Emerging Voices in the Study of Chinese Religions

Roundtable of Emerging Voices in the Study of Chinese Religions

Saturday, Nov. 19: 11:00 AM - 12:30 PM (Session: P19-108)
Sheraton Downtown-Director's Row J (Plaza Tower - Lobby Level)

All are welcome to join us for this brown-bag luncheon event. 

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.