AAR Events

Emerging Voices in the Study of Chinese Religions

AAR 2022 Annual Meeting

Saturday, November 19, 11:00 AM – 12:30 PM (In Person) 

Sheraton Downtown-Director's Row J (Plaza Tower - Lobby Level)

John Sampson, University of Toronto, “Chinese Theology in Countercultural Perspective.” (pre-recorded video)


On April 15, 1949, Zhao Zichen (趙紫宸 T.C. Chao, 1888–1979) wrote to the Anglican Bishop of his North China Diocese, criticizing the Anglican Church’s policy of barring eucharistic fellowship with non-Anglican Chinese Christians. Having established himself as one of China’s leading Protestant theologians, Zhao condemned this policy for failing to catch sight of how all of life was deeply sacramental. Every human being was active in a “sacramental universe,” an idea he borrowed from William Temple (1881–1944), the Archbishop of Canterbury. In his published writings, Zhao developed this idea in conversation with Zhu Xi’s philosophy of “substance-function” (ti-yong 體用), and laid the groundwork for a highly original understanding of Christian sacramental theology.

Although Zhao’s life and theology are well-researched among scholars of Christianity in China, these aspects of his sacramental thinking are unknown. I first came upon them while doing archival work in Hong Kong at the HKSKH Minghua Theological College in 2018. I believe his Chinese sacramental theology sheds much-needed light on how Christian theological paradigms are enriched by Chinese religious understandings of cosmic interconnection, wholeness, and harmony.

Richard Yu-Cheng Shih, Brown University, “Fluid State: Riverine Environmental Changes and the Rise of Littoral Communities in Lake Tai.” (pre-recorded video)

My dissertation aims at reconfiguring the topography of state power in modern China from a waterscape of religion. By focusing on fishers, migrants, and shippers—mainly dwelling on boats—in the Yangzi Delta, I scrutinize how lakes and rivers formed a fluid frontier by shaping the ways inhabitants interact with authorities on the shore. While modern government labeled these drifting population as outlaws for their high degree of mobility and autonomy, their religion, featuring local fishing deities and Catholicism in particular, had long been regarded as “cults,” “superstition,” or “heterodoxy” by intellectuals and officials. My research problematizes such stigmatization on the floating underclass and to rethink in what ways the dichotomy between water and land based on social control created spaces for water communities to reformulate their cognition of selves and others. By doing so, I provide new aspects into how authorities institutionalized social exclusion through religion, and conversely how religious ties were implicated in the agency of these water communities to contend modern Chinese governance. This approach thus enables me to explore the extent to which the living and religious experiences on or near inland watery margins challenged the processes of state-building in modern China.

Wang Xian, University of British Columbia, “Islamic Religiosity, Maoism, and State Violence.”
(pre-recorded video)


My dissertation Islamic Religiosity, Maoism, and State Violence: Conflict and Resistance in Southern Yunnan (1949-2019) examines an understudied massacre of Hui Muslims in southern Yunnan of China. In the middle of the night on July 29, 1975, the central Chinese government deployed several People’s Liberation Army units to raid Shadian and surrounding Muslim villages in southern Yunnan province. After a week of intensive attacks with heavy artillery and MiG jets, Shadian was utterly razed, with 4,400 houses destroyed and 1,600 villagers killed.  

The Shadian conflict was the largest religious resistance of the Cultural Revolution, but its local dynamics and sociopolitical impacts before and after 1975 have been neglected by Western scholars and distorted by the Chinese state-sponsored historical accounts. Existing historical scholarship examining state-sponsored crackdowns on ethno-religious groups during the Mao era is based mainly on party cadres’ accounts, rarely reflecting the perspectives of ordinary villagers who fought against local authorities. The crucial role of ethno-religious commoners’ motives in shaping the relations between CCP authorities and local villagers is unexplored.  

My dissertation compares crosschecked oral interviews with official documents to explain the causes and the legacies of the 1975 conflict by investigating interactions between Party Centre, the Yunnan provincial government, county officials, Muslim Communist cadres, and Shadian villagers from early 1950s to the present day. It shows how Islam and Maoism have influenced how Muslim villagers and local cadres dealt with each other to shape the development of the local conflicts from the 1950s until the present through the case of Shadian. I analyze how Islam and Maoist revolutionary mentalities have shaped interactions between Shadian Muslims and the Communist authorities.  

Alia Goehr, The University of Chicago, “The Genius of Form: Jin Shengtian's Transformative Literary Program.” (in person)

At the SSCR luncheon, I hope to discuss my current book project, tentatively titled “Bodies of Truth: Jin Shengtan and Literary Realism as Buddhist Soteriology,” which reframes the work of one of 17th-century Jiangnan’s most important literary figures as an exercise in Buddhist soteriology. Scholars since the late-19th century have treated Jin as a proto-modern literary critic, but in his own day, he was known as a Buddhist lay-teacher. In fact, Jin’s popular commentaries on Water Margin and Romance of the Western Chamber were integral to his role in Suzhou’s vibrant Buddhist community. By means of commentary, Jin aimed to effect readers’ experience of dharmakāya through a process of haptic identification with the literary work. Jin planned to transmit this novel approach to self-cultivation with his Six Works of Genius, a non-canonical complement to the Six Classics and an upāyic antidote to the moral excesses of existing reading practices. By means of an archival discovery, I also situate Jin’s project in relation to a broader field of socially activist experiments with literature. I propose that Chinese literati’s increased attention to non-canonical literatures during the late imperial period was tied to literature’s capacity to serve as a moral-philosophical resource alongside religious and philosophical thought.

Sinae Kim, Princeton University, “Buddhist Preaching Culture in Medieval China.” (in person)


My dissertation examines “popular lectures” 俗講 on Buddhist scriptures performed by proselytizing monks to propagate Buddhist teachings to the general public during the seventh to tenth centuries in China. The emergence and popularization of Buddhism in China are often understood through studies of translation and commentaries, but I will argue that preaching played a crucial role in introducing Buddhist ideas to laypeople. After all, far more people likely heard sermons than read sūtras or commentaries. My study calls for attention to and reassessment of popular sūtra lectures, a hitherto neglected topic by scholars of Buddhism. It situates popular sūtra lectures within their textual, ritual, and social contexts by closely reading surviving “sūtra lecture texts” 講經文 preserved among the Dunhuang manuscripts, together with a range of other sources such as sūtras, commentaries, ritual texts, anecdotes, and archaeological materials. My dissertation uses popular lectures on Buddhist scriptures to move beyond several problematic binaries in the field of Chinese religions. These include canonical and non-canonical, literary and religious, and monastic and lay. By considering both intertextual and performative dimensions of popular lectures, I will demonstrate how preaching served a range of functions from entertainment to education.

Luo Yuqing, Columbia University, “The Descending Words: Cult and Culture of Spirit-Writing in Song China.” (in person)

My dissertation research focuses on a cluster of texts believed to be written by spirits (so-called spirit-writing texts) in the Song China (960-1279). Through textual analysis on materials from the 10th to the 14th century with interpretive fieldnotes collected from contemporary China, my project starts with one question: How exactly were spirit written texts produced, preserved, and perceived in premodern China? By digging into the stories behind the production of these texts, I aim to discover firstly how social groups of different identities interacted over spirit-writing banquets, gatherings, and cult activities. Going further, by studying the human-text relationship based on the content and descriptions of these uncanny texts, I will discuss the intriguing cases of forgery of divine texts and demonstrate how people of this period understood and lived with written forms of revelations. 

This study intends to contribute to the discussion of secularization and laicization of religious traditions in the four centuries of the “middle period” in China. By focusing on the activities of literati, clergies, and commoners, both separate and sometimes interacting, I hope to document the transformations of spirit writing and furthermore point out the long-lasting impact of the new Song developments and inventions on the succeeding dynasties. 

Women Scholars in the Study of Chinese Religions Breakfast

AAR 2022 Annual Meeting

Sunday, November 20, 7:30 – 9:00 AM (In Person) 

Sheraton Downtown-Governor's Square n.10 (Plaza Tower - Lobby Level)

(Supported by the Society for the Study of Chinese Religions)

The breakfast is the result of an informal working group on the status of women scholars in the study of Chinese religions, which was started in 2019 by co-chairs of AAR units such as the Chinese Religions Unit, the Daoist Unit, and the Confucian Unit, together with members of the leadership of SSCR; all of them have supported and actively participated in organizing two subsequent meetings online, during the height of the pandemic. We are now ready to get back together in person for our fourth (but only second in person) breakfast meeting for scholars who identify as women or as nonbinary, in the field of the study of Chinese religions.

All are welcome, from senior scholars who would like to share their experiences in the field, to junior scholars, including graduate students, who wish to discuss issues of gender and diversity in their own career developments. This is an open-ended conversation aiming at bringing women scholars together, after a two-year hiatus, to discuss issues that matter to us all, to offer informal mentoring for younger generations, create new networks, and to build on previous meetings and encounters.

Pastries and beverages will be available.

You need to be registered for AAR in order to attend.

Emerging Voices in the Study of Chinese Religions

AAR 2021 Annual Meeting

Saturday, November 20, 11:00 AM – 12:30 PM (Virtual)

Tyler Feezell

Title: “The Daoist Sonic Imagination: Numinous Treasure (Lingbao 靈寶) Scriptures and the Emergence of Celestial Sounds in the World


In the first part of this paper, I briefly explore Daoist conceptions of sound, addressing some key examples found in early Lingbao scriptures. In the Daoist sonic imagination, the celestial realms were a fount of sound, which could be continually reproduced through ritual and recitation. In an attempt to reconstruct aspects of the Tang historical soundscape, transformed as it was by celestial sounds and Daoist ritual, I then examine other forms of Tang writing. Tang poetic works attest to the prevalence of Daoist ritual sound, reverberating across mountaintops and enriching the historical soundscape. For Tang poets, hearing ritual sounds became a way of knowing the heavens, of reconnecting with the celestial world. Hagiographical accounts of Tang Daoist priests demonstrate the workings of celestial sound through individual bodies. Such cases demonstrate that the perception or embodiment of celestial sound served as a social marker—those able to discern such sounds stood closer to the Daoist heavens as transcendents or perfected beings. The abundant materials on Daoist conceptions of sound suggest a fertile ground for developing a broader understanding of the historical-cultural significance of the senses in premodern China, as well as a promising avenue for Daoist studies and comparative religion.


LI Lan

Title: “Stone Inscriptions and Buddhist Practices in the Tang Dynasty: A Case Study of the South Binyang Cave”


By focusing on the stone inscriptions in a particular Buddhist site of the Tang dynasty (618–907 C.E.), the South Binyang Cave of the Longmen Grottoes, and connecting them with relevant images and Buddhist texts, I propose to study the practitioners, who were associated with these materials from three aspects: the projects of establishing sacred sites they engaged, the on-site practices they participated and the social and religious networks they were involved.

This study is aimed at exploring Buddhist practices reflected in both archaeological materials and historical documents. What are the motivations to build this Buddhist site as well as participate in the on-site practices? What information do these donors want their audience to know through the reading of the inscription? I will answer these questions in two steps: to conduct a chronicle and typological study on the images and inscriptions that preserve precise dates and obvious characteristics; to reconstruct the original contexts of this cave to have a better understanding of the relationship between inscriptions, images and on-site practice. I also want to unveil the religious lives and thoughts of the people behind these lifeless stone relics and present the “actual” situation of the Buddhist belief in medieval China.


Eva Salerno

Title: “Ancestor Worship in the Practice of Catholicism in Taiwan”


This presentation aims to show the first results of an anthropological research in progress, concerning the specificities of the practice of Catholicism in Taiwan, through the study of ancestor worship. This work is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in several Taiwanese Catholic parishes and complemented by archival research at the Foreign Missions of Paris (MEP). The archives offer a historical and socio-political perspective that allows the researcher to better understand the implantation of Catholicism on the island, notably by studying the unpublished travel diaries of some MEP missionaries. The analysis of the first phase of my work led me to observe that the Catholicism practiced by the Taiwanese communities is anchored in a singularity of its own, due to the practice of ancestor worship in the church. After the Second Vatican Council, the valorization of indigenous cultures only confirmed the conviction of the first European missionaries to rely on this very alive spiritual tradition. Ancestor worship and Catholicism have thus merged to offer an original coloration to the spiritual ritualization of Catholicism practiced in Taiwan. It is a glimpse of this religious reality that I will try to bring to light during my presentation.


Wang Sisi

Title: “Confucian Shrines on a Buddhist Sacred Peak:  “Mountain Owners” in the Rise of Mt. Jiuhua from the late Ming to the Republic of China


This paper focuses on a Shrine on Mt. Jiuhua, examining the role of a socially cohesive Confucian shrine in the making of a sacred Buddhist site from the late Ming to the Republican eras. Local officials built a living shrine to memorialize Wang Yangming (1472-1529), a renowned Ming Dynasty statesman and philosopher who carried out his lecture-study practice there. The major local families that had lived around the mountain for generations were “mountain owners”. Members from these families became Wang’s followers. Four of them from four “mountain owner” families joined the subordinate worship (peisi) by the Tianqi period (1621-1726). Wang’s shrine was finally transformed into an institution in which these families participated in Buddhist affairs together with monks at Mt. Jiuhua. This paper aims to demonstrate how these “mountain owners” engaged in the transformation of Wang’s shrine by utilizing their various power and networks, as well as the complementarities and tensions between them and local officials and monks. This paper argues that these multiple social networks and practices can be present simultaneously within a sacred landscape and contribute to the acquisition of the fame and social resources for a sacred mountain. 


LEE Ya-chu

Title: “Transformation and Tenacity in Contemporary Chinese Dharmaguptaka Ordination”


In the current heated debates on woman’s ordination in Buddhism, the Chinese Dharmaguptaka ordination procedure is known as the only feasible model preserved today for granting Buddhist women full ordination. This thirty-day long ceremony (san tan da jie) takes one on a journey from a probationary status to a formal monastic one. My ethnographic research draws on the fieldwork data collected by attending the full ordination ceremony at Yunmen Dajue Chan Monastery in southeastern China in 2019. During the ceremony, around 700 candidates struggled to secure a place to become fully ordained, whilst the governmental policy in the PRC only 350 ordination certificates. Moreover, due to the shortage of volunteers, crowded venues, and bad weather, candidates were forced to find a way to work together, develop a tacit understanding of one another, and contribute their talents to get through the 30 days in the face of the unexpected difficulties. My paper will discuss the details of ordination ceremony, revealing Buddhist women’s struggle to become ordained, and explore the meaning of both inner and outer transformation for these nuns.


Jens Reinke

Title: “Mapping Modern Mahayana: Chinese Buddhism and Migration in the Age of Global Modernity”


My thesis-turned-book presents a multi-sited ethnographic study of the global development of the Taiwanese Buddhist order Fo Guang Shan. It explores the order’s modern Buddhist social engagements by examining three globally dispersed field sites: Los Angeles in the United States of America, Bronkhorstspruit in South Africa, and Yixing in the People’s Republic of China. The data collected at these field sites is embedded within the context of broader theoretical discussions on Buddhism, modernity, globalization, and the nation-state. By examining how one particular modern Buddhist religiosity that developed in a specific place moves into a global context, the book provides a fresh view of what constitutes both modern and contemporary Buddhism while also exploring the social, cultural, and religious fabrics that underlie the spatial configurations of globalization.