Shanghai Sacred

The Religious Landscape of a Global City

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Benoit Vermander, Liz Hingley, Liang Zhang
  • Seattle, WA: 
    University of Washington Press
    , March
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


There is wide interest in the contemporary religious context in China but despite a plethora of recent scholarship on the topic, much of the religious marketplace remains unchartered and China’s religious context remains largely misunderstood. Hindered by the sheer size of the religious sphere in China—and in some cases by other factors such as lack of access; narrow accounts which privilege one tradition over another; over-simplistic categorization of the religious scene; ongoing sensitivities linked to undertaking religious research within the country; and language difficulties—it is perhaps little wonder that there remain significant gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the Chinese religious arena. 

This book seeks to fill some of those gaps by providing an in-depth exploration of Shanghai’s sacred spaces and its variegated, embedded, and yet fluid communities. Through this detailed examination we are able to develop a clearer understanding of the fascinating interplay between Chinese and global aspects of Shanghai’s religiosity. Drawing on many years of fieldwork, this empirically rich and analytically engaging book shows that Shanghai is not only a cosmopolitan city where East meets West in China, or a thriving metropolis that positions itself as both the home of the revolutionary movement and the cornerstone of Chinese “modernity,” but that it is also an important global center in terms of cultural and religious diversity.

Divided into seven highly readable chapters, the introduction to the book lays out the research questions driving this project and begins by exploring the methodological and conceptual challenges facing research on religion and the sacred, as set against a contemporary, urban, and global backdrop. These challenges include a criticism of the somewhat rigid language used by many academics who seek to simplify the world by “referring to a lexicon that supposedly covers all related phenomena throughout the world” (5) as contrasted with the vibrancy and richness of language emerging from religious practitioners in China as they describe their various religious beliefs and practices. Using a space-time trajectory, this book then goes on to map Shanghai both historically and geographically, highlighting both the deep-rooted and yet fluid nature of sacred places, practices, and beliefs in the city and the ongoing process involved in their construction and reconstruction. 

Subsequent chapters then expand upon this, adding layers of texture and detail to the sketched outline provided in the introduction, by exploring the nature of “sacredness” in specific contexts. Using thematic chapters on “calendars and landmarks,” “compounds,” “homes,” and “waterways,” dimension and perspective is added to the overall portrait being created. Helpfully, these categories enable readers to move away from the restrictive categories and parameters often put on studies in this field by both policy makers and academics, and allow for a richer, more detailed picture to emerge. These chapters not only add to our understanding of what happens on the ground through the lived experiences, practices, and beliefs of any who call Shanghai home, but they also add to our theoretical understanding of what it is to study religion anywhere in the world. The concluding chapter, aptly titled “The Sacred Tapestry,” pulls together a variety of threads that enrich and modify the well-known classical notions of sociology of religion which start the book, and weave in a range of locally produced threads in terms of Chinese metaphors and concepts including “right” (zheng), “erroneous or perverse” (xie), “spiritual quality or power” (ling), and “resonance” (guanying) in order to add depth and color to the newly emerging picture

The picture that emerges is both stunning and revealing, the depth and detail of which is due in part to the collaborative nature of this endeavor between three discerning scholars—the French sinologist and political scientist Benoît Vermander, professor of religious studies and director of the Xu-Ricci Dialogue Institute at Fudan University in Shanghai; British photographer and anthropologist Liz Hingley; and Chinese national Liang Zhang, research assistant with the Institute of Religious Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Those readers already familiar with Vermander’s work will not be surprised to learn that what has emerged from this collaboration is a rigorous, analytical study that is methodologically robust, and which provides layer upon layer of rich detail. Followers of Hingley’s work will also be delighted to see her photographs form an integral part of the book, providing both articulated visual statements of the local context and explanatory models for wider analysis and interpretation.

Drawing on their own disciplinary expertise, alongside their own identities and perspectives, the authors enter into a dialogic partnership not only with one another but also with the communities that they research. In so doing, they place individuality and communalism, interdisciplinarity, and transculturalism at the core of their approach. In the wrong hands such a collaboration could have faltered but it is clear from the rich and deeply personal encounters portrayed in this book that the nature of the differences embodied in these three scholars served as a research tool in its own right, affirming different ways of knowing, behaving, and belonging, and thus allowing such a varied, deep-rooted, and yet at the same time ethereal picture not only to emerge but also to be captured on the page. 

Shanghai Sacred’s priveliging of a visual approach, along with its close collaborative production, meticulous investigation, and fruitful conversations have resulted in an incisive, nuanced, and multifaceted analysis of the sacred milieu of the global metropolis that is Shanghai. Tapping into a wide range of communities this book locates “sacred spaces” in a variety of settings, both commonplace and unexpected. This book is an important piece of scholarship which provides an illuminating insight into “Shanghai sacred” and will be of interest not only to those wishing to better understand the Chinese context but those wishing to better understand the wider role and place of the sacred in a fast-changing, globalized world. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Caroline Fielder is Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Leeds.

Date of Review: 
October 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Benoit Vermander is Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Xu-Ricci Dialogue Institute at Fudan University, Shanghai. He is the author of Corporate Social Responsibility in China: A Vision, an Assessment and a Blueprint.

Liz Hingley is a photographer and anthropolgist and was a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (2013-2016). She is currently artist-in-residence at the Human Geography Department, University College London, and an honorary research fellow in the Department of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Birmingham.

Liang Zhang is Research Assistant in the Institute of Religious Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.


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