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Reviewed by:
  • Religion in China by Adam Yuet Chau
  • Beverley Foulks McGuire
Adam Yuet Chau, Religion in China. Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2019. xv, 250 pp. US$22.95 (pb). ISBN 978-0-7456-7916-7

Religion in China highlights the central role of “relationality” in Chinese religious life by showing how Chinese people build and maintain various relationships—between people; between people and ghosts, gods, and ancestors; and between people, things, and spaces—through their religious practices. This relational approach, grounded in anthropology and focused on lived religious experiences, differs from other texts that introduce Chinese religions as discrete traditions such as Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and popular religion.1 Chau emphasizes, “Though both religious reproduction and innovation take place within the larger generative structure of tradition, ‘religious traditions’ themselves do not do things; it is people who do things with religious traditions, though within the possibilities offered and limitations imposed by these traditions” (p. 191; emphasis his).

The relational approach has several advantages: first, it redresses a previous scholarly tendency to focus on texts rather than practices, or philosophy as opposed to rituals, which privileges elite religious worldviews over popular religious life; second, it avoids potential Orientalist pitfalls where Chinese philosophical ideas are mined for their spiritual wisdom and juxtaposed with Western materialism and rationality; third, it discards “confessional approaches” that characterize religious traditions as distinct, clearly demarcated systems, which do not map onto Chinese religiosity. Scholars have criticized the World Religions paradigm for promoting essentialist and decontextualized views of individual religion traditions, for remodeling non-Christian religions according to liberal Western Christian values, for dividing religions into binaries of East-West or tripartite classifications of West-South Asia-East Asia, and for presenting elite worldviews of educated religious specialists that marginalize what most religious practitioners actually think or do.2 For example, Chau argues that attempts to statistically map out religions in China are modeled on a confessional-affiliational understanding of mutually exclusive religious membership, which does not apply to the vast majority of Chinese people who engage in religious activities. Instead, he encourages his reader to pose questions that lead to [End Page 127] further exploration and discovery rather than those which confirm or solidify pre-existing categories—questions including “How do the Chinese practice religion?” and “How is religious life embedded in Chinese society?” (p. 3).

The strength of the book is the analytical and organizational leverage provided by “relationality”: the ways Chinese people “do religion” through their relationships and interactions. Chau argues the religious realm is one where guanxi 關係 (“social relationship”) is playing out not only between people in sociopolitical life, but between people and spirits, people and sites of worship and spiritual empowerment, among religious co-practitioners (and co-religionists), between deities, between ritualists and their customers, between masters and disciples, and between the state and religious groups and traditions. Defining religion broadly as “any form of interaction with spirits, be they God, gods, ancestors, ghosts, or evil spirits,” (pp. 4–5), Chau focuses on religious practices in the contemporary period (i.e., the reform era that began in the late 1970s). The conceptual thread of “relationality” allows Chau to examine socially embedded and culturally specific examples of religious practices without losing the overarching organizational theme of relationships and interactions.

The book is divided into six chapters: (1) religious diversity and the five modalities of doing religion, (2) interactions with gods, ghosts, and ancestors, (3) festivals and pilgrimages, (4) ritual service providers and their clients, (5) communities and networks, and (6) state-religion relations. In the introduction, Chau offers a cogent and concise overview of the various disciplinary approaches to the study of Chinese religions, including Religious Studies, Sociology, Political Science, History and Anthropology. The first chapter presents a helpful typology for understanding religious diversity in China, the five “modalities of doing religion”: (1) discursive/scriptural, pertaining to the composition and use of texts; (2) personal-cultivational, or a long-term interest in cultivating and transforming oneself; (3) liturgical, or elaborate ritual procedures conducted by ritual specialists; (4) immediate-practical, which aim at quick results using simple ritual or magical techniques; and (5) relational, focusing on the relationship between...


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pp. 127-130
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