Religion and Orientalism in Asian Studies

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Kiri Paramore
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , October
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Religion and Orientalism in Asian Studies, edited by Kiri Paramore, offers an in-depth analysis of the symbiotic relationship between Asian Studies—an interdisciplinary academic field that emerged after World War II in North America—and its precursor, Oriental Studies, a humanities-oriented discipline that was shaped by the distinctly Eurocentric religious and moral motivations and sensibilities of its proponents. The book contains ten chapters dedicated to specifics regions in Asia. The most well-studied civilizations—China, Japan, and India—are the subject of two chapters each, with the addition of one chapter that focuses on East Asia in general, whereas Korea, Southeast Asia, and Central Eurasia receive one chapter each. In a true reflection of the multidisciplinary nature of Asian Studies, this volume features essays from a wide variety of scholars, from philologists and historians to anthropologists and sociologists, each bringing their own methodologies, theoretical frameworks, and primary sources to shed light on a common topic: the historical role of religion in the shaping the modern study of Asian cultures and civilizations and the ways in which Asian Studies, as a sub-disincline of the social science-oriented field of Area Studies, affected the study of religion in Western and Asian academic circles.

In the introduction Paramore outlines the main goals of this volume: demonstrating the common impact of Orientalist scholarship on the contemporary practices of Asian Studies and, as well as the conceptualization of the modern category of “religion” (3), while simultaneously emphasizing the various ways in which this process played out in different Asian regions and countries (7). In chapter 7, for example, Marion Eggert argues that the modern field of Korean Studies was largely shaped by the religious affiliation of the Christian missionaries who established it in the late nineteenth century. The role assigned to religion as a key feature of modern cultural and national identity in the writings of these early Western scholars prompted many patriotic Korean intellectuals to highlight, and perhaps even overstress, the importance of their own religious traditions, mainly Confucianism and Buddhism, in the development of the Korean social and political history (116). In Japan, on the other hand, we see an opposite phenomenon, one in which religion was never an important category in the development of Japanese Studies. As shown by Hans Martin Krämer in chapter 8, this was the result of the anti-religious motivation, a “secularist bias” (122) shared by both Western and Japanese scholars who preferred to study Japan through the theoretical lens of modernity, emphasizing such narratives as the Meiji Restoration and post-WWII “economic miracle” (125).

One of the most important contributions of this edited volume is its stressing the role of Asian scholars in shaping the academic study of their own region and culture. In chapter 9, for example, Paramore argues that the relatively early consolidation of modern Japanese state in the mid-nineteenth century gave local intellectuals “a greater capacity to exercise agency over the strategies of representation that gave shape to Japanese studies” (130), a privilege that no other non-Western country’s official state academic elite have ever enjoyed. A similar point is raised in chapter 3 by Peter Bisschop, who emphasizes the formative role of the Brahaminical elite in the formation of the academic discipline of Indology and the construction of the modern category of Hinduism. Early Orientalists, he argues, were highly dependent on their local informants who helped them interpret ancient Sanskritic texts. “Hinduism,” as we know it, was thus not simply a colonial construct but a result of a series of meetings between religiously motivated Westerns and ideologically motivated Brahmins who controlled their access to primary sources (41).

Another great strength this book is its ability to bring together opposing arguments and weave them together in a coherent and balanced fashion. While some essays, such as T. H. Barrett’s chapters 5, emphasize the limitations of Western categories of knowledge, especially sectarian definitions of religious identity, on the study of local beliefs and practices in East Asia, others show the readers the potential benefits of reading nineteenth century Orientalist literature. In chapter 6, for example, Barend ter Haar argues that despite their obvious prejudice, these early sinologists did have unique access to living Chinese religion in a time when it was still fully functional (85). When read responsibly, their writings allow us to construct a more nuanced picture of modern Chinese religious life.

Finally, in addition to drawing attention to the complex relationship between Orientalism, religion, and Area Studies, some of the essays included in this volume also offer new methodologies and new scholarly strategies. In chapter 1, for instance, Bernard Arps suggests that scholars of Southeast Asia should pay more attention to indigenous ways of thinking and knowing and focus on the movement and transformation of knowledge across the entire region instead of limiting ourselves to a specific country or religious tradition (23). Likewise, in chapter 4, Anna Sun presents a new paradigm for the study of Chinese religions, calling for the replacement of the old belief-based model of religious identity with an alternative syncretic framework that prioritizes praxis over sectarian membership and focuses on the interaction and interdependence of diverse religious repertoires as key ingredients of Chinese religious identity (66-67). Religions in China, she concludes, “are not separated by straight boundaries, like islands made of stone; they are more like living things in a vibrant ecosystem, constantly… evolving through conflicts as well as through interdependence” (71). It is such original observations which will surly make Religion and Orientalism in Asian Studies a mandatory text in future Ph.D. candidacy exams for scholars of Asian Studies. In addition, given their manageable length and constructive insights, some individual chapters can also be used in undergraduate teaching. Sun’s chapter, for example, as well as Rowena Robinson’s discussion of the impact of the Orientalist project on the development of the social sciences in modern India in chapter 2, can be used in introductory classes on the sociology of religion but also in courses on modern and contemporary Asian societies and cultures.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ori Tavor is a Lecturer in Pre-modern Chinese Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
February 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kiri Paramore is University Lecturer in History and Asian Studies at Leiden University, the Netherlands.


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