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Reviewed by:
  • Handbook on Religion in China ed. by Stephan Feuchtwang
  • Shin-Yi Chao
Stephan Feuchtwang, ed., Handbook on Religion in China. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2020. vii, 472 pp. US$240 (hb), US$65 (ebook). ISBN 978-1-78643-795-2

The Handbook on Religion in China is part of the series “Handbooks of Research on Contemporary China.” It contains an introduction and nineteen articles divided into four parts: “State Policies, Civic Society and Cultural Revival,” “Revitalized and Modernizing Traditions,” “Daoism, Buddhism, Tibet, the Naxi,” and “Islam and Christianity.” The Introduction, by Stephan Feuchtwang, sets the tone: Religious landscape takes shape on secular ground. This and the following chapters discuss political conditions and socio-economic change as major impetuses in the reshaping of the current religious landscape. The rural-urban contrast runs throughout the book. While the volume’s focus is the post-Mao era, the contributors are not stingy in offering historical background.

Part I provides an essential understanding of the politico-economic environments and cultural traditions for approaching the religious landscape of contemporary China. Chapter 1, “Religious Policy in China,” authored by Richard Madsen, analyzes two water-shed events in the PRC’s religious policy: the publication of Document 19 in 1982; and the establishment of Xi Jinping’s regime in 2012. The author perceptively characterizes the underlying principles of the two periods as “ambiguity” and “Sinicizing,” respectively. Chapter 2, by Robert Weller, C. Julia Huang, and Keping Wu, discusses religious philanthropy on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. It argues that activist volunteerism emphasizing good deeds could give religious groups “legitimacy, political support and room to pursue their own agenda from the state” (p. 39). The combination of “political merit-making” and “the rise of a cosmopolitan, civic self” (p. 50) led religious philanthropy to grow to such an enormous scale that it became “industrialized.” Chapter 3, by Anna Iskra, Fabian Winiger, and David A. Palmer, introduces body-mind cultivation movements from qigong 氣功 to Falun gong 法輪功, and movements for living the/attaining a good life including the Crazy English phenomenon and other self-help groups. Whether or not these movements are religious depends on the reader’s own definition of religion. Nevertheless, they are expressions of a desire to cultivate one’s “inner essence” (p. 68) to construct a new self in civic society. Chapter 4, by Sébastien Billioud, investigates the actors in the current revival of Confucianism. The reemergence of popular Confucianism in the 2000s, the author argues, began as a grassroots (minjian 民間) movement that elites (academic, business, and political) subsequently endorsed. In the 2010s, redemptive societies like Yiguandao 一貫道, which uphold Confucian ethics in their core teaching, joined the promotion campaign after losing the stigma of being “reactionary” (fandong 反動). Chapter 5, “Heritage and Religion in China” by Yujie Zhu, elaborates on the vague boundaries between religious and cultural traditions. This has led to compromise and contestation between different agents with overlapping or conflicting goals in promoting cultural/religious practices and sites. Under the Intangible Cultural Heritage program, the author argues, religious activities and celebration are rebranded as cultural heritage and marketed as tourist attractions. Entrepreneurship is thus integrated into the religious sphere.

Part II is about “practices that exist outside formal religious organizations” (p. 8) and explores family (chapter 6), community (chapter 7), individual practices (chapter 8), and sectarians (chapter 9). Chapter 6, by Ellen Oxfeld, examines the transformation of rituals of death, marriage, and birth in cities and the countryside. The urban-rural gap is highlighted in death rituals. By the last decade of the twentieth century, traditional religious elements had already reemerged in rural funerals but urban funerals continue to be conducted primarily in the secular form of a memorial service (zhuidao hui 追悼會) managed by the deceased’s work unit (danwei 單位). The author argues that this contrast reflects [End Page 290] “the social distinction between the organization of urban living and the peasant community” (p. 120). The reader wonders what has become of urban funerals in the twenty-first century as danwei have largely disappeared? The discussion on marriage and birth rituals highlights the impact of improvement in general living standards, but scarcely mentions religious elements such as taboos, horoscopes...


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