Empire and the Meaning of Religion in Manchuria, 1900-1945

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Thomas DuBois
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , December
     260 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When “Manchuria,” the northeastern provinces of China, are mentioned by modern historians, it is usually in the context of the Japanese occupation of the region in 1931-1932, followed by the establishment of the Japanese client state of “Manchukuo.” Those events have usually been read as a secular, political story.

However, in recent years, religion has become an important entry point for the understanding of the strange place of Manchukuo in the history of East Asia in the early twentieth century. Prasenjit Duara’s Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003) made a bold case for the Manchukuo period as one of liberation for religious women who found that their customary spiritual practices had essentially been excluded by the emergence of a secular modernizing state, and had found new space within Manchukuo to preserve what they valued.

Thomas Dubois draws on this agenda in his new book, but makes it very much his own. He seeks, first of all, “to reorient the discussion of religion as a global phenomenon” (9). He argues that the interpretation of religion has been largely shaped around Judeo-Christian norms, and that a wider understanding of religion can yield interpretive benefits. In addition, he seeks to use the history of religion in Manchuria as a means of understanding the “circulation and elaboration of ideas” (11). Manchuria was a cosmopolitan region, despite its frozen remoteness, and this factor shaped the way in which the region circulated ways of being religious, and indeed, political. Dubois uses the term “spiritual engineering” (18) to express the transformative process that religious practice was supposed to provide in Manchuria under the successive regimes that ran it between 1900 and 1945. In doing so, he provides a powerful case that the story of modern China, which is most often told as a secular one, in contrast with Japan (where Shinto and Buddhism are both brought to bear in interpreting the path to war in the 1930s and 1940s, for instance), should be understood much more in terms of the way in which society interacted with institutions that sought to harness the metaphysical for social change.

Dubois begins in the late Qing dynasty, arguing that there was relatively little that was wholly distinctive in religious practice in Manchuria, where a variety of north Chinese practices such as the Teaching of the Abiding Principle (zaili jiao) were spread into the northeast. The growing Christian mission presence also influenced the region strongly, in particular by creating a space for a new type of personal spiritual development. Not all the beneficiaries of this would be Christian; Buddhist practice would be influenced by it in turn. 

The story becomes more distinctive to Manchuria as Japanese influence grows in the 1930s. Particularly interesting is the role of the Shengjing Times (Shengjing shibao), a Japanese-run, Chinese-language newspaper which made nods toward social reform and was no mere tool of a top-down Japanese imperialism. The paper was broadly sympathetic to organized institutional religion, whether Buddhist or Christian, with a rather contemptuous attitude toward popular religions. There emerged a somewhat ironic situation in which a newspaper owned by Japanese capital found itself on the same side as secular Chinese elites in trying to modernize the region by delegitimizing popular religion. This tendency shifted during the years of occupation and war (from the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 to the defeat of Japan in 1945) as the state sought to build an ideological idea of “the Kingly Way” (Wangdao) based on Confucian ideas. During this time, local Buddhist organizations turned to philanthropy as a powerful means of relieving local suffering and also giving themselves a new space to expand their influence. In Manchukuo, the authorities took a rather cautious view of one of these organizations, the Daoyuan-WRSS (World Red Swastika Society), neither persecuting it nor seeking to come too close to it. The use of a religious vehicle to create a separate sphere of operation with Manchukuo’s highly constrained civil society seems to have worked to a significant degree (“at no point was Daoyuan actually persecuted,” 157), though at the price that the Daoyuan was never praised or promoted in the officially-controlled Manchukuo press.

Dubois does an excellent job of showing the immensely complex interaction between different strands of religious and secular authority in Manchuria before 1945. His interest is really in religious organizations and entities as vehicles for action, rather than their theology per se, and he shows convincingly that both Buddhist and Christian organizations were able to carve out a distinctive philanthropic role (and the power base that went with it) without coming into wholesale opposition to the authorities, in particular the increasingly powerful and oppressive Japanese empire. It provides, therefore, a stimulating and necessary complement to the (still valid) view of the Manchukuo project as largely a clash between rival ideologies: secular Chinese nationalism and Japanese imperialism. Overall, the book is richly sourced and clearly written. It will be a very useful resource not just for scholars of East Asia, but for all those concerned with the way in which religious practice has influenced nationalism and modernization.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rana Mitter is Professor of History and Politics in Modern China at the University of Oxford China Centre.

Date of Review: 
May 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 


Thomas David DuBois is a leading scholar of religion in East Asian history, and is the author of Religion and the Making of Modern East Asia (Cambridge, 2011) and Sacred Village: Social Change and Religious Life in Rural North China (2005). His work has been published in Arabic, Chinese and Russian translation.



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