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  • Empire and the Meaning of Religion in Northeast Asia: Manchuria 1900–1945 by Thomas David DuBois
  • James Carter
Thomas David DuBois, Empire and the Meaning of Religion in Northeast Asia: Manchuria 1900–1945. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xii, 249 pp. US$110 (hb). ISBN 978-1-107-16640-0

Manchuria, especially when it was a Japanese client state in the early twentieth century, has long been a cipher. Run through with many of the trends that marked the spread of globalization and modernism in the decades leading up to World War II, the region has recently become a fruitful place to examine events and processes during this time period. Thomas David Dubois’s work is a creative and well-written Venn diagram, one that takes two circles—Empire and Religion—and finds in their overlapping ellipse that part of Northeast Asia that is today known, in every language except Chinese, as “Manchuria.” The result is a deeply humane look into a period and place often [End Page 287] marked by cruelty and disorder, a place that through its differences throws into relief the essential features of the surrounding regions that vied for control of what is today China’s Northeast.

DuBois’s title gives insight into the book’s structure and significance. Empire is the study’s controlling process and ultimately empire and imperialism are the book’s subject. Religion is the lens through which we can view empire. Like any lens, its particular traits emphasize and clarify specific elements in its subject, and DuBois uses those traits to make a bold claim: that Manchuria anticipated and shaped the crises of mid-twentieth-century globalization.

History straddles the division between the humanities and the social sciences, and this book’s structure is deeply humanistic. After presenting its theoretical framework in an Introduction and its extended chronological background in chapter 1, the remainder of the book’s eight chapters are, to continue the Venn diagram metaphor, a series of interesting, and sometimes compelling, stories of religious life in Manchuria in the first half of the twentieth century. In some cases, like chapter 2, the focus of these accounts on religion is direct. Chapter 2 addresses the violent xenophobia of the Boxer movement and its effect on Christian missionary work in Manchuria. Chapter 7 also ties directly into religion, taking a deep and entertaining dive into the practice of filial piety and the persistence of death cults in the midst of rapid social transformation.

Chapter 3 analyzes education and social science in the region, showing the ways that Japanese educators and social scientists tried to apply modernist theories and create a new society using both the universities and secondary schools of Manchuria. Chapter 4 reveals how journalists and editors used their forums in the press to do the same thing, finding that religion was often presented as a glue that could bind together the various ethnicities and histories of Manchuria to form a cohesive nation. Chapter 5 on law and chapter 6 on charitable organizations both provide insights into the special status religion held even during a time that is often characterized as increasingly secular in East Asia. True to the book’s title, each chapter uses religion to illuminate the book’s central occupation: the meaning and operation of empire.

I find the broader implications of this book to be its most compelling feature—how Manchukuo 滿洲國 anticipates and exemplifies the conflicts of modernization and globalization. At a moment when ideas about modernity were at their peak, and perhaps most of all in Japan, which had entered the imperial club of European nations while avoiding the cataclysm of the Great War, Manchukuo was a laboratory for reshaping society. It is in some ways surprising to find religion at the forefront of modernist thinking, but Dubois’s cases show that it is there: in law, in social science research, in journalism. These insights will make the book of use to scholars of other places at the same time period: as people around the world encountered and grappled with modernity, the Manchukuo case is a compelling—and often problematic—example of a state...


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pp. 287-289
Launched on MUSE
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