Text and Context: Redemptive Societies in the History of Religions of Modern and Contemporary China

Verantwortliche(r): Philip Clart (University of Leipzig, project director), David Ownby (Université de Montréal, co-director), Wang Chien-chuan (Southern Taiwan University, co-director)
Kontakt: clart@uni-leipzig.de
Thema: Text and Context: Redemptive Societies in the History of Religions of Modern and Contemporary China

Text and Context: Redemptive Societies in the History of Religions of Modern and Contemporary China

In recent years, scholars of modern and contemporary Chinese religion have turned their attention to the subject of “redemptive societies,” a term coined by Prasenjit Duara in 2001 to refer to groups such as the Yiguandao 一貫道, the Daoyuan 道院, the Tongshanshe 同善社, the Wushanshe 悟善社, and others which had a major socioreligious impact during the Republican period. Most of these groups traced their roots to China’s sectarian and syncretic popular religious traditions (White Lotus, Three-in-One Teachings), but in the Republican period adopted a universalist religious posture, embracing major world religions as part of a neo-traditional project advocating an Eastern solution to the problems of the modern world. Republican-period redemptive societies built nation-wide organizations and attracted millions of members who were drawn by the groups’ religious activities (spirit-writing, text recitation, qigong 氣功-like cultivation, congregational life) and by their social engagement (philanthropy and social work).

These redemptive societies were a vital part of Chinese religion between 1911 and 1949, as illustrated in part by the massive campaign launched against “reactionary sects and secret societies” by PRC authorities in the early 1950s, in the course of which the Public Security Bureau estimated that members of such groups numbered at least 13 million (roughly 2% of China’s population). The success of this campaign obscured for some decades the importance of redemptive societies in the context of modern Chinese history. Yet the qigong boom, part of the religious revival in reform-era China, shares many similarities with the rise of redemptive societies in the Republican period, and in the eyes of some scholars should be seen as broadly continuous with the Republican-period experience. Like redemptive societies, qigong groups built hugely popular nation-wide organizations on the basis of a neo-traditional moral message, qigong cultivation practices, and the charisma of qigong masters. Further evidence for the contemporary importance of redemptive societies is the case of the Yiguandao, which survived decades of intermittent repression to emerge as a major religion in Taiwan with the lifting of martial law in 1987. Indeed, the Yiguandao—like qigong and Falun Gong 法輪功—has become a “world religion,” and is found throughout the far-flung Chinese diaspora.

If we combine the experience of Republican-period redemptive societies with those of the more recent qigong, Falun Gong, and Yiguandao, it is clear that redemptive societies constitute a major element of China’s modern and contemporary religious life. In our view, therefore, the time has come to launch a major research project, which will take seriously the contribution of redemptive societies to the complex evolution of religion in modern and contemporary China. The project’s thematic and methodological focus will placed on questions of the production, circulation, appropriation, and utilization of texts by redemptive societies. Texts were a major feature of virtually all redemptive societies, and were produced via spirit-writing, revelation, composition by group leaders, and transcription of oral lectures, among other means. Often seen as sacred writings that legitimize authority and guide individual and collective action, many texts have been carefully preserved by redemptive societies (some of which have their own libraries, “archives,” and publishing houses).

Spiritually authoritative or sacred texts play a number of crucial roles within redemptive societies. First and foremost, of course, they record and codify a redemptive society’s beliefs and rituals and are thus key sources for the analysis of these aspects of a specific religious system. As obvious as this may appear, such analyses have not been carried out for many of these texts, which more commonly serve as quarries in which to collect data on the organizational structure or social and political history of a particular group. Research that takes the doctrinal systems encoded in modern redemptive societies’ sacred texts seriously has been fairly rare.

We have therefore put together an international team of scholars from Europe, Taiwan, Canada, China, Hong Kong, and Japan to focus on the textual and contextual histories of redemptive societies, with an eye toward giving their past—and their future—the attention they deserve.

The project consists of nine individual subprojects that are evenly distributed over three subject areas:

1) The flourishing of redemptive societies in the Republican period on the Chinese mainland (1911-1949): research carried out by Fan, Sun, and Wang.

2) The post-1949 development of redemptive societies outside the PRC, with a focus on Taiwan as well as on the globalization of societies during the last two decades: research carried out by Chung, Clart, and Ownby.

3) The revival of redemptive societies in the PRC: research carried out by Cao, ter Haar, and Palmer.

There exists considerable overlap among these categories so that these three research foci are closely interwoven and can “feed off” each other. The following features of the project will further facilitate the exchange of ideas and data among participants:

1) A workshop-cum-strategy meeting in the second year to compare preliminary results of the individual subprojects and to set a common agenda for the second half of the project.

2) A database of all texts accessed and studied by the project participants. For the duration of the project the database will be accessible to all participants; after the conclusion of the project it will be given open access status so that it may serve as a research tool for future projects.

3) A concluding conference that will publish its papers in a peer-reviewed proceedings volume. (This conference and the resulting publication are not part of the present budget. We will apply for separate funding.)

Other participants: Cao Xinyu (Renmin University), Chung Yun-Ying (Yuan Ze University), Fan Chun-Wu (Fo Guang University), David Palmer (University of Hong Kong), Sun Jiang (Shizuoka University of Art and Culture), Barend J. ter Haar (Leiden University)

Funding: 1 October 2010 – 30 September 2013, Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange