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  • Making the Gods Speak: The Ritual Production of Revelation in Chinese Religious History by Vincent Goossaert
  • Gilbert Z. Chen (bio)
Vincent Goossaert. Making the Gods Speak: The Ritual Production of Revelation in Chinese Religious History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2022. 368 PP. Hardcopy $60.00, isbn 978-067-427-094-7.

For any students of Chinese religious history, the sheer number of various kinds of religious texts (canonical scriptures, ritual manuals, etc.) supposedly handed [End Page 181] down by an assorted group of divine entities to mankind is nothing but overwhelming: thousands, if not tens of thousands, of them have appeared since the early medieval era. Until recently, however, this vast body of revelation texts, except for a few prominent titles which have secured canonical status within their respective religious traditions, has largely remained unscrutinized. Part of the reason for this scholarly neglect was the widely shared assumption that these texts usually fall into the amorphous category of folk or popular religion, which for long has occupied a marginalized position in the field of religious studies. Fortunately, a small but growing group of scholars has begun to address the omission over the past decades.1 Even though their works have greatly augmented our understanding of revelation texts and their significance in Chinese religious history, they collectively suffer from several noticeable limitations. First, scholars often focus on a selected number of texts produced within a specific religious or sectarian tradition. Consequently, we have a number of fine case studies but lack a framework for a more holistic and comparative perspective. Moreover, previous scholarship has primarily analyzed the content of revelation texts with little consideration of the ritual context in which revelations took place. Vincent Goossaert's new book under review here, which is the culmination of years of meticulous research, squarely addresses these shortcomings. Consequently, it succeeds in providing the hitherto most systematic and comprehensive study of the subject, significantly deepening our understanding of the evolution of the ritual production of revelation throughout Chinese history.

Making the Gods Speak consists of two parts besides the introduction and the conclusion. In the first part (chapters 1 and 2), the author mainly introduces an overarching theoretical framework to account for different modes of human-divine interaction or "divine presence" (p. 6) and offers a typology to classify different types of revelation. Building upon these analytical tools, the second part (chapters 3–8) zooms in to provide a more dynamic narrative to chart and explain several turning points of far-reaching significance in the history of revelation.

Goossaert begins the book by identifying two paradigms of divine presence in Chinese religious history. The first is that of spontaneous presence in which gods come to interact with humans on their own initiative without any forewarning. This type of presence may take various forms. In a typical scenario, a person unexpectedly encounters a god in a reclusive area (e.g., remote mountains), and the latter then bequeaths a sacred text to the former. In contrast to spontaneous presence underlining divine agency in the process of divine–human interaction, the second model of ritualized presence foregrounds human agency; that is, religious practitioners employ a set of ritual techniques to initiate communication with divine beings. [End Page 182]

Divine presence often, but not necessarily, generates revelation. The author defines revelation as discursive content that is depicted as originating from a spirit and is of general interest to humanity, which is analytically opposed to divine response answering an individual's specific needs. Based on three criteria of the ritual technique used, the scenario of the event of revelation, and the form and content of the revealed text, Goossaert proposes a typology of five ideal-typical categories of revelation. In the sutra type, there is no mention of how a revealed text reached humanity. By contrast, in the encounter type, the reader is informed of the details surrounding the revelatory event. Nevertheless, the receiver apparently does not employ any ritual technique to materialize the revelation. In the possession type, divine pronouncements are made through possessed mediums. Occasionally, rituals are performed to bring about spirit possession. Ritual techniques, however, become crucially important in the visualization type in...