State and Religion in China:
Historical and Textual Perspectives

Anthony C. Yu

Open Court 2005
A book review by Danny Yee © 2020
State and Religion in China offers a survey of the main Chinese religious traditions and their relationship with the state, focusing on the period from antiquity down to the Tang Dynasty. Yu's thesis is that
"there has never been a period in China's historical past in which the government of the state, in imperial and post-imperial form, has pursued a neutral policy toward religion, let alone encourage its 'free exercise'. ... "these forms of interaction with state power need not be confined to recent history ... The motivation to promote, regulate, coopt, and control religion ... had already taken shape in China's high antiquity."

He begins with some terminology, looking at the history of the words zong and jiao which were put together, initially in Japan in the nineteenth century, to form the compound now used to translate "religion". Three chapters then cover the main strands of Chinese religion.

The first looks at ancestor worship, which in antiquity involved a "pervasive ritualism, much of which was unambiguously religious", and the development of Confucianism.

"[Confucius'] canonization in the later Han changes radically the meaning of his person and his legacy, for the profound impact he was able to exert on the Chinese people and their historical civilization thereafter would henceforth not be based solely on the merit of his virtues and doctrines as a private teacher. Not only were his teachings and the partisan exegetical expansions thereof codified as state orthodoxy, but his very person became a co-opted object of worship by the state, of the state, and for the state."

Daoism brought its own complexities.

"If this history of Chinese emperors' involvement with certain aspects of Daoism reveals another religious dimension of imperial politics, one that aims at the quest for personal and dynastic permanence not satisfactorily explained or guaranteed by the Confucian discourse, the ironic reverse of such a situation is also apparent. Despite the Daoist emphasis of other-world reclusivity as an ideal setting for somatic cultivation, the lust for this-worldly power and prominence is manifest in many of the most celebrated religious figures and leaders of this tradition."

And Yu explores instances of religio-political revolt associated with early Daoism, countering "the entrenched myth, still ardently embraced by many Chinese intellectuals, that there had not been any serious conflict or warfare in Chinese history induced by religion".

Buddhism had an even more difficult relationship with the state, offering "what is perceived as a frontal assault on the family and household" and raising "the treacherous issue of homage to the sovereign ruler". Yu looks at three examples of persecution and, "to recount a happier relationship between individual believer and state power", the story of the famous pilgrim-translator Xuanzang.

A shorter conclusion takes a brief look at the role of religion in China's twentieth century history. Yu suggests that:

"The imperial state cult might have been abolished through political revolution, but a large part of its mentality, its cultic obsession with state power and legitimacy propped up by a particular form of ideology, remains intact."

A conclusion which seems even stronger now, after a nearly a decade of "Xi Jinping Thought".

This only touches on the wealth of fascinating material in State and Religion in China, so it should have quite broad appeal, offering context for Chinese political history as well as insights into religious diversity and coexistence. It is, however, fairly dense and academic; it is a slim book, under 150 pages without the notes, but feels much more substantial.

November 2020

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%T State and Religion in China
%S Historical and Textual Perspectives
%A Yu, Anthony C.
%I Open Court
%D 2005
%O paperback, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9780812695526
%P 192pp