and embedded in the social environment. Second, the contents of this book address the revival of religions in the Reform Era of China from the micro and grassroots perspective. Instead of indulging in grandiose narratives—that is, modernization, secularization, or market-oriented transformation, the authors of this book set their focus on how different religious and spiritual groups, being subject to the current religious policies launched by the state, strive to grow and expand by taking advantage of different societal resources, such as traditional culture and informal geographic networks. This finding surely supplements the current literatures on Chinese religions in the post-Reform period. Third, the different cases presented in this book give evidence to the possibility of a harmonious relationship between religious traditions. This peaceful ecological state, although being based on the metropolis of Shanghai, has great implications for the mainstream social science theories that assume an antagonistic and competitive relationship between religions. Also, the practices and experiences as noted by this book shed light on the potential ways of resolving religious conflicts.
From the perspective of research methodology, this book can be also an exemplar. First of all, relative to the large volume of anthropological field studies that relies on oral and literal evidence, this book well integrates field observation/interview with photographing. In light of the focus on the visual religious landscaping in Shanghai, this graphical approach is especially appropriate, serving to help readers better understand the symbolic meanings carried out by sacred entities. Second, one frequently mentioned concern in religious studies in China is the misled information due to the cultural gap between Western scholars and native residents, but this should not be a concern for this book because of the close collaboration between foreign and native scholars. The interviews were also mostly conducted in Chinese, which can drastically reduce the barriers in communication and mutual [End Page 56] understanding. Third, the religious sites have been chosen to guarantee comprehensiveness and representativeness, with reference to different religions at different locations in different time periods. Also, the research targets of different religious locations are analyzed not only individually, but also connectively insofar as to show interwoven networks.
To conclude this review, I would like to mention that this book may still have room for further improvement. For instance, the definition of sacredness as used in this book is kind of arbitrary, which concerns a wide range of spiritual and even non-spiritual events. In addition, the theoretical implications can be further explored and refined, that is, if the cases shown in this book highlight the vague distinction between the sacred and the secular for Chinese religiosity, what cautions should be practiced in future comparative religious studies? What instruments might be conceived in large-scale studies that go beyond Shanghai? How can we evaluate other field research? These questions deserve more discussion.
Anning Hu is a professor of sociology at Fudan University, specializing in sociology of culture and religion, social inequality, and social research methods.