- Text and Context in the Modern History of Chinese Religions: Redemptive Societies and Their Sacred Texts ed. by Philip Clart, David Ownby and Wang Chien-chuan
This uniformly well-written and well-edited volume is the end result of a collaborative research project led by the three editors and funded by the Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange. Based on fieldwork, the collection of rare material, and workshops, it aimed at providing a first inclusive analysis of the production of texts by the new religious movements of China’s twentieth century. The study of these movements has emerged as a distinct field since the early 2000s under the category of “redemptive societies,” a termed originally coined by Prasenjit Duara. There is an ongoing debate among scholars, in both Chinese and in Western languages, about the term and the category, which are not accepted by all, a healthy discussion that has the merit of attracting critical attention to the phenomenon which has long been a blind spot in the religious, cultural, intellectual, and political history of modern China. Whatever one’s stance on the issue may be—this reviewer finds both the category and the term coherent and useful—there is no denying that the present volume is a major contribution to this fast-growing field. Whereas most earlier studies foregrounded the socio-political impact of the redemptive societies, such as their mass organization (the largest ones had tens of millions of registered members), their vexed relations with the Beiyang, KMT, Manchukuo, Japanese, and Communist regimes; their role as vehicles to recycle the disenfranchised gentry class and its “Confucian” ways of life; and their loud voice in the culture wars of the time, relatively little attention was given to their religious messages and their impact. Historians had noted that the societies ran journals and large presses, and even radio stations, but we still knew very little about the contents of their massive printed output.
To be sure, much of it was not easily available, and it is only recently that large amounts of this literature have been included in ambitious reprint collections, many of them under the editorship of Wang Chien-chuan 王見川, Fan Chun-wu 范純武, and [End Page 148] their colleagues in Taiwan.1 Wang and Fan are core members of the project and volume discussed here and are more generally the prime movers of this whole field. That their work is translated into English here and given a new audience is to be celebrated and would be reason enough to consider this volume as important. Maybe one other cause for the relative neglect of this literature until recently is the common prejudice that it is largely repetitive, intellectually simplistic, and more often than not downright boring. The chapters in this volume eloquently debunk such an idea. They lay the groundwork for a history of religious ideas in modern China.2
The publication of the volume is timely. It follows another edited volume on religious publishing during the same period, that documented not only the underestimated place of “religious” contents in modern Chinese book culture but also the specific organizations that printed and circulated them.3 We find many of the same actors and organizations in the present volume and shared themes such as the impact of new technologies, photography for instance, on religious messages. The focus here however is less on book culture and printing than on how the leaders of redemptive societies produced and used texts; it is not a collection of essays on the history of religious ideas and doctrine either, but rather on the role of texts and books, as both objects and discourse, in the development of modern Chinese religious innovations.
Chapter 1 by Barend ter Haar serves as a historical background to the volume as a whole as he provides an overview of the religious groups outside of state-sanctioned Buddhism and Daoism and their use of texts between the sixteenth...