Stating the Sacred

Religion, China, and the Formation of the Nation-State

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Michael Walsh
  • New York: 
    Columbia University Press
    , February
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Stating the Sacred: Religion, China, and the Formation of the Nation-State by Michael J. Walsh is really three books in one. The first, unannounced in the title, is a moving personal memory about Walsh’s years in South Africa, where he was involved in the student protests against apartheid. While for Walsh and his fellow student protesters resisting the evil of apartheid was a sacred duty, he quickly understood that for the Afrikaners who supported the regime opposing the structures of discrimination was tantamount to challenging God. “The apartheid regime always understood that its territory was awarded to it by God” (xi). It was  believed that God had given the territory of South Africa to the Afrikaners, and they had enshrined this belief in the 1961 Constitution, which opened with the words, “In humble submission to Almighty God . . . who gathered our forebears together from many lands and gave them this their own” (159). There was a lot of violence in South Africa, but it was perceived as “sacred violence,” and the apartheid regime was understood as essentially religious by its apologists.

Comments on South Africa emerge throughout the book, and lead Walsh to a parallel with China, its second main theme. Before it collapsed, apartheid’s South Africa was a pariah state, largely regarded as the embodiment of an intolerable evil throughout the world. Surely, there are those who regard the Chinese regime as evil too, but unlike pre-1994 South Africa, it is a respected and powerful member of the international community. The economic and political reasons why this is happening are of less interest to Walsh than a detailed analysis of why Communist China, not less than the Afrikaners’ South Africa, sacralizes the state.

This may seem a bold claim, given the Chinese regime’s official atheism, but Walsh offers a persuasive argument, which proceeds from the official vocabulary, where the word “sacred” is often used. One prominent example is the systematic use by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Beijing politicians of “sacred territory” (shengshen lingtu) to designate China within its present borders, including Taiwan. In fact, Walsh notes, it is precisely when mentioning Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang, that China uses the expression “sacred territory.”

Walsh then offers a useful analysis of the CCP’s relation with religion. It devotes a chapter to the paradox, also noted by other recent studies such as Max Oidtmann’ Forging the Golden Urn (Columbia University Press, 2018), of an officially atheistic regime that promulgated in 2007 a regulation stating that which “living buddhas” in Tibet or elsewhere are authorized to reincarnate, and how their reincarnations will be identified, should be controlled by the State Administration of Religious Affairs, that is, by the government. This may appear merely cynical, but Walsh argues that the regulation, when ridiculed in the West, was defended with an appeal to practices of the Imperial China, which also tried to control the reincarnations of Tibetan living buddhas. The same implication that all forms of the sacred receive their ultimate legitimacy from the state was at work in the Qing empire and in the CCP’s State Administration of Religious Affairs.

One possible objection against the thesis that, while officially atheistic, the Chinese Communist regime has maintained the religious trappings that have historically accompanied all governments throughout Chinese history, would be that the CCP periodically launches campaigns against religious practices denounced as “feudal superstitions.” However, Walsh notes that many of the arguments used against “superstition” come from 19th- and early 20th-century Protestant missionaries to China, who clearly were not atheistic, and promoted what they believed to be a more rational and healthy relationship with religion. Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution states that only “normal religious activities” are allowed. Walsh recognizes that “its message is clear: the state, and only the state, gets to define what is ‘normal’ religious activity” (102). What is not normal is “superstition” (mixin), and how this concept is defined owes much to a rationalist tradition in Republican China heavily influenced by Protestant missionaries.

The third theme of Walsh’s book, and the most difficult to follow for the non-initiated, is a general indictment of the modern nation-state, influenced by Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben, and by Roland Barthes’s notion of “mythological language.” It is not only about South Africa in the apartheid era or China, Walsh suggests, but also about how all modern nation-states regard themselves as sacred and ask their citizens to recognize both this sacredness and its sovereign character. This means, as Foucault argued, that it is now the state that holds the “pastoral power.” This power is “salvation oriented,” (133) meaning that the most important form of salvation is offered by the state rather than by any other institution. Religions may be tolerated only if they acknowledge that their offer of salvation is subordinated to the state’s. The Barthesian “mythos” of the modern nation-state implies that “state-sanctified violence is justified to bring about salvific peace. Any citizen who interferes with this sacralized process will be swiftly dealt with” (134).

Here, I believe, lies the main problem of an otherwise admirable study. Walsh takes most of his examples from China, but implies that we can see everywhere how “the foundation of the modern nation-state [is] saturated with mythos and violence” (152). This may well be historically true, but the generalizations leave the reader with the impression that Walsh does not distinguish between different contemporary nation-states (or other forms of state). They are all more or less sacralized. But does this mean that they are all inherently violent and evil, and in the same way? I would agree, for example, that as a nation, Switzerland (not mentioned in Walsh’s book) is also founded on a religious rhetoric. But I would disagree with the possible conclusion that Swiss citizens that would criticize the dominant Swiss ethos “will be swiftly dealt with” in the same way as dissidents are “swiftly dealt with” in China.

Walsh seems to follow Agamben and Foucault with  regard to the distinction between democratic and nondemocratic states as irrelevant when describing the consequences of the sacralization. However, considering all nation-states are evil may create the risk of obfuscating Walsh’s own powerful indictment of China (and apartheid South Africa). Not all modern nation-states are created equal, and in some, the degree of daily “state-sanctified violence” may be considerably higher than in others.

Readers not of the Foucaultian persuasion would find much to disagree with in Walsh’s book. But I would recommend Stating the Sacred to them as well, not only for its brilliant analysis of contemporary China, but also because Walsh’s provocative comments on the nation-state in general may engage in a useful dialogue even those who disagree with them.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions, in Torino, Italy.

Date of Review: 
May 30, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael J. Walsh is associate professor of religion and Asian studies at Vassar College. He is the author of Sacred Economies: Buddhist Monasticism and Territoriality in Medieval China (Columbia, 2010).



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