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Thinking through Conceptual Problems on Chinese New Religious Groups

  • Barend ter Haar

Abstract

Although literature on religious culture in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is steadily growing, in the West there is still surprisingly little knowledge on the concrete circumstances of religious life in most parts of this vast country. Western research tends to focus on Fujian, the situation in the biggest cities such as Shanghai, monastic Buddhism, and different forms of Christianity and Islam. We also learn much about the religious culture of officially recognized ethnic minorities. Chinese-language research is certainly richer, but even when we include this material, we still lack the empirical data to make any generalizations with sufficient confidence. What is true of religious culture in general is even more true of new religious groups (cults or sects, as they are often labeled). As these new groups lack the necessary legal freedom to practice their religions, very little of this suspected diversity is visible to the observer. Even the police may not be fully aware of what is going on—perhaps fortunately for the groups in question. The reason for this lack of information should be self-evident: it is the absence of substantial religious freedom.

Keywords

Religious Group Chinese Communist Party Conceptual Problem Religious Diversity Popular Belief 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 2.
    See, for instance, Emily C. Dunn, “‘Cult,’ Church, and the CCP: Introducing Eastern Lightning,” Modern China 35, no. 1 (2009): 96–119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 3.
    See some brief remarks in Benjamin Penny, The Religion of Falun Gong (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 127, 180, 187–188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 4.
    Vincent Goossaert and David Palmer, The Religious Question in Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 278, 286–289, andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. David A. Palmer, Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 281–306, 308–309. My comments are based additionally on informally published statements of devotion by Falun Gong adherents in the late 1990s. Because the statements include their names, I am hesitant to quote them here.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    We seem to be lacking full academic studies of this topic. See brief remarks in David Gray, “Tibetan Lamas in Ethnic Chinese Communities and the Rise of New Tibetan-Inspired Chinese Religions,” in Charles D. Orzech, Henrik H. Sørensen, and Richard K. Payne (eds.), Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 568–571; andGoogle Scholar
  6. Bill Smith, “Tibetan Buddhism Tempts Spiritual Chinese,” China Review 23 (2002): 32–33. Tibetan Buddhism outside the Tibetan Administrative Region (but still ethnically Tibetan) as well as in Han Chinese communities outside the PRC is also growing.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    On a Daoist cum Confucian new religious group, see Volker Olles, “The Way of the Locust Tree Studio: Preliminary Remarks on the Foundations and Functions of the Popular religious Liumen Movement,” in Florian C. Reiter (ed.), Foundations of Daoist Ritual: A Berlin Symposium (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2009), 107–117. There is still no good survey history of spirit-writing cults. See Philip Clart’s dissertation for an introductory study, “The Ritual Context of Morality Books: A Case-Study of a Taiwanese Spirit-Writing Cult” (PhD dissertation, University of British Columbia, 1996).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Kenneth Dean, Lord of the Three in One: The Spread of a Cult in Southeast China (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), as well asGoogle Scholar
  9. Kenneth Dean and Zheng Zhenman, Ritual Alliances of the Putian Plain (Leiden: Brill, 2010).Google Scholar
  10. 9.
    On the Non-Action Teachings, see my own “The History of a Reading Experience: A Lay Buddhist Chan-Movement in Late Imperial China” (accepted by Hawai’i University Press); on the Broad Yang Teachings, see Song Jun (宋军), Qingdai hongyangjiao yanjiu (清代弘阳教研究) (Beijing: She kewen wenxianban, 2002).Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    For instance, Ma Xisha (馬西沙) and Han Bingfang (韓秉方), Zhongguo minjian zongjiaoshi (中國民間宗教史) (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin, 1992), 362–368, 380–383.Google Scholar
  12. 16.
    Two exceptions are Fan Lizhu, “The Cult of the Silkworm Mother as a Core of Local Community Religion in a North China Village: Field Study in Zhiwuying, Baoding, Hebei,” in Daniel Overmyer (ed.), Religion in China Today (The China Quarterly Special Issue) (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 53–66; andGoogle Scholar
  13. Erin M. Cline, “Female Spirit Mediums and Religious Authority in Contemporary Southeastern China,” Modern China 36, no. 5 (2010): 520–555, for more traditional examples. SeeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Nancy N. Chen, “Healing Sects and Anti-Cult Campaigns,” in Daniel Overmyer (ed.), Religion in China Today (China Quarterly Special Issue) (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 199–214, and Palmer, Qigong Fever, on Qigong movements, which are charismatic movements par excellence.Google Scholar
  15. 18.
    Kristen Kupfer, “Christian-Inspired Groups in the People’s Republic of China after 1978: Reaction of State and Party Authorities,” in Social Compass 51 (June 2004): 273–286 and her survey of state policies “‘Häretische Lehren bekämpfen’—Die Umgang der chinesischen Regierung mit spirituell-religiösen Bewegungen seit 1978,” in Wiebke Koenig and Karl-Fritz Daiber (eds.), Religion und Politik in der Volksrepublik China (Würzburg: Ergon, 2008), 251–288.Google Scholar

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© Perry Schmidt-Leukel and Joachim Gentz 2013

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  • Barend ter Haar

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