Religious and Political Contestation in Chinese Contexts
Whilst religion and politics are not meant for polite dinner conversations, they have frequently been present at the table amongst scholars of world Christianity, and especially for those who research Chinese contexts. To a great extent, religion and politics have been intertwined throughout Chinese history. We see this in the three major religions or teachings of China – Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism – all of which have vied for space amongst the masses and in the political arena. This has been complicated even further with the rise of the Communist Party of China, which has since the 1980s held a position of tolerance for religion as being a ‘private matter’ with little to no public significance. Adding Christianity into the mix only complicates the picture, given its own multifaceted relationships with religion and politics. Christianity’s historical emphasis on evangelism inevitably invokes reaction in this pluralistic society. Furthermore, despite any restrictions imposed by the ruling party, strands of Chinese Christianity have always had a significant proclivity to exist as a public religion. The four articles in this issue of Studies in World Christianity offer snapshots into various aspects of Christianity’s religious and political contestation in Chinese contexts.
Multiple identities are a standard feature of human culture and society. Everyone possesses what French sociologist Bernard Lahire has called an internal plurality (2011). As Lahire sees it, individuals are ‘the bearer[s] of heterogeneous habits, schemes, or dispositions which may be contrary or even contradictory to one another’ (2003: 344). Relatedly, in their comprehensive work on identity theory, Peter J. Burke and Jan E. Stets have argued that, ‘We take on many identities over the course of a lifetime, and at any point in time we have many identities that could be activated’ (2009: 131). In other words, everyone’s internal plurality includes multiple identities that can be activated for diverse purposes. (Continue reading the introduction here.)
What do Buddhist monks and Christian friars have in common? Quite a bit, in fact. While travelling widely across Asia in the late sixteenth century, Franciscans had rich encounters and exchanges with Buddhist monks that led them to identify Buddhism as a unified tradition and a powerful religion in the region.
Westerners encountering new cultures in the early modern period often found it difficult to categorize unfamiliar traditions. For many, the religious landscape was divided into Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Anything outside of that landscape was lumped together as idolatry or paganism – often described as superstition. Repeated new encounters with other traditions prompted new categories with newly identified religions. Many scholars of the process of the transformation of how Westerners categorized and understood religion agree that Buddhism, when it came to be identified as a single entity in the West, had the special distinction of being the first religion parallel to Christianity, and the first “world religion” next to Christianity. Scholars have largely assumed the idea of Buddhism as a common religion across Asia emerged in the west in the nineteenth century. Continue reading →
From the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, Catholic and Protestant missionaries were the eyes through which Europe viewed the religious and cultural systems of the non-European world. Merchants, soldiers and diplomats sometimes fulfilled the same function, but they were birds of passage who rarely had the necessity or inclination to observe the ritual practices of indigenous peoples at close hand. Missionaries, by contrast, were in for the long haul. The objective of conversion required careful and patient observation of local traditions, the slow learning of language, the gradual attuning of the mind to the finer points of ceremonial observance, totem or taboo. Missionaries compared and contrasted what they saw with what they had seen elsewhere, or with what was familiar to them in European Christendom. As they did so, they began to order the miscellany of phenomena they encountered into divisions, categories, even systems. Continue reading →