Handbook of East Asian New Religious Movements

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Lukas Pokorny, Franz Winter
Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion


The Handbook of East Asian New Religious Movements offers readers a comprehensive account of popular New Religious Movements (NRMs) in East Asia, a term used to encompass Japan, North and South Korea, China/Taiwan, and Vietnam. Aside from the introductory section, which provides an overview of NRMs, the book is organized in four parts, leading readers through a fantastic journey exploring the various forms of new religiosity in each region. Up to twenty-five NRMs are introduced in the volume, each with a detailed profile.

The introduction to the Handbook discusses terminological issues, including “East Asia” and “NRM.” As the authors have shown, providing a universally-accepted definition for the concept “NRM” is very challenging. In this Handbook, East Asian NRMS often include the influence of the Three Teachings (Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism), a millenarian aspect, a central role for the founding figure or leader, and a generally this-worldly outlook. Yet readers should not expect to find here a clear set of criteria for how a religious group is identified as an NRM. NRMs in East Asia have emerged and mushroomed against the backdrop of societal and political turmoil brought by the spread of Western colonialism and modernity alongside indigenous political regimes' reactions during the 19th to mid-20th century. The Handbook views these NRMS as a the people's response to these massive geopolitical and cultural challenges. NRMs became appealing to a part of the population by providing hope for the total transformation of this mundane world with the arrival of spiritual entities in the near future who would terminate entrenched sufferings that resulted from collective deprivation and personal crises. 

The introduction's justification of reasons for the arrival of new and alternative religions in East Asia may not satisfy all readers. An NRM can be born at any time. Aum Shinrikyo in Japan (1984) or Falun Gong in China (1992) did not necessarily emerge as people suffered. Besides, an NRM can be a personal experiment reinventing ideas about the supernatural. When an idea is spread and welcomed widely, an NRM can be founded. This is at least the case in post-Renovation Vietnam where, since 1986, newer religious currents have emerged, especially in the North. Some groups that worship Hồ Chí Minh as Jade Buddha (Ngọc Phật) have tens of thousands of members and have been active for decades. 

The four parts of the Handbook offer readers detailed accounts of NRMs in different socio-cultural contexts. Each part begins with an overview of the history of NRMs in specific nation-states, followed by representation and in-depth analysis of carefully-chosen NRMs, including their history and developments, doctrinal aspects, daily life, main rituals, and recent changes. Written by true experts in the field, all articles follow a strict analytic structure that enables readers to build up a comparative view of East Asian NRMs. All are well-referenced and include a thorough bibliography. The display of Romanized terms and names accompanied by their original notation is extremely useful for serious readers.

In the case of Vietnam, only two NRMs are discussed: Caodaism and Hòa Hảo Buddhism. Undoubtedly, these two are the best representatives for new religions established during the early 20th century. However, if equally-qualified NRMs such as Tứ Ân Hiếu Nghĩa (Four Debts of Gratitude), Tịnh Độ Cư sĩ Phật hội (Vietnam Pure Land Buddhist Home-Practice Association), and Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương (Way of the Strange Fragrance from the Precious Mountain) had been selected for detailed descriptions, readers would have been able to learn more about the vitality and diversity of NRMs in this country.

Generally speaking, the Handbook tells stories of aging NRMs. Readers who hunger for information about newer religious currents in East Asia may have to wait for a future volume in this series. Readers would likely find the text more interesting if each article was accompanied by illustrations.

The Handbook is extremely useful for university lecturers teaching about NRMs. Researchers and students of contemporary religions will benefit too. Certainly, this is a very good read for anyone who is interested in new religious movements.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hoàng Vān Chung is a Postdoctoral Researcher of Sociology at the Institute for Religious Studies at the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lukas Pokorny is Professor and Chair in Religious Studies at the Department of Religious Studies, University of Vienna. He has published on new religious movements, millenarianism, and Confucianism. His present research focuses, among others, on ethnocentrism and millenarian beliefs in East Asian new religious movements.

Franz Winter is teaching Religious Studies at the University of Graz. His areas of research comprise, among others, the history of religious contact between Asia and Europe from Antiquity to the present and new religious movements.



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