Making Saints in Modern China

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David Ownby, Vincent Goossaert, Ji Zhe
  • Oxford, UK: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     528 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Making Saints follows twelve Chinese holy persons, as they lived, and as they were apotheosized and demonized, both during their lifetimes and subsequently.

The twelve figures span a range of types spread across religious traditions. Buddhists include the Pure Land master Yinguang, Chan master Xuyun, monk Hongyi, “patriotic” spokesperson Zhao Puchu, humanist Nan Huaijin, nun (bhiksuni) Longlian, and controversial popularizer Jingkong. Daoists include the “pope” Zhang Yuanxu and saint Ren Fajiu. Finally three chapters are devoted to the patriarchs and founders of the salvationist movements of the twentieth century: Duan Zhengyuan of the Moral Studies Society (Daode xuehui), Zhang Tianran of the Way of Pervading Unity (Yiguandao), and Li Yujie of the Heavenly Virtue Teachings (Tiandijiao). It is important to note that the categorization here is my own, the book presents these figures strictly in order of birth, eschewing this or any other typology, and letting the stories tell themselves.

Similarly, this book takes a light editorial hand in announcing the themes that link these stories together. The chapters examine both individual lives, and the process by which—as the title suggests—saints are made by their own efforts as well as by those interested external actors. Saints derive their authority from a combination of characteristics: personal charisma, moral virtue, study and cultivation, signs and portents of miraculous power, and institutional ties. The figures presented in Making Saints combine these elements in various measures and come to resemble each other in some unexpected ways. The theme of elite and political connections runs through the whole book, albeit in different directions: Yinguang and Zhao Puchu had such ties, while Duan Zhengyuan desperately sought them, and Zhuang Yuanxu was done in by having chosen the wrong ones. Similarly, each reacted differently to hagiographic convention and popular expectations that sainthood be accompanied by miraculous power. While Zhang Yuanxu and Zhang Tianran built careers and income off of the ability to exorcise demons or conduct spirit-writing trances, miracles had little role in the life and fame of Hongyi, and Longlian actively rejected them. Yet perceptions remained largely outside of the saint’s own control: each was a product of their time, and the question of what constituted a saintly life was, itself, constantly contested by a variety of political and social forces.

As an edited volume, this book does certain things extremely well. The first is the research itself, which is uniformly of the highest quality. Each of the chapters is deeply grounded in both sources and understanding of the period covered, and in many cases, supplemented with personal acquaintance of the saint discussed. Although each of the stories is arranged around a life story, the framing brings a variety of approaches from the more political to the more personal journeys of discovery, cultivation, accomplishment, tragedy, and loss. Structuring the chapters around individual lives establishes a pattern across the different narratives, and brings a new sort of chronology to familiar events of the twentieth century. Such an approach also brings a new level of detail about the institutions and practices of Chinese religion over the twentieth century. Through these chapters, we see how temples operated, how holy persons traveled, what they ate, and how they lived in every stage of China’s dramatic twentieth century. Passages such as the description of Daoist dietetic and alchemic practice—subsisting on pine needles, going out at night to a secret spot the forest, casting spells, writing talismans, and heating up a cauldron of herbs and minerals to create elixirs of immortality—are truly unmatched.  (426-28)

Finally, the stories themselves are moving and remarkably accessible. Although there are occasional—generally useful—feints to the phenomena of Christian saint making, there is refreshingly little recourse to abstract theory, and almost none of the esoteric terminology that can make scholarship on Chinese religion so laborious to read. A uniformity of terminology across the book brings the chapters into natural conversation with each other, as do editor David Ownby’s fluid translations of chapters originally written in Chinese and French.

I have very little to add to this well-written, thoughtful book. If anything, it left me with an appetite for more, specifically on two points. The first concerns religious traditions outside of the Confucian-Daoist-Buddhist trinity—in which I include the new generation of religious movements that emerged from them. Islam and Christianity also evolved significantly during the period covered, and certainly by the twentieth century deserve to be included among Chinese traditions, particularly given the disproportionate influence of both global and missionary Christianity in setting agendas and forms of religious modernism, such as reformist Buddhism. The second is with political saint making, which remains fairly ubiquitous on the Chinese mainland, and not far beneath the surface of other Chinese societies. As with Christianity, the significance of political saint making is both as a point of comparison, and a trendsetter for what this book shows to be an evolving hagiographic template.

In sum, Making Saints is a singular and unique contribution to the study of Chinese religion and modern history. Unusually, for an edited book this volume deserves to be read in order, from beginning to end.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas David DuBois is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
September 14, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Ownby is professor of history at the University of Montreal.

Vincent Goossaert is professor of religious studies at the École pratique des haute études (EPHE) in Paris.

Ji Zhe is associate professor of Chinese studies at the Institut national des langues civilisations orientales (INALCO) in Paris.



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