Contemporary Religions in China

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Shawn Arthur
Religions in Focus
  • New York, NY: 
    , February
     310 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Shawn Arthur’s Contemporary Religions in China presents an introduction to religion as an everyday practice in China today by emphasizing the experience of laypeople. Adam Yuet Chau’s Religion in China: Ties That Bind, also published this year, is another introductory book that covers similar themes.

Arthur’s book is divided into seven chapters including the introduction, each ending with a list of questions to reflect on and suggested further readings. It is based largely on his own fieldwork between 2004 and 2013 at large monastic institutions in a few cities (namely Beijing, Chengdu, and Xi’an with brief mentions of Suzhou and Hangzhou) as well as some famous mountains (Mount Qingcheng, Mount Le, and Mount Tai). In addition to this, he frequently draws on Chau’s ethnography of rural Shaanxi, Miraculous Response: Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China (Stanford University Press, 2006), and Xinzhong Yao and Yanxian Zhao’s introductory textbook Chinese Religion: A Contextual Approach (Continuum Books, 2010). His focus is on laypeople, a term he uses to describe people with a wide range of religious commitment, rather than monastics, religious leaders, or ritual specialists. This is an important aspect of religion in China and certainly worthy of further study in order to get at the everyday religious experiences of people in China.

The introduction presents Arthur’s personal background, the study of Chinese religions, Chinese language, his approach to the study of religion, and a brief historical overview of the People’s Republic of China. Chapter 2 focuses on how people in China often think about religion purely in terms of institutional membership, while Arthur’s study points to religious practice more broadly. Much like Chau’s work, the focus is on how people do religion, but here, more specifically, targeting laypeople. The third chapter details entering temples based on the author’s own experiences. He describes the sights, smells, and symbols common to the temples he visited and even the process of paying entrance fees. He then outlines the different reasons given for visiting a religious site, which he expands on in the following chapters.

Chapter 4 describes the interactions between humans and various supernatural beings. With each category (ghosts, gods, and ancestors), Arthur discusses what exactly the entity is and issues in translation. Yet, this seems to create categories that are far too rigid, ignoring the diversity of ways these beings are understood depending on the individual and locality. He then outlines conceptions of the afterlife, different forms of offerings, and reasons for making such offerings. The next chapter approaches a similar topic, the interactions people have with auspiciousness, focusing on objects perceived as being efficacious concerning issues of fate and fortune. In many ways, this topic could have been combined with the previous chapter but is interesting in its focus on the sensory level of religious practice. Arthur describes practices in terms of touching, hanging, throwing, divining, seeing, eating, burning, carrying, and receiving. While at times repetitive, this section is the strongest of the book and sheds light on a wide variety of often ignored forms of everyday religiosity.

The sixth chapter elaborates on the final form of interacting with auspiciousness mentioned in the previous chapter: divination. Certainly, this is another important practice but here Arthur’s descriptions lack the specificity of individual experiences needed to be successful. The only actual description of an experience with divination is his own and the rest of the chapter focuses on lengthy generalized descriptions of different kinds of divination rather than accounts of people doing divination in contemporary China. Narratives of individuals’ experiences doing divination and its impact on their lives would have been far more accessible and successful. The final chapter asks why laypeople practice religion and considers five main categories: controlling one’s situation in life, accessing divine assistance, controlling fate and fortune, cultivating the self, and understanding one’s place in the cosmos. He then outlines examples of each, though much of the content was dealt with in the preceding chapters so the amount of detail is perhaps unwarranted for a conclusion.

Frequently, Arthur repeats the same points or goes into detail of minutiae, which, at times, makes reading feel like a chore, even though the style is free of overly convoluted academic jargon. Furthermore, although he presents the study to be about Chinese religions generally, he has focused almost exclusively on large monasteries in major urban centers and famous mountains. Any discussion of rural religious life is vague and generic and would have benefited from drawing more on existing ethnographic accounts. While the focus is on laypeople, many of the accounts given of their descriptions appear to be based on brief interactions rather than the close relations formed during long-term fieldwork, and, as such, lack much depth. Arthur’s concern is primarily about why people do specific religious practices but he does not get at what these practices do to people, which, in my mind, is crucial for the study of religious experience. Finally, although Arthur says he wants to move away from privileging forms of religion based on Western or Protestant notions of what proper religious practice should be, he often does privilege certain practices over others. This is found specifically in his reference to religious texts that his interlocutors do not appear to read and how he disregards men’s religiosity—seeing them as disinterested because they do not show the same kind of commitment as the women they accompany.

Despite these problems, Arthur’s book does cover various aspects of Chinese lay religiosity in detail. This is a topic that deserves more attention from scholars in the future and I hope Arthur continues to pursue the themes he addresses. Additionally, the book includes both Chinese characters and tones on pinyin Romanization, which provides a helpful vocabulary list for anyone learning Chinese as a foreign language. However, the book would have benefited greatly from drawing on a wider array of secondary sources, more detailed accounts from interlocutors, and further analytic discussions.



About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel M. Murray is a Sessional Lecturer in the Department of East Asian Studies at McGill University.

Date of Review: 
March 2, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shawn Arthur is Assistant Professor of Chinese Religions at Wake Forest University.


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