- Reclaiming the Wilderness: Contemporary Dynamics of the Yiguandao by Sébastien Billioud
Reclaiming the Wilderness: Contemporary Dynamics of the Yiguandao by Sébastien Billioud offers a fieldwork-based inquiry into the nature and transmission processes of a growing transnational religious movement as it attempts to "reclaim the wilderness" of mainland China. This group emerged as a prominent millenarian redemptive society in the first half of the 20th century in mainland China, before it was driven away to Taiwan as an illegal secret society by the anti-religion campaign of the Communist regime. The foundation of the book is Billioud's own participant observation within one particular hub of the religion in Hong Kong, but also includes some fieldwork in Taiwan, Macao, China, and Paris, along with general background information and commentary on the religion as a whole. It will be of particular interest to scholars of the contemporary religious landscape in East Asia, especially those focused on new religious movements and/or syncretic uses of Confucianism, but may also be of broader interest to anyone curious about the processes of religious transmission and growth. In this review, I will highlight Billioud's central observations concerning how this religion is expanding through the production of what he calls "missionary-adepts" and the religion's emphasis on Confucianism to promote itself within Chinese culture, ending with some speculative questions about the place of Confucianism in light of Billioud's research.
Yiguandao, literally "the way of pervading unity" (yīguàndào 一貫道), is a syncretic religion that accommodates elements of Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, and Islam into its doctrines and practices. While it didn't emerge as a distinctly prominent religious movement until the 20th century, it claims to be an ancient tradition and includes the founding figures and patriarchs of the above-listed traditions within its own lineage, unified by the idea that they all converge upon the same one true enduring way, personified as the "Eternal Mother" (Wúshēng Lǎomǔ 無生老母) as a supreme deity. As a salvationist religion, Yiguandao promises entry to the Eternal Mother's paradise for those who are initiated into the tradition, and adepts can also earn entry to [End Page 1] this paradise for deceased loved ones through proselytizing efforts to bring others into the religion.
Billioud notes relevant elements of multiple religions in his analysis of Yiguandao, such as the use and establishment of Buddha halls (fótáng 佛堂) as places of worship and the adoption of Maitreya Buddha (Mílèfó 彌勒佛) within its millenarian eschatology, but he pays particular attention to the religion's identification with Confucianism as a legitimating strategy for its return to mainland China, in keeping with the religion's own claim to be primarily Confucian in nature. In fact, it was Billioud's longstanding research interests in contemporary Confucianism that first led him to his study of Yiguandao. Although he had little knowledge of the religion initially, he visited a Yiguandao temple in Taiwan out of interest in the religion's emphasis on Confucianism, where he was invited to attend a ritual. He was subsequently initiated into the religion through a ceremony that he participated in willingly, but without full understanding at the time of the fact that he was becoming a card-carrying member of the religion. This initiation became pivotal to his research when he later decided to focus on the Yiguandao religion in particular, enabling him to become an inside participant observer within a Yiguandao temple in Hong Kong, where he conducted most of the fieldwork informing this book.
Through his internal and external observations of the religion, Billioud identifies four key factors involved in the dynamic expansion of Yiguandao into mainland China, each comprising a major section of the book. First, initiates (who, like Billioud, often know little about the religion at first) are gradually transformed into "missionary-adepts" through emphasis on self-cultivation processes that motivate proselytization, such as developing and confirming one's faith by bringing family...