- Handbook of East Asian New Religious Movements ed. by Lukas Pokorny and Franz Winter
This rather hefty handbook covers a geographical area of new religious movements that has only recently become the object of popular study among scholars of new religions. Some of the twenty-five different [End Page 147] movements covered in the volume will be familiar to most readers of Nova Religio—Soka Gakkai, Aum Shinrikyo, the Unification Church, and Falun Gong being among the more obvious examples. Others, likely to be known to some Western scholars, include the Vietnamese Cao Dai, the Chinese Yiguan Dao, and the Japanese Tenrikyo, Omoto, Perfect Liberty Kyodan, Shinnyoen, and Rissho Koseikai. Yet other groups few will have heard of. The Korean New Heaven and Earth Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony receives only a passing reference. It has become internationally known, however, as Shincheonji, the group accused of introducing COVID-19 and spreading it throughout South Korea.
As with the novels of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, some movements may at first glance appear to be new; but then one realizes that a different name or very different spelling is being employed. It can take a moment to equate Sai Gon with Saigon or, as it is now officially known, Ho Chi Min City; the Korean Messiah known to most Westerners as Sun Myung Moon appears as Mun Yong-myong; and I assumed that Taesunjillihoe was new to me, only to understand on reading the chapter that it was about a Korean religion I have visited on several occasions, Daesoon Jinrihoe.
The editors' introductory chapter discusses the problems raised in defining both East Asia and new religious movements. The discussion concerning what is meant by a new religion in such cultures raises questions that have all too often been brushed aside (or ignored through ignorance) in Western scholarship. Some academics are confused, perhaps, by taken-for-granted assumptions about the porous relationship (or lack thereof) between what are believed to be religions and what is seen merely as culture. By East Asian, they mean cultural and specifically religious commonalities of countries in so far as they share the vocabulary as well as the ideological and material heritage of the Three Teachings—Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism.
Having a heritage of the Three Teachings does not mean that the movements may not include other influences. Many of the Japanese new religions have their roots in Shinto. Korea has given birth to a motley collection of groups that rely heavily on the Christian tradition. The wonderfully syncretic Vietnamese Cao Dai is known for its veneration of "Saint" Victor Hugo, Jesus, and Joan of Arc. The Chinese Quannengshen Jiaohui, better known in the West as Eastern Lightning or, more recently, The Church of Almighty God (CAG), believes in a female Jesus now on earth. It had millenarian expectations focused on the year 2000 according to the Julian calendar, and again, in 2012, according to the Mayan calendar. One of the movements which, like Falun Gong, has been designated as a xiejiao (commonly translated as "evil cult") by the Chinese Communist Party, CAG first came to international attention when some of its evangelistic members (wrongly, it [End Page 148] has since been determined) were accused of murdering a woman who refused to disclose her mobile phone number in a McDonald's restaurant.
The volume is divided into four parts: Japanese, Korean, Chinese (including Taiwanese), and Vietnamese new religions, each part having an introductory chapter by a specialist in the region who provides a historical, political and cultural context within which to understand the variety of new religions in the respective regions. For example, the section on groups in Vietnam, perhaps the least well-known of the countries covered, discusses the emergence and the fate of new religions during the French colonial period, the Vietnam War, and under the current communist situation. Having been referred to as false, strange, and/or bizarre religions, these groups are now given less pejorative names by scholars. According to the...