If the mark of maturity in any scholarly discipline is its capacity for reflexiveunderstanding -- that is, an understanding of what it is about as a form ofintellectual inquiry, of the why, how, and for how long of that inquiry --then Professor Lai Chi-tim's new book represents a giant step in that processof maturation relative to the academic study of religion within a pre-dominantly Chinese context. Neither the topics and texts he has so astutelydiscussed nor the resolutions and conclusions he has offered are unfamiliarto scholars of religion in most parts of the world. What is highly original inthis book, however, is the deliberate union he has forged between"methodological concerns" and, where possible and appropriate, certaindata of Chinese religion(s). The book, let me hasten to add, is not aboutChinese subjects as such, but about what it means to be a student of religionand how the exploration of this question is pertinent to the person who isinterested in the specifc phenomena belonging to the Chinese tradition.
There are two assumptions underlying this book that further enhanceits strength. The first is one shared by virtually all scholars in the field, thatthere is no temporal privilege for religious data or phenomena. The senseof the sacred or the feel for its manifestation, if we want to make use ofsuch metaphors to denominate those phenomena, has co-existed with humancivilization itself -- both diachronically and synchronically, from its most"archaic" or "primitive" epochs and locales to the most "advanced" culturesand "post-modern" societies. This understanding directly confronts the manyforms of the theory of evolution that have been evident in a great deal ofmodern Chinese scholarship on religion, not all of them Marxist. Until weare prepared to confront the anomaly of how the homo religiosus can existquite meaningfully in the space and time of globalized technology, we willnever begin to comprehend the Chinese atomic scientist who is; also afundamentalist Christian, the Japanese cult leader who gases his own peoplewith Sarin in Tokyo subways, or the passions and terrors still emanatingfrom the events of September 11, 2001.
The second assumption evident in this book is that there can be noprivilege for religion in terms of either geography or culture. As aphenomenon of human culture, religion is larger than any single: ethnicgroup or national community, even for those religions intimately associatedwith particular or distinctive social groups. For one to speak meaningfullyof Judaism or Hinduism as a religion, that particular faith or tradition mustihave something in common with other faiths or traditions in order that itbe so classified. The dialectic inherent in this understanding of religion asbeing defined by overlapping elements of particularity and universality;also makes apparent that such an understanding can only come about as aproduct of scholarly reflection. ~ It is not a theoretical necessity for a religiousperson, a practitioner of a particular faith, to achieve an understanding ofreligion in general or even of that person's own faith in particular. Theacademic student of religion, on the other hand, has no other reason tbr hisor her standing and work as a professional other than the goal ofunderstanding. To reiterate a familiar analogy for illustration: the politicianis not obliged to be an expert in the subject of politics, although it may beuseful to such a person, but the political scientist by definition must have acomprehensive grasp of politics as a form of scientific knowledge.
These two assumptions also entail important ramifications for thestudent of Chinese religions, as Professor Lai's book makes apparent bothimplicitly and explicitly. With respect to the first, it means that ill principle,no religious phenomenon -- however strange, crude, popular, or evenviolent and grotesque -- should escape the scholar's notice and interest.Other people: may choose to refer to certain human acts and beliefs as"superstition,"' but this word does not belong to the vocabulary of the scholarof religion. Since religion by definition embodies elements of the universal.the second as;sumption makes apparent that the study of Chinese religioncannot be made identical merely with Sinology or Hanxue, the academicstudy of China engaged world wide for at least the last four centuries.Because the history of Chinese religions has revealed incontrovertibly thatthe ways of how a Chinese could be considered a religious person far exceedwhatever cultural, behavioral, or biological norms that can be proposed toclassify or define that person as Chinese, the need of the scholar forcomparison --- both intramurally within the vast span of historical Chineseculture and interculturally with external traditions far and near--becomesabsolutely imperative.
Recent scholarship has more than ever helped us perceive that religiouslife was vibrantly present for the Chinese even at as remote a time as 16,000 BCE.2 Despite the antiquity and persistent continuity of religious activities evident in all social strata down through China's long history, the study of religion as a general academic subject has had no place within an educational system, the primary and sole mission of which is to foster knowledge of both theory and ritual dedicated to uphold the institution of the imperial state. At different periods the Daoists, Buddhists and Christians all had established various forms of schooling, but none of these could survive as an alternative, let alone a rival, system of education to the dominant one, nor have the institutions of these three traditions been effective proponents, for understandable reason, of a serious engagement with the science of religion. As Professor Lai has made clear in his "Introduction," there is urgent need for the Chinese student to know why and in what way certain ideas and methods from the Western academy may be appropriated for the task at hand. Thus a survey of the history of the discipline a practiced by the academy of the West, however brief, can be useful.
Because understanding is the primary goal of the work of the religionscholar, Professor Lai's book rightly concentrates on some of the figures,texts, methods, and schools of thought that have contributed crucially tothis undertaking. Hermeneutics, defined as an activity fostered by thepractice of law, religion, and literature, is for this reason the unifying topicof the book, because its two-fold labor of explanation and interpretationproperly defines the activity that has understanding as its supreme objective.The course of crafting this coherent and compelling account of this activityand its relevance for the science of religion within the domain of the humansciences demonstrates amply not only the author's mastery of an impressivearray of critical literatures both Chinese and Western but also some verythoughtful translations of key texts and terminologies. Chinese studentsshould count themselves fortunate to be able to learn from such erudition. Anthony C. Yu The University of ChicagoProface
It is with great pleasure that I accept the invitation of my friend and colleagueProfessor Lai Chi Tim to write a few words of introduction to his book onTaoism in the Guangdong area. The present work is a full, in-depth study of allmajor aspects of Taoism in the Guangdong area. It enables us to gain anunderstanding of the past and present Taoist orders and schools, the templesand their communities, the priests and their liturgy. The people of Guangdongoccupies a prominent place, not only in modern China, but also in the entirepresent-day world. Professor Lai's scholarly achievement stands therefore as amemorial to the great religious and cultural traditions of this people.
This is a truly pioneering study. For the first time, a historian of religion who is also an anthropologist has based his research on the historical documentation as well as on fieldwork observation. Hitherto, the few existing studies on Cantonese Taoism were always confined to a narrow sociological approach or were of a purely documentary nature. However, in order to understand China's indigenous religion, its paramount role in shaping society, its incredible resilience in the face of adversity, its great cultural legacy and present revival, it is necessary to combine both history and anthropology. Until now, no scholar has met the challenge----or did possess the ability--to doing so. One of the possible reasons why the great liturgical traditions of the Chinese people have been so little studied is because they were difficult to approach. As the present book bears out, Taoist liturgy is one of the most enduring and well-preserved traditions in Chinese culture. Many of the rituals that are still performed today can be shown to have existed for as much as two thousand years in the least. Many have remained the same, yet at the same time, at each period during China's long history, new elements have been added. The indispensable source for the study of the living tradition is, next tothe liturgical manuscripts of the Taoist Masters, of course the Taoist Canon ofthe Ming dynasty. However, until the modern reprints of this immense collection,it was completely unavailable for study. After it became available, many decadeswere necessary to study its contents. It then became clear that the greater partof the Taoist Canon was devoted to liturgy, and that fieldwork--the study ofthe living tradition——was absolutely necessary to understand the texts of theDaozang. This work is now under way, and with the present contribution ofProfessor Lai, a great step forward has been made.
With this combination of fieldwork and textual research, we also gain abetter understanding of why Taoism, and its liturgy, was so important toChina' s society and therefore why it could withstand so many adversities whenChina underwent its great transformations of modern times. Taoist ritual,especially the solemnjiao rites, are remarkable similar to the rituals of theilnperial court. This is not only true for their outward appearance, but also forthe overall cosmological framework that is enacted and given to see. As futurestudies on the great dynastic rituals (guojia dali) will certainly show, thesacrificial rites of the emperor and the court ceremonials are in many respectsbasically similar, and share a common fundamental cosmology and theologywith, the Taoist liturgy. This similitude can also be observed in the institutionalframework. The temples that are studied by Professor Lai, such as the Yuanrniaoguan, the Dongyue miao, the Chenghuang miao, etc., were all official places ofworship that were completely integrated in the State cults. As such, the Taoistsanctuaries and their liturgy were in fact a prolongation of the State ritual onthe local level. Whereas the State rituals conferred legitimacy on the Son ofHeaven and his dynasty, the Taoist liturgy conferred, in harmony with the Stateand its Mandate of Heaven, the same legitimacy to the local leadership, eitherto the members of the imperial administration, or to the local elites, the headsof the lineages, the corporations, guilds and other recognized groups. This wasa perfectly integrated religious organization, by which the State and the localsystems could communicate and celelerate their unity in harmony.
The most remarkable of this entire system is that when the imperial ruleand its State rituals were ended in 1911, the Taoist liturgy did not disappearalso, as many at these times thought it would. This fact is of utmost importancefor the understanding of China's evolution in modern times. It is therefore to behoped that Professor Lai's study will open the way for many more similarresearches in the future, as they will greatly benefit our understanding of one ofthe greatest religions and cultural traditions of mankind. Kristofer Schipper
Fuzhou University Library of the Western Belvedere
1 December 2006
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