This book is a very welcome addition to the growing, but still small number of books on modern Chinese religions. The editors themselves have contributed greatly to the growth of the field, having authored, coauthored, and coedited several books on the subject prior to this one. A collection of essays that focuses on “the process of making saints, building charisma, and establishing religious traditions in modern and contemporary China” (1), Making Saints in Modern China is particularly significant, because, as the introduction points out, “modern Chinese states have done their utmost to relegate religion to the private realm and to control and appropriate it through processes of secularization, modernization, and standardization” (1). However, the volume reveals how the charismatic leaders described in most of the essays have been able to collaborate with modern China’s nationalizing and modernizing processes instead of pitting themselves against them. This flexibility and pragmatism, and the ability to negotiate religious spaces, may have been the reason for their survival. This edited volume is particularly welcome, because saints and the process of saint-making have not been addressed as a general subject in relation to Chinese religions. The editors spend part of the introduction explaining how the definition of saint makes sense for the Chinese case. “No single Chinese category encompasses all varieties of sainthood” (4): some definitions evoke notions of moral perfection connected to Confucianism, others describe mastering processes of self-cultivation and transcendence closer to Daoism, and others again describe escaping and helping others escape this world and reach enlightenment, consistent with Buddhist practices. Heroes and exemplars can be found in the divine bureaucracy after their death. Combinations, hybridizations, and innovations of the above models are continually created. Traditionally, the processes of saint-making have been as diverse as the different models of saints. In the twentieth century, new challenges, ideologies, and reforms brought into question this process of saint-making, and new priorities came to the fore, including modernization, education, and secularism. Non-religious values—such as nationalism, science, and human rights—became central, which “produced their own sacred values and saintly models” (7). The relationship between religion and the state changed, and Daoism and Buddhism had to create church-like organizations similar to those of Christianity, and reorganize within “patriotic” associations to be accepted by the state and not perceived as deviant and dangerous. The compilation takes us from the early twentieth century all the way to contemporary China and its religious revival, which has been mostly accommodated by the state, although with clear political boundaries. The editors state clearly that they have chosen “their saints” from within the currently recognized religions of China: Buddhism, Daoism, Catholic and Protestant Christianity, and Islam. But in fact, of the twelve case studies, seven are Buddhists (only Han Buddhism is included, not Tibetan Buddhism), two are Daoists, and three describe redemptive societies. The preponderance of Buddhist cases, as well as the lack of chapters on Christianity and Islam, is briefly addressed but not justified in the preface. It is a shame that these large religious communities are not represented here. It is equally a pity that only one of the case studies is female. However, these absences reveal more about the state of this field than actual editorial choices. In fact, the chapters do illuminate each other and intersect very well, and that is one of the many strong elements of this collection. Some common themes already identified in the preface by the editors include the pressures to conform to secular norms and find political patrons, while at the same time responding to the need for “traditional” saint-figures; walking the fine line between tradition and modernity, sacred and secular, and often bridging these divides. Some of the saints described in this collection are clerics, some are lay, while some do not conform to an easy categorization, but their stories all highlight the importance of three elements identified by the editors as central to saint-making: composing hagiographies, constructing charisma, and establishing leadership. These elements do build a strong basis for comparison with saints in other cultures and provide a much-needed Chinese addition to a larger field of studies. The period covered, the whole of the twentieth century, traverses some of the most devastating events in recent Chinese history: the fall of the Chinese dynastic system in 1911, the reunification of China under Republican rule after a chaotic decade in 1927, the Japanese occupation, coinciding with the Second World War in East Asia (1937–1945), the civil war between Communists and Nationalists (1945–1949), the Communist victory and subsequent exodus of many Chinese to Taiwan (1949), the repression during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), and the period of reopening starting in the 1980s. The individual chapters describe in detail a society in transition; they are mostly descriptions of the “social processes of making a saint” (163) and of how these “saints” “frequently crossed frontiers—between religion and politics, the secular and the sacred” (242). In fact, one of the most compelling elements of this collection is the description of the ubiquitous, sometimes blatant, sometimes muted, but constant negotiation, collaboration, or, at times, clash with political power. During this long and troubled century, the lives of the religious figures described in these chapters were deeply affected, scarred, and irreversibly changed by the political events surrounding them. At the same time, they embody a kind of religious agency that moves beyond political considerations and constrictions. The chapters follow a chronological order and include essays on the lives of Yinguang (1861–1940), who revived the Pure Land movement in Buddhism by appealing to elite urban lay supporters; Zhang Yuanxu (1862–1925), the last Daoist Heavenly Master to enjoy the imperial privileges bestowed on religious authorities; Master Xuyun (1840?–1959), an archetypal Chinese Buddhist monk who persevered in advancing Buddhism in the tumultuous twentieth century; Duan Zhengyuan (1864–1940), the leader of the Moral Studies Society, one of the foremost redemptive societies in Republican China; Hongyi (1880–1942), discussed as a subversive figure in Chinese Buddhism because he eschewed the support of influential patrons; Zhang Tianran (1889–1947), the leader of Yiguandao, a religious movement that grew in the 1940s from the millenarian syncretic traditions in late Imperial China; Li Yujie (1901–1994), a charismatic religious figure who eventually founded a new religion, the Tiandijiao, in 1979; Longlian (1909–2006), who was called “the first bhiksuni of the Modern Era” and “the most outstanding nun,” both during her life and after her death; Zhao Puchu (1907–2003), the official face of Chinese Buddhism for half a century after the Communist Revolution, also called a “Communist saint,” or the “Bodhisattva under the Red Flag”; Nan Huaijing (1918–2012), who moved from China to Taiwan, to Washington, and back to Taiwan, working to warm relations between China and Taiwan, under the slogan “communist ideals, socialist society, capitalist economy, and Chinese cultural spirit” (364); Jingkong (b. 1927), who left mainland China for Taiwan after the Communist victory, emphasizing the role of lay Buddhists; and Ren Faju, who became a Daoist monk in 1949, influenced the revival of Daoism in the 1980s, and is now almost revered as a “Daoist living god.” All these chapters are solid historical studies based on archival, literary, and ethnographic research, describing influential, charismatic, and morally upright religious leaders who, against many odds, in a period of unstable political and social reality, were able to establish, perpetuate, and transmit religious traditions through networks of powerful supporters, many of them political and military figures and wealthy elites. Often their lives intersected in terms of geography, religious traditions and practices, political activities, modes of religious transmission, and relation with the government. Because there is no “canonization process,” no centralized authority to confer sainthood, the saint-making processes discussed in this book are comprised of popular sentiment and reputation (417). None of these saints were martyrs (one of the staples of early Christian sainthood), but important events and auspicious signs in their lives were mythologized, and healing powers and prodigious natural abilities were attributed to some. Many of these saints were made into models for a population in search of spiritual and moral certainties in an incredibly destabilized era. The “saints” themselves were, in different ways, defined by the political upheaval of their era and by their choices to leave China or stay and support the Communist regime in 1949. This book showcases the recent considerable advancements in the field of modern Chinese religious studies, and it will be of great interest to specialists and nonspecialists alike. For the specialist, there are a number of new avenues of research, and fresh archival and ethnographic materials spanning a fairly wide geographical field. For the nonspecialist, it portrays the surprisingly varied, lively, interconnected, and at the same time deeply rooted modern religious geography of China, providing a useful introduction to the field. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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