Meaning and Controversy Within Chinese Ancestor Religion

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Paulin Batairwa Kubuya
Asian Christianity in the Diaspora
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , February
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ancestors have long been a major theme in Chinese religions and Chinese Christianity. David K. Jordan’s famous formulation described “gods, ghosts, and ancestors” and since the early days of foreign sinology, outsiders have struggled to understand how to make sense of the ancestors. What makes an ancestor an ancestor? What influence do they exert on the living? How are they remembered? How might those from outside traditions view them? In Chinese Catholic history, the “ancestor rites” controversy casts a long shadow, since it was the defining issue that broke relations between the Vatican and the Qing court. Today, the question of the ancestors continues to haunt the study of religion. Paulin Batairwa Kubuya makes a strong contribution to the task of defining and explaining ancestor religion, offering an analysis that is more theological and philosophical and which struggles to hold outsider models and insider accounts in tension. Batairwa Kubuya helps explain both the history and theory of the term.

Batairwa Kubuya is a PhD graduate of Fu-Jen Catholic University in Taipei (2010), and now teaches in Fu-Jen’s religion department. Batairwa Kubuya sees his methodology as drawing on the work of two scholars: Nicolas Standaert and Michel Foucault. (Standaert is an influential historian of Chinese Christianity who has helped to define the field.) Batairwa Kubuya’s cross-cultural hermeneutics is designed to get at ancestor religion using an approach that does not depend on phenomenology. From Standaert he takes a cross-cultural interest and hermeneutic, and from Foucault he studies power. Three recurring themes are tradition, power, and salvation. In ancestor religion he finds a search for salvation, wholeness, and integrity.

Meaning and Controversy has six chapters. An introduction and conclusion sandwich the core chapters of the book: “The Hermeneutic Challenge of Ancestor-Related Practices,” “The Conflict of Interpretation of Chinese Ancestor Rites,” “‘Our’ Perspective: The Indigenous Explanation of Ancestor Rites,” and “Existential Hermeneutics of Ancestor Religion.” Chapter 2, on the “Hermeneutic Challenge,” treats methods in great depth. Chapter 3 looks at the historical disputes over ancestor rites, beginning with the Yuan, proceeding to the Qing and then to 19th and 20th century Protestant interpretations, and concluding with how Chinese religion scholars from J. J. M. de Groot onward have interpreted this question. A helpful chart (104) lays out how power relations shaped responses.

Chapter 4, which looks at indigenous explanations of ancestor rites for its source material, is more ecclesiastical in its leanings, often looking at how missionaries, church leaders, theologians, or church documents treat the ancestors. He studies church-based responses to ancestor worship in the Qing; in a 1970s Catholic movement that cultivated a type of ancestor worship; and in what he calls the Protestant approach. Then he looks at how Chinese scholars have understood foreign theories on ancestor religion. Batairwa Kubuya speaks of a “three-step pattern in indigenized Christian responses.” This pattern begins with understanding the problem of the ancestors, attempting to interpret and frame the challenge, and then proposing “a common positive assertion of filial piety” (138). The author shows variations in this pattern. For instance, Protestants have often highlighted efforts at orthodoxy and anti-idolatry, but also appeal to scriptural materials in different ways. Clearly there are trends in how Christians have interpreted the ancestors. Batairwa Kubuya’s study of these academic approaches is fresh, highlighting both how contemporary insiders approach the topic, and also the ways in which they intersect with major themes in Chinese religions. This section shows how much this is a living topic and shows the originality of Batairwa Kubuya’s work. 

The greatest contribution of this work is its sustained, multivalent attention to the meaning of the ancestors. Batairwa Kubuya is unhappy with the language of “traditional religion,” a term used in both African and Chinese religions, and in its place proposes “ancestor religion,” which he believes could be used across different regions. In fact, he opens the book with the claim that “worship of ancestors constitutes 60% of religious practices and behavior in cultures around the world” (1). In general, his focus on the ancestors is justified and leads to insightful findings, but prioritizing ancestors may overshadow other themes. 

If it turns out that ancestor religion is so ubiquitous, then this formulation will likely encounter the same problems as other discarded or problematic formulations such as “traditional religion,” which contemporary scholars largely reject. Curiously, the book also largely ignores the expression “folk religion,” which is of course the language many scholars and practitioners use to discuss the ancestors in Chinese religions. “Folk religion” is also an insider category, sometimes used interchangeably with baibai, a term that Batairwa Kubuya discusses. In a recent sociological survey, Taiwanese tended to identify as either having “no religious tradition” (34%), or as Buddhist (27%), Daoist (15%), or folk religious (13%). Taiwanese identified with folk religion (mingjian xinyang) as a major tradition, and this tradition often lives harmoniously with other formal religious traditions. In reading this book, I often wished for a deeper conversation with practitioners and lived traditions (for example, through surveys, interviews, or observation) that could shed light on these issues. The author presents these voices via reports and analysis, but the overall framework is more analytical, and might have profited from a wider sampling of perspectives or a more direct reference to other insider approaches or social scientific research. In the conclusion of the book Batairwa Kubuya points to how new religious groups (Yiguandao, Tiandijiao, Xuanyanjiao) might foster insights into how the ancestors interact with Confucian culture. Certainly there is ample ground to continue the study of Chinese ancestor religion.

This book is well written and edited. Part of Palgrave’s “Asian Christianity in the Disapora” series, it indeed demonstrates the significance of the ancestors in Chinese Christianity and has relevance for many communities. By developing the study of Chinese ancestor religion, Batairwa Kubuya provides focus and punch, proposing a new way of interpreting the ancestors for Christians and others.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan A. Seitz is Mission Co-Worker for the Presbyterian Church (USA) and Associate Professor at Taiwan Graduate School of Theology.  During the 2018-2019 academic year he is Visiting Scholar at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paulin Batairwa Kubuya is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Fu Jen Catholic University and Executive Secretary of Taiwan Regional Bishops' Conference-Commissions for Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism.


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