Project Description

The Project in a Nutshell: What, Why, How

This project aims at discussing dynamics and paradigms of religious diversity in Sichuan in the Qing and Republican period. Historians of China have been increasingly interested in this extremely creative, if chaotic, period of time, as central for the creation of Chinese modernity.[1] Religion has only recently been part of the discussion, as publications and conferences have attested, but provides an important lens through which to consider societal, political and cultural changes.[2]

For this project, rather than concentrate on coastal areas or large urban centres as has been done in done in the majority of recent publications, we wish to focus on a lesser known and studied but extremely influential geographical area of China: Sichuan. Our aim is the study of religious diversity through the analysis of communities and networks, with a specific interest in interactions between rural/urban, public/private, religious/lay communities and spaces. We will take into account not only the five officially recognized religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Protestantism, Catholicism and Islam) but also other religious manifestations that do not fit into these neat categories, like Confucio-Daoist traditions, philanthropic organizations, new religious movements, spirit writing communities. Further, we will try to address these different religious groups not as separate entities, but often in conversation with each other, and we will pay specific attention to gender relations in these exchanges. Finally, we plan to produce a digital mapping of those network relations in free open access to be used for teaching and research.

Why a Project on Religion in Sichuan and Why Now: State of the Field, Relevance and Innovation

Sichuan in the Qing dynasty sees several momentous changes in its social and therefore religious culture: after the devastation of the Ming-Qing transition, Sichuan’s population was decimated. Qing emperors actively encouraged migration to Sichuan from other areas, putting in place policies to attract and retain migrants.[3] This lead to a gradual increase in population, which became massive in the nineteenth century: Sichuan’s population went from 3 million in 1678, to 22 million in 1813, to 85 million in 1898, greatly modifying the social structure.[4] Thus the majority of the population of Sichuan originated outside of the province, with most of the migration coming from Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi, and Guangdong. Even though by the mid Qing migration was becoming a problem, the Qianlong emperor continued to support it, especially in view of the threat from non-Han populations that had culminated in the Jinchuan 金川 wars against ethnic Tibetan tribes (1747–1749 and 1771-1776). The continuous migration, the political instability and widespread poverty also lead to the spread of millenarian ideology, and to large-scale rebellions at the end of the eighteenth century (1796-1804) in the area between Sichuan, Shaanxi and Hubei. The waves of migration and the establishment of new communities also meant the influx of new religious practices that influenced the local religious landscape. Despite its position far from the centre of political power, Sichuan also did not escape the great turmoil caused by the 1911 Revolution, the 1919 May Fourth Movement, the Northern Expedition of the Nationalist Party (1926-28), the Sino-Japanese War and the following Second World War (1939-1945), and the Nationalist-Communist Civil War (1945-1949). In fact, after the fall of the Qing, Sichuan was in the hands of a group of warlords, and then the target of a further massive migration from coastal areas as the army command, governmental infrastructure, as well as cultural and educational institutions were moved there due to the Japanese invasion (1937-1945). This later migration, amidst the chaos of war, again forced local religious communities to come into contact with outsider communities.

We are interested in researching how this unique historical background might have influenced religious life and institutions in Sichuan in the Qing and Republican periods, which are the focus of our proposal. This research project focuses on Sichuan as a ‘place’ that needs to be re-located at the centre and not at the periphery of the study of Chinese religions. It reveals Sichuan as an important node of religious networks that originate and/or develop within it, and extend beyond it, thus not as a site of reception of knowledge transmission from the more advanced coastal areas, but as an active centre of religious knowledge production in itself.

Due to the Chinese political history and the difficulties encountered in field research until the recent years, much of the local religious histories remain to be explored. Scholars in the field have investigated in depth religious narrative, history and practices, of only a few territories so far. The province of Sichuan, which counts a population of more than 81 millions, remains, however, largely unexplored, with the exception of some studies of few Buddhist and Daoist sites.[5]

It is important to gain this new knowledge on historical religious communities and their interactions in Sichuan for four main reasons: (1) we need a more scientific analysis of religious communities and their interactions from a historical perspective, to understand how contemporary traditions have evolved. (2) Scholars have often based their conclusions about religions in China on studies of large cities and coastal areas, not on central regions, where the situation might be and have been very different. (3) Scholars have generally disregarded the importance of the gendered dimension of religion, the centrality of women within and between religious traditions, and also how sex and gender differences might affect religious interactions, elements which we know from recent studies are essential to religious communities and networks. [6] (4) Finally, the field of digital humanities has only recently developed widely, and has not yet been consistently applied to Chinese studies in general and Chinese religions in particular. Results from a focused study on Sichuan would greatly benefit the study of religious and social networks on a macro level.

The study of religious diversity in China has seen the publication of considerable works only very recently, on the wave of the global academic interest for the study of religious diversity and pluralism. Scholarship has noticed that coexistence and cooperation among the variety of religious traditions and communities developed in a distinct way. Anthropologist Adam Yuet Chau explained the concept of religious diversity as alien to most of the Chinese, since Chinese people identify religions not as fixed and impermeable systems of belief but as situation-based practices. In other words, we may not perceive a proper ‘religious diversity’ in China, but we can certainly unveil ‘diversity in religiosities’, and China emerges as an interesting case of inclusion practices. Other scholars have attempted to provide a comprehensive explanation of this phenomenon. Joachim Gentz proposes the example of ‘the harmony of the Three Teachings’ to argue that doctrinal diversity has permeated China for centuries. Robert Weller distinguishes the double perspective of religious diversity as theorized in China’s official policies and as lived in practice on the ground. Finally, sociologist Yang Fenggang proposes economy and the market model, and historian Philip Clart advances the ecology model as effective tools to explain religious change in modern China.[7] Political scientists like André Laliberté have addressed diversity as interlocking with secularism; secularism and secularisation are, however, two other highly debated concepts in China. The term ‘syncretism’, along the concept of ‘sectarianism’, has also been often mis-used in the study of Chinese religions and culture, and should be redefined as well.[8] Western-framed analytical concepts and classifications are used with caution by scholar of Chinese religions, and increasingly there is a move towards using indigenous ideas and philosophical concepts that can offer alternatives perspective on (and definitions of) diversity, even though relying solely on them is not satisfactory either. This project will produce a study of religious diversity in the province of Sichuan by (a) looking at the contested Western taxonomy, (b) analyzing the basis of such methodological challenge, then (c) proposing possible Chinese cultural ideas for a new theoretical framework, and finally (d) questioning whether those Chinese cultural ideas may contribute to the global academic study of religious diversity, inclusion and pluralism.

 Theories and Methods: How to Study the Religious Landscape of Sichuan in an Innovative Way

Our project also encourages a methodology that highlights not static distinctions between religious traditions, but looks for active networks, relationships, mutual influences, collaborations. Thus we are not only focusing on a different territory, but we are looking at this territory in a different way, trying to highlight interactions and the permeability of religious borders, and at how the space in itself is an active agent in the formation and development of those relationships and networks. We believe that the case of Sichuan lends itself perfectly to this kind of methodological approach.

The field of social network theories has a long history, where math diagrams and social sciences have converged to produce theorems that could explain underlying patterns in the social structure. This project will rely on previous theories of community sociology and social network analyses articulated by, among the others, sociologists Barry Wellman, James A. Beckford, and also Manuel Castells. While considering the existing concepts of socio-centric network and open-system network, this project will also articulate new analytical concepts such as “intra-religious network” and “inter-religious network”, and therefore interact further with spatial science frameworks. Our starting point is that the plurality of religious and cultural traditions in Sichuan has been practiced by religious communities, which can be grouped into larger networks. By “intra-religious network” we mean a network of communities belonging to the same religious traditions and located in different areas within Sichuan, while “inter-religious network” is identified with a network of communities belonging to different religious traditions but located within a same small area (like a city district) in Sichuan. In this way we will conduct spatial studies of religion on a quantitative level through the application of geographic information system technology, and also on a qualitative level by questioning how space influences (and also defines) religious practice and community formation. The project will then link to other studies like the ongoing project The Spatial Study of Chinese Religions and Society (2014-2016) at Purdue University. Network will function as analytical tool in the analysis not only of the synchronic relations among religious communities in Sichuan, but also of their diachronic development. A ‘network-based history’ will propose an alternative narrative that focuses on communities and networks. ‘Space’ is intended here not in the sense of the territory passive recipient of a living society, but as the territory that holds a specific identity marker that the community also inherits; space is then an active agent in the making of a community and a network, not a passive container of lived religions. Our research will show how space and communities alternate each other as subject and object in the power dynamics of the religious and social landscape. Recently, scholarship in physical geography, human geography and anthropology has cooperated towards the creation of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of society and space. Doreen Massey has become a leader in the attempt to engage physical geography with human geography, and in highlighting the centrality of ‘place’; her works are a methodological reference for our project.[9]

Each researcher will adopt several other methods and theories, to better fit their focus on the study of rituals and material culture, gender studies, trans-regional religious networks and identity, relationship between religion and ethnicity, the role of market forces.

Aim, Objectives, Scholarly Impact and Innovation of the Project

The project’s main aim is to map religious community networks and their interactions in Sichuan from a historical point of view, focusing mostly on the nineteenth and twentieth century, and comparing these results to studies on contemporary religious activity. Concentrating on Sichuan as a specific case study will allow us to use the time at our disposal to build a case that will also work as a model for a larger scale longer-term project.

This project has several objectives. Locally, this project will enhance (1) theories and methods for the study of Chinese (and local Sichuan) practices of religious and ethnic inclusion through the conceptual categories of ‘network’ and ‘space’; (2) the understanding of the dynamics in the binaries urban and rural settings, private and public sphere, female and male communities that define the historical background to the contemporary religious landscape in Sichuan province, and thus will contribute to the fields of Chinese religious regionalism and spatial studies of religion; (3) the use of digital technologies to mark-up textual materials, produce GIS maps of the locations and geographical networks of religious communities. Globally, this research will produce (4) the basis of conceptual paradigms on religious diversity and community networks that can be applicable to non-Chinese areas, and thus will become also (5) academically and socially relevant on a global scale.

The impact of this study will be manifold. First of all, it is the first attempt to take an in depth look at the rich religious history of Sichuan, mapping different areas of religious activity in urban areas, in the countryside and on religious mountains. This will not only be an important regional study in itself, but also a point of comparison for the more detailed religious histories that already exist for the coastal urban centres and regions. Secondly, the decision to focus not on separate religious traditions but on socio-religious networks will reveal a complexity that is not always taken into account: the interaction of distinct communities within the same religious tradition or between different traditions; the shared spaces and ritual performances; the worship of shared divinities; the exchanges of textual materials; the wide-ranging transmission of practices. Then, the specific attention to gender relations within religious communities, and how different religious communities communicate through gendered networks (for example connections between nuns of different religious traditions) will be an important contribution to the small but growing number of studies of gender in Chinese religions. Finally, the application of Digital Humanities techniques to visualize and better understand the complexity of religious life and exchanges in Qing and Republican Sichuan will provide a needed religious perspective to the growing field of Chinese digital humanities, while at the same time contributing a historical perspective to the mapping of contemporary Chinese religions.

Knowledge Dissemination: Scholarly Output and Teaching Contribution

The results of this three-year project will be presented at a final conference and later published into at least one monograph and a special issue of an international peer reviewed journal. Further presentations and publications might be organized in connection with related projects. We also plan to map and visualize the different religious networks that will emerge from our study by using tools of Digital Humanities.

Finally, we want to include a teaching component. Besides offering digital results Open Access, we want to turn the results found in the field, theories and concepts employed in our research, and the challenges that we met during our data collections into teaching material for graduate students interested in the dynamics of religious and ethnic diversity in China and in a more global context.

[1] See for instance: Yeh, Wen-hsin, ed., Becoming Chinese: Passages to Modernity and Beyond, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2000; Kai-wing Chow, Tze-Ki Hon, Hung-yok Ip, Don C. Price, eds. Beyond the May Fourth Paradigm: In Search of Chinese Modernity, Lexington Books, 2008.

[2] See for instance: Rebecca Nedostup, Superstitious Regimes (Boston, Harvard University Press, 2009); Shuk-Wah Poon, Negotiating Religion in Modern China: State and Common People in Guangzhou, 1900-1937 (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2011); Vincent Goossaert, Jan Kiely and John Lagerway, eds., Modern Chinese Religions II: 1850-2015 (Leiden: Brill, 2015); Paul R. Katz, Religion in China and its Modern Fate, (Lebanon, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2014), Kang Bao 康豹 (Paul. R. Katz), Gao Wansang高萬桑 (Vincent Goossaert) eds., Gaibian zhongguo zongjiao de wushinian 改變中國宗教的五十年 1898-1948 (Taipei: Academia Sinica, 2015).

[3] Robert Entenmann, “Sichuan and Qing migration policy” Ch’ing- shih Wen-‘ti 4:35-54, 1980; Sichuan tongshi 四川通史, Sichuan Daxue Chubanshe, Chengdu, 1993, vol. 5: 178.

[4] William Skinner, “Sichuan’s population in the nineteenth century: Lessons from disaggregated data”, Late Imperial China, 8.1, June 1987, 1-79. Lu Zijian 鲁子健, Qingdai Sichuan caizheng shiliao 清代四川財政史料, Sichuan sheng Shehui kexueyuan chubanshe, 1984: 737-38. Sichuan tongshi, vol. 5: 176-177.

[5] Studies of Han Buddhism and Daoism in pre-modern China by Duan Yuming and Elena Valussi, and Sino-Tibetan Buddhism in contemporary time by Ester Bianchi.

[6] See Kang Xiaofei “Women and the Religious Question in Modern China”, Vincent Goossaert, Jan Kiely, John Lagerway eds., Modern Chinese Religion II 1850-2015, Leiden, Brill, 2015.

[7] See the essay collection Religious Diversity in Chinese Thought, edited by Schmidt-Leukel, Perry and Joachim Gentz. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

[8] Broy, Nikolas “Syncretic Sects and Redemptive Societies Toward a New Understanding of “Sectarianism” in the Study of Chinese Religions. Review of Religion and Chinese Society, 2(2): 145-185, 2015.

[9] See for instance Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

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