Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 34, March 2014

Randall L. Nadeau (editor)

The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Chinese Religions

Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012
ISBN 978-1-4051-9031-2 (hardcover:alk.paper); xiii + 495 pp

reviewed by Emily S. Wu

  1. The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Chinese Religions, edited by Randall L. Nadeau, is an impressive compilation. Nadeau's introductory chapter frames the volume with the promise to move beyond the Three Traditions—Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism—and demonstrate the porous nature of the boundaries between Chinese religious categories and identities. 'The traditional view that Chinese religions were defined by and limited to the three traditions is both simplistic and erroneous," states the editor, "if our interest is in knowing how religion has actually been lived and practiced both in history and in contemporary China.' (p. 14).
  2. As a Chinese religions companion text, this collection of chapters covers a lot of ground. The first part of the book comprises a historical survey of Chinese 'religion' from the Shang dynasty to the Qing dynasty, building a conceptual foundation for what religion (or religiosity) was and meant in the Chinese context through its historical procession. However, this 'religious history' is Han-centric, with little consideration given to the rich diversity of non-Han cultures that were, and are, also important elements to what 'Chinese' may mean.
  3. Besides the Three Traditions, the second part of the book also dedicates chapters to popular religion, Islam and Christianity. As an Asian religions instructor who has had to make my own course readers to include Chinese religions materials beyond the Big Three, I appreciate the inclusiveness of this part of the book. Chapters on Islam and Christianity especially touch upon ethnicity and modernity issues that are usually only marginally discussed in normalised Han-centric discourse. It also makes me wonder, however, why these issues are discussed only within these two chapters and not in the next part of the book and across all traditions.
  4. Finally and probably most importantly in terms of the theoretical contribution of the volume, the third part consists of chapters each engaging only one critical term in Chinese religions. The choices of these critical terms indicate what this group of scholars considers as the core of Chinese religion/religions/religiosity. Structurally, 'Sacred Texts,' 'Religious Rituals' and 'Material Culture' were chosen as 'the building blocks' of religion (p. 15). Concepts of 'Nature,' 'Divinit,' and 'Gender' were selected to represent the key theoretical concerns from the North American perspective. Practices of 'Divination,' 'Asceticism' and 'Self-Inflicted Violence' are selected to demonstrate important individual religious practices in the Chinese context.
  5. If I may point out the obvious (or maybe not so obvious): what is 'critical' in Chinese religion(s) in this volume conforms to the standard western religious framing: 1) What are the canons, rites and religious objects of the traditions under inquiry; 2) What is sacred/divine; 3) Where do women fit into the picture; 4) What are some practices that might be considered strange, if not outright problematic? In other words, how do we understand Chinese religion(s) against the invisible norm (western, English-speaking, culturally if not religiously Judeo-Christian) as the alternative, 'Other'? Contributors to individual chapters demonstrate little, if any, awareness on the edited volume's inherently orientalist framing and perspective. However, the absence of a more critically counter-orientalist perspective merely reflects the general trend of western academic discourse on Chinese religions. Even so, the current volume is still by far the most comprehensive compilation on historical, textual and cultural overviews of Chinese religions in the genre of college-level textbook in the English language.
  6. Now, I turn more specifically to Beata Grant's chapter on Gender for the readers of this journal. Grant grounds her discussion on gender using the yin-yang model derived from the cultural system itself, where yin and yang are prototypes of dynamics in an inherently hierarchical universe. In this model, yin and yang are coexisting components in a harmonious whole, where gender differential in human society are based in the understanding that yin qualities that are associated with being female and are considered complementary, supplemental and inferior to the yang qualities that are associated with being male. Grant argues that the ideal of 'unity of opposites' in the yin-yang model is problematised by the social reality that emphasises the inferior role of the yin attributes, or by extension, the women.
  7. Most importantly, she also nuances how the Three Traditions theoretically position yin—where Confucianism subjugates yin to yang, Daoism privileges yin and seems to be more inclusive of the female, and Buddhism attempts to transcend the distinction between yin and yang. This recognition of how each tradition interprets the yin-yang dynamic, poignantly points to the inevitable diversity within the Chinese religious landscape on how gender was, is and can be considered.
  8. Grant's examples of female figures in Chinese religions span throughout imperial history, and across a wide range of religious terrains. Besides stories from the Big Three, Grant also includes key female characters from shamanic and folk narratives. The sheer number of stories of female participation and attainment in religions in this chapter is nothing short of remarkable. For readers who are new to Chinese religions and these stories, however, processing the long sections that string one story after another then another can be a cumbersome and confusing experience. Perhaps finer categorisation and more section subtitles would better frame the stories for beginner readers.
  9. One most notable flaw in this informative chapter is in the lack of examples of, and discussions on, religious women figures in the contemporary Chinese world. While some scholars argue that traditional Chinese religions declined after the Ming dynasty, the religious dimension of Chinese culture is currently more vibrant than ever. The worships of female deities such as Mazu and Guanyin are becoming global, transnational events. Female religious masters such as the Venerable Master Chengyan of the charitable Tzu Chi Foundation have international followings and run world-wide charity programs. Furthermore, female practitioners and participants play increasingly important roles in all aspects of religious lives and communities.
  10. This companion, as a whole, is an excellent textbook for introductory undergraduate courses in Chinese and Asian religions. Individual chapters in the volume are also appropriate for undergraduate and graduate discussion seminars to provide overviews for the history of Chinese religious traditions and various aspects and issues around the traditions.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Last modified: 25 February 2014 1459