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  • Religious Culture and Violence in Traditional China by Barend ter Haar
  • Jimmy Yu
Barend ter Haar, Religious Culture and Violence in Traditional China. Part of “Cambridge Elements: Religion and Violence.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 80 pp. US$18 (pb). ISBN 978-1-108-70623-0.

The study of religion and violence has developed into a robust subfield within religious studies in the past several decades. It is only within the past decade, however, with a few exceptions, that research on violence within Asian religions began to emerge. Barend ter Haar’s Religious Culture and Violence in Traditional China aims to concisely encapsulate current scholarship on violence within the religious culture of premodern China by [End Page 138] using a broad definition of “violence” to include a wide array of practices in disparate dimensions of Chinese culture. He has produced a good introductory volume aiming for a widely educated audience who are non-specialists of China.

Ter Haar’s first task is to define “violence.” How wide of an interpretive net is he casting? Does his definition allow for new insights about Chinese religious culture? The book has eight sections in addition to a preface and a conclusion. The first section, “Setting the Stage,” begins with recognizing the terminological elusiveness of violence and its general usages in modern times. Ter Haar draws a parallel between the emic Chinese category of bao 暴, or “physical force,” with violence. This rather loose definition of violence as physical force allows him, from an etic perspective, to include a whole array of what he considers violent practices in premodern China. Using bao or physical force as a theoretical category, ter Haar is less concerned with “[w]hether Chinese at the time would have described it with the same terminology” (p. 4). In his usage, bao could include all acts of physical force, whether appropriate or inappropriate, political or religious, sanctioned or unsanctioned. It is on this logic that ter Haar continues to examine, episodically, all aspects of violent acts in China.

In “What is Violence,” ter Haar brings out other dimensions of the word, bao, as “transgressive violence” (p. 7) or excessively cruel acts of violence. He justifies his definition of violence with examples from ancient records that describe rebellious forces as violent (bao), showing how this usage was “the same normative way in which we would use it today” (p. 9). At the same time, he also shows how the state used the rhetoric of bao to stereotype, dehumanize, and justify the destruction of the Other through their use of random violence. Examples of this would be the genocide of the Yao people and the execution of convicts in the justice system. Ter Haar notes how such usage always came from a certain vantage point (p. 10), and it justified the display of power to pacify the Other. This usage of bao as subjugation also extended to the supernatural world in ritual practice, exorcist theater, and festival processions, which gave concrete form to the punitive violence with which demons were exorcized and punished (pp. 9–10).

In the section on “The Demonological Substrate,” ter Haar shows how the Chinese throughout the premodern dynastic period believed that demonic creatures were the causes of disturbances, disasters, hauntings, ailments, and deaths. As such, they were in need of bureaucratic exorcism, ritual subjugation, and justified killing. This sanctioned violence, performed by Daoist ritual specialists with the aid of divine generals and soldiers, was so widespread after the eleventh-century that even bandits and rebels selected titles of Divine Generals summoned in exorcism to describe themselves in order to absorb the vital force associated with those titles (p. 23).

In “Messianic and Millenarian Traditions,” ter Haar continues with the demonological substrate paradigm to describe the two millenarian movements, the Heavenly Masters and the Yellow Turbans, that used violent means in 184 CE to overthrow the Han dynasty. He then continues with the White Lotus Teachings and the Christian co-inspired Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace of late imperial times, describing the imperial state’s stereotyping of these alternative groups and networks as “evil” and “bewitching” movements that needed to be violently repressed (p. 29). From...


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