Social Scientific Studies of Religion in China (Religion in Chinese Societies) Review

Social Scientific Studies of Religion in China (Religion in Chinese Societies)
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Social Scientific Studies of Religion in China (Religion in Chinese Societies) ReviewThis 312-page book is a collection of 12 essays written or co-written by 17 scholars representing such prestigious institutions as, Hitotsubashi University (Tokyo), London School of Economics, McGill University (Montreal), Fudan University (Shanghai), Peking University (Beijing), Renmin University of China (Beijing), and Minzu University of China (Beijing), among several more.
This volume is a compilation of papers presented at the Beijing Summit on Chinese Spirituality and Society at Peking University on October 8--10, 2008.
Most essays deal exclusively with mainland China, a few with a region or sub-region in China (e.g., Southeast China, pp. 133ff; Hebei province, pp. 195ff), and few yet cover mainland China and Taiwan (pp. 273ff).
As with any edited volume, it is a rather challenging task to write a consistent book review when so many scholars have different perspectives on different aspects under the same topic, namely, `Religious studies in China.'
Having lived and taught in China for over six years (2002--2009), I can appreciate all the more the ever-changing religious constellation in China.
In terms of societal and religious state of affairs, the New (post-1949) China can be divided in two quasi-antithetical periods: a) 1949-1976, a period dominated by hardcore Communist Chairman Mao Zedong, who initiated the devastating Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and b) 1980 to the present, characterized by the policy of `Reform and Opening,' initiated by the more visionary, and physically less imposing, Deng Xiaoping.
During these perilous times, social scientists, wanting to be true and faithful to their scientific vocation, had to thread a fine line between, on one hand, the extremely restrictive conditions imposed by an atheistic, autocratic regime (pp. 42), and their vision, on the other hand, of complete freedom from government interference.
For many years, up to the present day, scientists, as well as most members of society, including believers and religious leaders, were on standby, monitoring and keeping an eye on the directions of the political wind, continuously oscillating like a weathercock. Disturbing, I find, is that scientists, known the world over for their objectivity and neutrality, would depend on governmental policies for approval of their research, and let such governmental policies affect the content, and thus the results and findings, of their research projects. In reality, they had no choice. Not knowing what the future holds for religious studies in China, several scholars in this edited book have adopted a tentative attitude of expectancy and transition.
This ambiguity is perhaps best expressed by Gordon Melton, in his essay, `History in the social scientific study of Chinese religion,' when he writes, "Due to the rapid changes in China's religious landscape during the past generation many of the religious communities we now study were either re-established in the 1980s or, even more likely, are functioning with newly-established religious structure (e.g., Buddhist temples, Christian churches, or islamic mosques), though some participating individuals may carry a memory of earlier participation in a previously-existing religious community" (pp. 48).
This volume is certainly of great value to scholars in religious studies and/or sinology, and to readers who are passionate about religious studies and social sciences in China. Furthermore, I'll be looking forward to Fenggang Yang's forthcoming book, `Religion in China: Survival and revival under Communism' by Oxford University Press.
NOTE: No book, except perhaps for the Bible, is perfect and can, therefore, be improved upon; the same principle applies to a book reviewer like me. Should you, the reader of this review, have any question(s), comment(s), and/or suggestion(s) about my review, please feel free to contact me: I can be reached, at no extra cost to you, via email at {jpheldt123[at]yahoo[dot]com}. I will be looking forward to hearing from you soon.
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