Religion in China

Ties That Bind

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Adam Yuet Chau
China Today Series
  • Maiden, MA: 
    Polity Press
    , May
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Adam Yuet Chau’s Religion in China: Ties That Bind offers a general overview of Chinese religious practices and attempts to develop a framework for the study of religion in China more broadly. Shawn Arthur’s recent Contemporary Religions in China covers a very similar topic and is also aimed at a general readership.

Chau’s book is divided into six chapters in addition to an introduction and conclusion. He uses examples from his own fieldwork in Shaanxi, Taiwan, and Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, as well as other Chinese and English language ethnographies of religion in China. The introduction explains his approach to studying religion in China, understood primarily as relational and socially embedded practices, as well as the problems he finds in purely statistical and quantitative methods for studying religion. He then provides a biography presenting his changing relations to religious practice and China. The chapter concludes with a breakdown of various disciplinary approaches to the study of religion.

Chapter 1 describes modalities of doing religion, which will be familiar to anyone who has read Chau’s earlier work, dividing practices into five categories: discursive/scriptural, personal-cultivation, liturgical, immediate-practical, and relational. The following chapters then expand on these modalities and show how they frequently overlap. Chapter 2 focuses on how people interact with gods, ghosts, and ancestors, emphasizing the importance of spiritual efficacy (ling) in Chinese religions. Here, Chau provides clear descriptions of practices such as offering incense, burning spirit money, casting divination lots, and the different relations people have with supernatural spirits. He uses examples from not only temples but also the household, pointing to the importance of hosting these spirits, another idiom which has appeared in his previous work.

The third chapter describes different festivals and pilgrimages; here, Chau draws on another emic category, “red and fiery” (honghuo or re’nao), a term used to describe the atmosphere of social heat at ritual events. Although the range of examples used is at times disjointed (ranging from trips to founding temples of popular gods to a globalized Humanistic Buddhist group and Hajj pilgrimages by Chinese Muslims), this disconnect also shows the complexity and diversity of religious practice in China.

The fourth chapter concerns the relations between ritual service providers and Chinese people as consumers of these services. This returns to the issue of efficacy discussed in chapter 2, underscoring the importance of deities and specialists being successful in responding to requests made by people, rather than concerns about which religious tradition they belong. Once again, Chau provides a variety of examples of these ritual performances. He concludes that most religious service providers are similar to a family business as they depend on good social relations for their success. The fifth chapter then discusses ways in which religion works to form communities and its importance to social life. The author analyzes different religious groups in terms of how they organize around systems of ideas, symbols, and ritual practices, and in turn how these systems are mobilized. The chapter ends with a brief description of new technologies for transmitting religion, a fruitful topic for future research.

The final chapter focuses on changing state-religion relations, an important issue but also one that can change so rapidly that it proves difficult to give an up to date account. Indeed, with the increased restrictions on religious institutions and practices over the past few years there is already much to be added to this discussion. Chau then moves on to the concept of a “religion sphere” (zongjiaojie) used by the state and the problems in defining religions as spheres cut off from other parts of society. Chau concludes the book with an argument for thinking about religion as relational and its potential application not only for studying religion in China but also globally.

While Chau’s writing is generally clear and accessible, he does not always explain the theoretical terms used and summarizes complex ideas too quickly to have them be of much use for non-specialists. These occurrences will likely confuse undergraduates and non-academic readers, but they do not damage the overall quality of the book. The book does not contain Chinese characters in the main text but does include them in a list at the end of the book. Although Chau includes examples from different regions of China, he largely focuses on Shaanxi, coastal China, and Taiwan with a few exceptions. Overall, Chau offers a helpful introduction to the topic. It presents a framework for understanding religion in China which will be useful for undergraduates and non-specialist readers.



About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel M. Murray is a Sessional Lecturer in the Department of East Asian Studies at McGill University.

Date of Review: 
March 2, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Adam Yuet Chau is Professor of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.