A new book on the sacred scriptures of “redemptive societies” helps exposing myths and misunderstandings about Chinese religion.
by Massimo Introvigne
We started Bitter Winter in 2018 with the idea of covering not only mainline religions, but also new religious movements, sometimes derogatorily referred to by the CCP and their opponents as xie jiao or “cults.” One good reason for our choice is that these groups, including The Church of Almighty God and Falun Gong, are the most persecuted religious movements in China. Another was that they are less known to an international audience than, say, Catholicism or Islam.
They do, however, have dedicated scholars. For everybody interested in new religious movements in China, the new book edited by Philip Clart, David Ownby, and Wang Chien-chuan, Text and Context in the Modern History of Chinese Religions: Redemptive Societies and Their Sacred Texts (Leiden: Brill, 2020) is a gift. Potential readers should hope to receive it as a gift as well, considering its price of $ 206.
The authors recognize that “redemptive society” is a contested category, but it offers the advantage of avoiding derogatory political labels such as xie jiao, and to underline the specific Chinese features of what most Western scholars would call “new religious movements.” Although their roots are much older, such Chinese movements flourished from the late Imperial era to the Communist takeover of China in 1949. They continue to flourish in Taiwan and in the Chinese diaspora, in the U.S. and elsewhere, and some maintain a presence in the People’s Republic, where they can also be seen as the ancestors of qigong-based and other contemporary groups often labeled as xie jiao.
The book does not cover Yiguandao, on which a larger literature exists, and focuses on lesser known groups, including Tongshanshe (同善社, also known as Shengdao, 圣道), Daode Xue (道德學社, “Moral Study Society”) and Tient’i Teachings (天帝教). It evidences the influence on most “redemptive societies” of an earlier group founded in the 17th century, Xiantiandao (先天道), which was also crucial for the development of new religions in Vietnam, including Cao Dai and Tứ Ân Hiếu Nghĩa. The latter still maintain some 100,000 members in Vietnam, and Cao Dai more than five million.
While the book is rich of detailed information on each group (including the two Vietnamese ones), useful to scholars, it also offers some general comments relevant for current debates on Chinese religion. It is often argued that Xi Jinping is promoting “traditional Chinese culture,” which he sometimes mentions as an antidote to “Western” ideas that have infiltrated the country. However, Xi offers an edited version of “traditional Chinese culture,” one from where religion is either absent or dismissed as unimportant. The myth that “traditional” China had no religion, debunked decades ago by scholars, is thus perpetuated. Confucianism is regarded as a moral philosophy rather than a religion, and Buddhism and Daoism as systems that quickly declined. What was left, or so the CCP narrative goes, was “superstition,” which the May Fourth Movement (五四運動) started eradicating in the early 20th century, followed by the CCP. Something survived, and was tolerated, as “folk religion,” but is in turn destined to disappear.
Although it is by no means its purpose, the book is useful to counter this faulty narrative. It shows that China was rich of new religious movements in the 19th and early 20th century, not less than Europe or United States. Absent the brutal suppression by the CCP, they would have created a vibrant religious pluralism, as it indeed exists in Taiwan today. The fact that several movements produced sacred scriptures, which are not necessarily trivial, shows that dismissing them as “folk religion” is wrong. Confucian elements were present and strong, and they were religious rather than merely philosophical.
As for the Republican struggle against “superstition” and the May Fourth Movement, Western scholars know that anticlerical and Socialist movements and leaders of the 19th and early 20th century have been critical of mainline religion (i.e. Christianity) but open and often enthusiastic about new religions they regarded as “compatible with science,” including Spiritualism and Theosophy. The book shows that the same happened in China. One chapter traces the history of the Shanghai Spiritualist Society (Shanghai Lingxuehui, 上海靈學會), which was in touch with American, European, and Japanese counterparts, claimed that Spiritualism (including a reformed version of traditional Chinese spirit-writing) can be “proved” by science, and attracted a secularist intellectual elite.
Even more interesting is the case of Tient’i Teachings (another group that maintain a significant presence in Taiwan). Li Yujie (李玉階, 1901–1994), who is at the origin of the modern version of the movement, participated as a student in the May Fourth Movement and became an influential bureaucrat of the Chinese Republic. Ministers and generals who publicly denounced “superstition” followed Li, who also proclaimed that his religion was fully “compatible with science.” The same officers of the Republic attended secret retreats where extraordinary claims were made for the healing powers and status of Li and his predecessor, Xiao Changming (蕭昌明, 1897-1943).
China seems to have been very much similar to the West, both in the production of new religious movements and in attracting to them figures from the political left who were officially promoting the struggle against “superstition.” Reconstructions of “Chinese traditional culture” as “non-religious,” and of the rich Chinese religious pluralism as mere “folk religion” should be viewed as propaganda rather than history.