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  • Old Society, New Belief: Religious Transformation of China and Rome, ca. 1st–6th Centuries ed. by Mu-chou Poo, H. A. Drake and Lisa Raphals
  • Yuan-lin Tsai
Mu-chou Poo, H. A. Drake, and Lisa Raphals, eds., Old Society, New Belief: Religious Transformation of China and Rome, ca. 1st–6th Centuries. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 368 pp. US$74 (hb). ISBN 978-0-19-027835-9

This book is the product of a scholarly collaboration across the Pacific, beginning in 2012, when a group of scholars gathered for a workshop on “Old Society, New Faith: Religious Encounter and Cultural Identity in Early Medieval China and Europe” at the Asia Institute, UCLA, followed in 2014 by a conference on “Old Society, New Faith: Religious Transformation in China and Rome, 1–6 centuries CE,” held in Hong Kong. Most of the chapters in this book are revised papers presented at the conference (p. ix). Among the sixteen contributors, eleven are historians, specializing in either China or Rome in Late Antiquity or the Early Medieval time; the other five specialize in various disciplines, including religious studies, theology, comparative literature, and classical studies. [End Page 135]

This book addresses the striking structural similarities of the two parallel historical trajectories at the opposite ends of Eurasia, the “Christianization” of the Roman Empire and the “Buddhization” of the Chinese empire. As both Mu-chou Poo’s and H. A. Drake’s Introduction and Lisa Raphals’ Conclusion note, such a large-scale comparison of cultural transformation between the two ancient civilizations “can tell us about the larger picture of human societies in transition” (p. 5) and “allows us to consider broader problems and cultural dynamics of human societies” (p. 257). But to avoid being “drowned in generalities” (p. 2), the authors take the approach of comparative history and start from concrete examples “with culturally and historically specific interior readings rather than generating comparisons from preselected comparative perspectives” (p. 257), such as orthodoxy/heresy, conservative/innovative, elite/popular. Moreover, they share “the general proposition that when new religious beliefs, practices, institutions, or values are brought into a society that already has beliefs, practices, institutions, or values of long standing, contention will inevitably ensue and complex dynamics of interchange and contestation will occur, resulting in alteration both in the newly arrived religion and in the newly transformed host culture” (p. 2). This proposition frames the two stories and divides the whole volume into three parts under the following three headings, “Initial Encounters and Causes of Resistance” (chapters 1 to 6); “Interaction, Influence and Accommodation” (chapters 7 to 11), and “Synthesis and Assimilation” (chapters 12 to 15).

In spite of the comparative framework provided by this book, “most of the chapters are not explicitly comparative” but instead “suggest many avenues for comparison in the future” (pp. 257–258). Ideally speaking, such a “thematic” and “comparative” book should consist of chapters in pairs regarding each theme, one for Christianity in Rome, the other for Buddhism in China. But the majority of the chapters in this book focus on a topic in one of the two traditions; the reader will not find a counterpart in the other one by another author. The only two exceptions are chapter 9 by Sze-kar Wan on how Christians “demonized” the Greek “daimon” and chapter 10 by Mu-chou Poo on how Buddhists “tamed” the Chinese “ghost.” These two authors provide the most interesting and comparable cases of this volume by showing how the new beliefs were able to adopt, accommodate, and transform the native beliefs and ideas of the host societies, and make inroads into their elites and among commoners. These two cases could inspire more comparative studies on the role of evil spirits in different belief systems from the perspectives of ritual, institution, values, or cosmology.

Another pair of chapters on a comparative theme are chapter 1 by Robert Campany and chapter 2 by H. A. Drake, both dealing with the orthodox narratives concerning the “initial encounters” of the new beliefs with the host societies. Campany’s chapter tries to create a framework for comparative study in terms of “constantly changing repertoires of resources” (p...


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