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Heretical Doctrines, Reactionary Secret Societies, Evil Cults : Labelling Heterodoxy in 20th-Century China



Since the repression of Falungong in 1999, the question of “cults” has become a critical issue in the Chinese religious field, leading Chinese scholars and ideologues to elaborate a new discourse on the category of “evil cults” xiejiao 邪教 -- a term from imperial times which had fallen into disuse, but was now reactivated to replace the concept of “reactionary secret societies” (fandong huidaomen 反動會道門) which had been used in the 1950’s in the campaigns to exterminate unorthodox religious groups such as Yiguandao. This discourse draws equally on references to a genealogy of sectarian rebellions going back to the second century CE, and on Western sources on “cults” associated with Christian apologetics and the academic discipline of the sociology of religions. This paper attempts to trace the contours of the evolution of discourses on stigmatised religious groups in 20th-century China – a discourse which has reinvented itself twice, defining itself first within the context of revolutionary struggle, and then as part of the contemporary worldwide anti-cult movement. Although it was the Falungong case which stimulated the production of the contemporary general anti-xiejiao discourse discussed in this paper, this discourse is distinct from the specifically anti-Falungong propaganda deployed during the repression campaign, which we will not consider here.
Heretical Doctrines, Reactionary Secret Societies, Evil Cults :
Labelling Heterodoxy in 20th-Century China
David A. Palmer1
Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
(Published in Mayfair Yang ed., Chinese Religiosities: The Vicissitudes of Modernity and State
Formation, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012, pp. 113-134.)
Since the repression of Falungong in 1999, the question of “cults” has become a
critical issue in the Chinese religious field, leading Chinese scholars and ideologues to
elaborate a new discourse on the category of “evil cults” xiejiao 邪教 -- a term from imperial
times which had fallen into disuse, but was now reactivated to replace the concept of
“reactionary secret societies” (fandong huidaomen 反動會道門) which had been used in the
1950’s in the campaigns to exterminate unorthodox religious groups such as Yiguandao. This
discourse draws equally on references to a genealogy of sectarian rebellions going back to the
second century CE, and on Western sources on “cults” associated with Christian apologetics
and the academic discipline of the sociology of religions. This paper attempts to trace the
contours of the evolution of discourses on stigmatised religious groups in 20th-century
China – a discourse which has reinvented itself twice, defining itself first within the context
of revolutionary struggle, and then as part of the contemporary worldwide anti-cult
movement. Although it was the Falungong case which stimulated the production of the
contemporary general anti-xiejiao discourse discussed in this paper, this discourse is distinct
from the specifically anti-Falungong propaganda deployed during the repression campaign,
which we will not consider here2.
Unlike the introduction of other modern paradigms such as the science-religion-
superstition dialectic, which led to the tearing apart of China’s traditional cultural fabric and
to the reshaping of its politico-religious landscape, the use of modern categories to label
“cults” appears to have only served to mask the redeployment of the classical Chinese
paradigm of the conflict between the State and the Sect. But the current recourse to
universalist discourses of the social sciences could, in the long term, have unpredictable
consequences for the Chinese state’s legitimizing of its anti-cult campaigns.
The field of Chinese “cults” or “sects” is a mined one, in which it is difficult to draw
a clear line between a category deployed by the Chinese state’s ideology and propaganda, be
it imperial or communist, which has always had little relationship with the reality on the field,
and what appears like a specific and widespread form of Chinese religion which, lacking a
name of its own, has always been situated outside of traditional China’s ritual and orthodox
order. To the problem of categorization which already exists in the Chinese language, is
added a further element of confusion when Western terms such as “cult”, “sect”, “sectarian
tradition”, “sectarian milieu” or even “new religious movements” are used to designate these
groups, in spite of all the caveats and well-argued sociological justifications used by scholars,
including the author of these lines (Jordan & Overmyer 1986; Seiwert 2003; Palmer 2003;
2005: 421-429; 2006; 2007: 285-290). Indeed, their translation and their use in China has led
to a new form of “translingual practice”- the invention of new categories based on Western
concepts which take on a new meaning in the Chinese context (Liu 1995; Asad 1986).
In the case which interests us here, the Western family of terms “sect”, “cult”, “new
religious movement”, which make possible a constant and ambiguous oscillation between
anti-cult polemics and a neutral scientific idiom, lends itself perfectly to the needs of the
Chinese authorities who, through the elaboration of a discourse circulating between
ideologues, scholars and officials, seek both to provide an a posteriori justification for the
harsh repression of some groups, and to develop a more objective understanding of the
religious phenomenon in order to better manage it in the future.
Discourse is not merely a reflection or representation of the reality being talked
about: by defining and producing the objects of our knowledge, it shapes and orients our
interactions with the world; it is thus inseparable from the exercise and circulation of power
(Foucault 1980). The case of xiejiao described here can be seen in two ways. On the one
hand, we see how the Chinese state has used the production of discourse to control the
religious field, adapting to changes in ideology and political regime by using different idioms
(cosmological, revolutionary, social scientific) to elaborate and legitimize an unchanging
dichotomy between groups that reinforce or submit to the political and ideological order,
and those which undermine it or cannot fit into it. Thus we can trace the discursive shifts
which follow the transitions from one regime to another: the late imperial (to 1911), with its
pretension to integrate the civilized world within a grand cosmic order revolving around the
Emperor, Son of Heaven, who promoted and demoted the gods within the celestial
bureaucracy, and under whose protection a plurality of gods and teachings could flourish,
but in which rival universal cosmologies could not be tolerated; the republican (1911-1949),
marked by a concern for reinventing China into a modern nation as the solution to foreign
encroachment and internal instability, and during which the nation’s backwardness and
weakness was blamed on tradition and superstition; the revolutionary (1949-1979), during
which all groups not falling under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control were to be
exterminated; and the reformed socialist (1979-present), in which the CCP attempted to
reassert its power and authority while leading China towards greater integration with the
international community.
On the other hand, however, the picture is not one of neat and tidy correspondences
between discourses and historical phases. Discourses linger from one era to another, new
twists and interpretations arise, elements from seemingly incompatible sources are combined,
and unexpected affinities come to light, such as Maoist historians inscribing White Lotus
rebels in revolutionary genealogies, or the contemporary CCP identifying itself with the Qing
dynasty and Christian orthodoxy. As discourses are constantly adjusted and revised to match
political and social realities, we also see that they have a life of their own, sometimes
contributing to unintended reconfigurations. Thus, in the case of the contemporary xiejiao
discourse, they open an unresolved tension between social scientific relativism, which
undermines the anti-xiejiao campaigns, and the upholding of Religion as a normative
standard, which undermines the secular foundations of the socialist State.
The sectarian rebellion paradigm and the problem of the White Lotus
In traditional Chinese thought, the proper “upright” order (zheng ) embodied by
the state (and its Confucian orthodoxy) is opposed by the evil, “crooked” forces of chaos
(xie ). The notion of heresy (yiduan) appears for the first time in the Analects of Confucius,
which argues that hererodox ideas must be resisted to reduce their menace to society. His
disciple Mencius used the term in his attack on the egalitarian ideas of Mozi, claiming that in
periods of decline, when the orthodox way is weakened, “heretical sayings” (xieshuo)
proliferate and destroy the authority of sovereigns and fathers.
But it was during the Eastern Han (CE 25-220) that appeared for the first time a
discourse specifically stigmatising politically heterodox religious groups, following the
millenarian movement of the Way of Supreme Peace (Taiping dao), whose leader, the
charismatic healer Zhang Jue, launched the Yellow Turban rebellion in 184, which mobilised
tens of thousands of fighters and, though crushed after bloody battles, durably weakened the
reigning dynasty, which collapsed a few decades later (Stein 1963, Seidel 1969-70; Seiwert
2003: 23-80). This revolt inaugurated the paradigm of the conflict between the state and the
sectarian rebellion, whose master has the ambition of becoming emperor, destroys social
order, and threatens the survival of the dynasty: the Chinese state has always had its sectarian
rebels, and the struggle against them is constitutive of the self-definition and legitimacy of
the imperial state.
For the entire subsequent history of imperial China and once again today, the Yellow
Turbans are invariably invoked to justify the suppression of religious groups judged to be
heterodox. Later, the rebellions of Faqing (515), Han Shantong (1351), Xu Hongru (1622),
Wang Lun (1774), the White Lotus (1796), the Eight Trigrams (1813), and the Taipings
(1851-1864), which were all associated with religious movements, successively enriched the
discourse on the danger of the “heretical doctrines” or xiejiao.
Starting in the 14th century, the name “White Lotus teachings (bailianjiao 白蓮教)
was often used to designate this type of heretical group, to the point where Chinese and
Western historiography has long believed in the existence in a “White Lotus sect”, an error
which has been exposed in Barend ter Haar’s study of the history of the White Lotus (ter
Haar 1992). Ter Haar shows that a lay Buddhist movement which called itself the « White
Lotus Society » (bailianhui), which existed in the Song (960-1279) and expanded rapidly
during the Yuan (1271-1368), was the target of a petition submitted to the imperial throne
accusing the society of “meeting at night and dispersing at dawn”, “indiscriminately mixing
man and women”, and “practicing vegetarianism and worshipping demons”. This petition
led to the banning of the White Lotus by Emperor Wuzong in 1308. But the movement was
respected by the elites and the edict was revoked five years later (ter Haar 1992: 74).
However, Zhu Yuanzhang, who founded the Ming dynasty in 1386 with the remaining
forces of the Maitreyanist rebellion of Han Shantong, and was thus acutely aware from his
own experience of the potential power of religious movements, in 1397 banned almost all
forms of popular religious activity – the “heterodox ways” or zuodao – with the exception of
seasonal sacrifices and a few Buddhist and Taoist monasteries. This law, which can be seen
as the model and foundation of all subsequent legislation and policy on religion in imperial
China and to a great extent the Peoples’ Republic as well, specifically bans four named
groups: the White Lotus Society, the White Cloud Society, Maitreyanism, and Manicheism
(de Groot 1976 [1901]: 137-148). As ter Haar has shown, from then on the “White Lotus”
name would become a label which was indiscriminately used to stigmatise lay Buddhist
associations and eventually any unorthodox group. Xiejiao and “White Lotus” became
virtually synonymous terms, and no group dared to identify itself as affiliated to a “White
Lotus” tradition: the history of the “White Lotus sect” since the Ming is in reality the history
of the usage of the White lotus label and its associated stereotypes to denounce and
persecute certain groups.
The end of the Empire and of the discourse on heretical doctrines
With the fall of the Qing in 1911 and the founding of the republican regime, the
anti-xiejiao and “White Lotus” discourse seems to have petered out, eclipsed by debates
around the new categories of “religion” and “superstition” (Goossaert 2003; Nedostup
2001), and on the place of “secret societies” in the Chinese revolution. In the midst of the
confusion around these concepts, and of the general political instability, several groups and
networks which, under the Qing, would have been banned and persecuted as “White Lotus”
xiejiao emerged from obscurity or formed themselves anew, openly expanding and even
dominating the religious landscape in some cities and regions. Around the same time that the
first generation of religious Associations was born in 1912, as described by Vincent
Goossaert in his contribution to this volume, several of these groups also founded national
modern-style associations which registered with the state as religious, philanthropic, or
public interest associations, with a head office, a national organization with provincial and
municipal branches, and a doctrine which attempted to modernise the Chinese syncretic
tradition with the aid of a more modern, academic language and by incorporating
Christianity and Islam to the traditional Union of the Three Teachings. Thus the Zailijiao
(Teaching of the Abiding Principle) incorporated itself in 1913 as the All-China Association
for Promoting Abstention from Opium and Alcohol; followed by the Daode xueshe (Society
for the Study of Morality) in 1916; the Tongshanshe (Fellowship of Goodness) in 1917 ; the
Wanguo daodehui (Universal Morality Society) in 1918; the Daoyuan (School of the Way)in
1921 ; The Zhongguo sanjiao shengdao zonghui (Association of the Sagely Way of China’s
Three Teachings) in 1924 ; the Jiushi xinjiaohui (Association of the New Teachings for
World Salvation) in 1925 ; the Guiyi daoyuan (School of the Way of the Return to Oneness)
in 1927, the Zongjiao zhexue yanjiushe (Society for the Study of Religious Philosophy) in
1930, etc (Shao Yong 1997: 165-194). These associations, which often had their own
scriptures, a philosophical system, a simplified ritual, a congregational mode of participation,
and a hierarchical national organization, actually conformed as much, if not more, to the
model of the Christian church which had become the new paradigm of “religion” in China,
than the ancient Buddhist, Taoist or Confucian institutions: it is not surprising, then, that
several of them obtained the status of religious associations in the first years of the Republic,
and appear not to have been specific targets of the first waves of polemics against
The Guomindang nationalist government, established in Nanjing in 1927, was much
less favourably disposed toward these groups than the Beiyang regime, and the largest
organizations, notably the Wushanshe, Tongshanshe, and Daoyuan, tainted by their close
ties with the leaders of the deposed warlord regime, were, in the edict “On banning xiejiao
officially outlawed as “superstitious organizations” (迷信機關), accused of being tools of
warlords and local gentry to increase their influence under the cover of religious and
philanthropic activities, and of spreading superstition and retarding progress (Lu Zhongwei
2002: 173-74; She Jingzhen 1997: 227; Lin Benxuan 1990: 325; Wang Jianchuan 1995).
Rarely applied, the ban seems to have had little effect; many groups counted high-level
political and military officials among their members. Some groups continued to operate
legally under the front of their charitable branch, such as the Daoyuan’s Red Swastika
Society, which drew inspiration from the International Red Cross Society (Nedostup 2001:
145-153). The relationships between these groups and the Guomindang regime have not yet
been studied in detail, but the use of the xiejiao label does not seem to have been systematic
or supported by an elaborate discourse; rather, criticism of the groups was couched in the
more general terms of the struggle against superstition and against obstacles to progress
(Duara 2003: 109).
In any case, the Japanese invasion made it virtually impossible to enforce the
suppression of these groups. The nationalist regime now gladly approved their charitable
works; in fact, it began a policy to systematically re-organize, infiltrate and control them as
tools for anti-Japanese resistance. In Shandong, for instance, each branch in a given area was
to be renamed as the “self-defense association against the enemy of the XXX society of
XXX county, Shandong province”, to accept instructions in anti-Japanese defense from
government agents assigned to work with each group, and to receive regular military training.
This policy was attempted on the Red Swastika Society and was quite thorough in case of the
Zailijiao (Lu Zhongwei 2002: 213-216; 234-235).
In the areas under Japanese control, although some Japanese saw in these
associations an expression of authentic religion and a means by which Asian spiritual values
common to Japan and China could be promoted to resist Western materialism, the puppet
regime in Manchuria was also suspicious of the “superstitious” character of these
associations. But instead of banning them it attempted to coopt them and make them
instruments of its social policy: they thus enjoyed unprecedented growth in Manchukuo and,
later, in the occupied parts of China (Duara 2003: 103-122).
After the Japanese defeat, as the Guomindang tried to re-establish its control over
the country, it began to move to suppress Yiguandao, a network of salvationist
congregations whose worship of the Unborn Mother and apocalyptic eschatology of the
three kalpas continued a tradition which had been persecuted as “White Lotus doctrine”
under the Ming and Qing. The Yiguandao lineage had been founded in Shandong at the end
of the 19th century, but it was under the leadership of Zhang Guangbi (1889-1947) 3 starting
in the early 1930’s that the congregations began to multiply throughout China, especially in
the areas under Japanese occupation, of which the minister of foreign affairs was himself an
initiate (Jordan 1982: 435-462). After the end of the Sino-Japanese war, between 1945 and
1949, Yiguandao continued to experience spectacular growth, with a presence, according to a
study of the mentions of Yiguandao in local gazeteers, in 81% of China’s prefectures at the
beginning of the 1950’s (Fu Zhong 1999: 47). According to police reports in the early 1950’s,
the number of members had reached 178,000 in Beijing and 140,000 in Tianjin, and even the
majority of the residents of a large number of villages (Shao Yong 1997: 470; DuBois 2005:
134). A detailed estimation of the number of Yiguandao members in China remains to be
done, but if we remember that this growth occurred during a period of only fifteen years in
conditions of extremely difficult communication during the Sino-Japanese and then civil war,
the exponential expansion of Yiguandao can be compared to that of Falungong in the
1990’s a growth which appeared to go unchecked at a moment when both the GMD and
the CCP had were struggling to establish a tenuous hold on the nation.
In Tianjin, where the police acted against Yiguandao and other groups, tracts were
distributed labelling Yiguandao as a xiejiao, stressing that it descended from the White Lotus
and the Boxers (Li Shiyu 1975[1948]: 34). The CCP conquest of the Mainland occurred
before the GMD could do much against Yiguandao, however a change that, as described
below, would offer little respite to the movement – but the hostile policy would continue in
Taiwan. The imperial-era xiejiao discourse was explicitly used to justify the continued
banning of Yiguandao on the island, with the White Lotus connection repeatedly evoked to
warn against Yiguandao as a politically subversive group possibly infiltrated by Communist
agents. This rhetoric was amplified by Buddhist polemics against Yiguandao as a heterodox
xiejiao, which had begun as early as 1935, and were reiterated in several tracts through the
1970’s (Li Benxuan 1990: 335).
Alliances between revolutionaries and “secret societies”
If the Japanese had wanted to coopt these “redemptive societies”, to use Duara’s
term, it was partly to prevent them from going underground and becoming, as in the
Guomindang-controlled areas, harder to control (Duara 2003: 116). Indeed, while the
imperial-era anti-xiejiao discourse was only sporadically employed during the Republican
period, the redemptive groups were increasingly seen as belonging to the ambiguous
category of “secret societies” (mimi shehui 秘密社會).
The discourse on Chinese secret societies goes back to the legislation against sworn
brotherhoods, which was enacted in the 17th century during the first decades of the Qing
dynasty. The term used for these groups in legal documents of the time, jiebai dixiong, implies
the creation of inverted relationships between elder and younger brothers, which was
contrary to Confucian notions of hierarchy (Antony 1993: 192-193, 206). In the 18th century,
mutual aid societies based on fictive kinship, which David Ownby calls “brotherhood
associations”, proliferated in Southern China in a context of social dislocations and weak
state authority in the region, and evolved a complex form of organization with initiation
rituals and a secret language, and gave themselves names such as “Father and Mother
Society”, “Peach Garden Society”, etc (Ownby 1993: 15). During this period, official
discourse increasingly linked these brotherhoods to banditry and the threat of rebellions, and
the law became increasingly harsh towards them. Following the rebellion of Lin Shuangwen,
the first occurrence of the “Heaven and Earth Society” (Tiandihui 天地會) the notorious
Triads – in official reports of the 1780’s, treats the group as a xiejiao. But according to
research by Robert Antony, officials subsequently stopped identifying South Chinese secret
societies as xiejiao. Thus it seems that what texts called “creating associations and forming
cliques” (jiehui shudang) constituted, in the eyes of the Qing, a distinct category from that of
the “heretical doctrines” (Antony 1993: 197, 206). The only thing the two categories had in
common was the fact that they were seen as threats to social order and potential sources of
Around the end of the Qing regime, both of these types of groups began to be called
“secret societies” (mimi shehui, mimi jieshe), borrowing the term used by British colonial
administrators in Malaysia. Indeed, in the late Qing both the brotherhood associations and
the salvationist societies were illegal and had been driven underground, and were perceived
as rebellious and opposed to the Qing. We know that Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Chinese
Republic and himself a leader of the Tongmenghui 同盟會, cultivated relationships with the
secret societies of the overseas Chinese, and that China’s first revolutionaries heavily relied
on them to provide troops and mobilise the people. Among some of these associations
circulated a “nationalist” ideology which called for the overthrow of the Qing (Manchu)
dynasty and restoration of the Ming (Chinese) ; the radical intellectuals’ task with these
groups was to convince them to modernise their thinking and support the establishment of a
republican regime. Thus a new discourse on “secret societies” emerged, which described
them as proto-revolutionary associations which had existed since the early Qing to oppose
the imperial regime (Ownby 1993: 6; Borokh 1972).
During the civil war between the Guomingdang and the CCP, and also during the
Sino-Japanese war, the three sides tried to enlist the “secret societies”. The communists
continued to elaborate a discourse on their popular nature and revolutionary potential, which
was not without ambiguity. On the one hand, in 1921, Chen Duxiu, Marxist intellectual and
founding secretary-general of the CCP, had written of the Fellowship for Goodness
(Tongshanshe) that the working and student masses did not believe in these heresies which
recalled the humiliation of the Boxers and the political oppression and social decadence of
China (Nedostup 2001: 97). But in spite of this critique of the backward nature of this type
of association, superstition was not to be an obstacle for tactical alliances : elsewhere, Chen
Duxiu wrote of the Red Spears (hongqianghui 紅槍會)– a form of self-defence militia which
practiced magical invulnerability rites similar to those of the Boxers, and which had millions
of practitioners in North China (Perry 1982, Tai 1985) – that despite the superstitious
coloration of peasant thinking, the barbarian and destructive nature of their struggle against
the ruling classes should not be opposed (Li Shiwei 1996: 198). Zhu De, one of the Red
Army’s top generals, was also a member of the Elders’ Society (gelaohui) (Schram 1966: 6;
Smedley 1956: 88-89), and Mao’s thinking was not without a certain romanticism for the
bandit heroes and wandering knights of the popular novel The Water Margin, whose
mythology was maintained in the brotherhood associations. In 1926, Mao described the
secret societies of which he enumerated a list which made no distinction between
brotherhood associations, armed militias, and redemptive societies (Triads, Elders’ Society,
Big Swords, Morality Society, Green Gang, etc.) – as mutual help associations of floating
populations in their economic and political struggle (Schram 1966: 4). The CCP’s second
enlarged congress (1926) specifically discussed the question of the Red Spears, and passed a
resolution stating that “the Red Spears are one of the most important forces in the national
revolutionary movement”, proposing to give them the means to organize and unify
themselves in a systematic fashion, and stressing that “we should not oppose the
superstitious beliefs of the Red Spears. They are the basis on which the association organizes
and fights. Although they are only relics of ideas which the peasants cannot abandon, we
must ensure that these superstitious activities are beneficial for the revolution” (Quoted in
Tai Hsuan-chih 1985: 106). Ten years later, Mao published an “Appeal from the Central
Soviet Government” to the “Brothers of the Elders’ Society”, in which he warmly praised its
anti-Qing tradition and called on them to join the anti-Japanese front (Schram 1966: 11-13;
Munro ed. 1989: 99-101.)
But the CCP’s embrace of secret societies was purely opportunistic; the ultimate goal
was to coopt their leaders and make them useless by creating grassroots revolutionary
associations which could better meet the needs of the people. CCP cadres did not hesitate to
establish secret society shrines which were but fronts for Party cells (Chen 1986: 488-492).
Secret society associations defended purely local interests and could just as well be
manipulated by the Guomindang and the Japanese: there were clear limits to their
revolutionary potential. In the Wuxi area, for instance, the Xiantiandao (Way of Anterior
Heaven) was infiltrated by both the CCP and Japanese – whose praise for the “religious
faith” of the believers turned into denunciation of the group as a xiejiao deluding the masses,
once the CCP had managed to spur several of its lodges into violent anti-Japanese action
(Shao Yong 1997: 378-379). Furthermore, groups like the Fellowship for Goodness, the
Elders’ Society, and the Red Spears were very different types of association in terms of their
membership, their structure, their beliefs, their rituals, and their objectives. A thorough study
of discourses on these groups during the Republican era remains to be done, but it seems,
based on the sources available, that no fixed category existed: many terms such as banghui,
huimen, jiaomen, daomen, daohui were used without systematically distinguishing between them,
but usually with connotations of shady underground or secret associations. This
indetermination is the result of the absence of an effective central state during this period
and of an unstable dynamic in which these groups could impose themselves sometimes as
potential allies, sometimes as enemies, and thus eluding unilateral objectification.
Secret societies become “reactionary sects”
Everything changed with the founding of the Peoples’ Republic in 1949, and even
before that in some areas already controlled by the CCP. On 4 January 1949, the Peoples’
Government of North China banned secret societies- the huimen and the daomen, stressing
that these organizations were not only feudal and superstitious, but also “instruments of the
counter-revolutionaries” and “enemy spies” who “propagate rumours”, “agitate popular
sentiment”, “organize armed revolts” and “disturb social order”. The leaders of these
organizations were summoned to turn themselves in to the authorities and to repent if they
wanted to avoid a harsh punishment. Meanwhile the ordinary followers, who had been
“fooled” by the reactionary societies, were ordered to withdraw from these associations and
to cease any activity if they wanted to avoid being prosecuted, and were promised a reward if
they provided information on these associations and their acts of “sabotage’ (Shao Yong
1997: 405-406).
Other regional governments did the same later in 1949. Official discourse crystallized:
the groups in question became “reactionary secret societies”- fandong huidaomen- this term
being a conflation of the huimen and daomen; they were to be ruthlessly exterminated in the
national campaign against counter-revolutionary activities launched at the end of 1950,
which called for the death sentence or life imprisonment for those who used “feudal secret
societies” (fengjian huidaomeni) to engage in counterrevolutionary activities. The campaign
against these groups reached its climax in 1953 and 1954, during which, according to police
reports, 820,000 leaders and organizers, and 13 million followers were implicated (Shao
Yong 1997: 452, 455).
By far the largest of these societies, and hence the principal target of the campaign,
was Yiguandao, which thus found itself at the centre of the struggle against reactionary
forces. All forms of propaganda were deployed against it, from editorials and speeches by
Mao published in the Peoples’ Daily and the rest of the press, to posters, comics, exhibits,
denunciation assemblies and even theatrical performances. The name Yiguandao became a
synonym of the counterrevolutionary sect and even a favoured insult used by children in
schoolyards (Shao Yong 1997: 465; DuBois 2005: 148). One wonders to what extent
“Yiguandao”, like the “White Lotus” centuries earlier, became a stigmatizing label used to
demonize any suspect individual or group during the revolutionary fervour, even with no
real link to Yiguandao. Indeed, according to a Daoist monk I interviewed in July 2004 at a
temple in Chengdu, the anti-Yiguandao campaign was a pretext to arrest most of that city’s
Taoists in the early 1950’s, thereby circumventing the “freedom of religion” which was
supposed to protect Daoism as an official religion. According to newspapers at the time,
30% of Sichuan’s population was a member of Yiguandao: a fantastical figure which allowed
one to see the Yiguandao danger everywhere (Deliusin 1972: 232).
The campaign against the huidaomen and Yiguandao appears to have been largely
successful : in the region of Hebei studied by Thomas Dubois, Yiguandao was already little
more than a memory by the end of the 1950’s (DuBois 2005: 148-151). But the “threat”
resurfaced after the Cultural Revolution, as many societies took advantage of the freer
political climate to reconstitute themselves. The number of huidaomen cases, most of which
concerned Yiguandao, dealt with by the police was reported to have increased by 79% in
1981, 31 % in 1982 and 30% in 1983 (Gong’an bu 1985: 60). The anti-huidaomen discourse
was reactivated in the press in the first half of the 1980’s. Reports emphasized that the
groups were organized and recruited followers; they “fabricated apocalyptic rumours”,
“sabotaged the Four Modernizations”, “proclaimed themselves emperor” and “ambitioned
to change dynasties”; they “abused of superstition” to “swindle their followers’ money”; they
“put lives in danger” by “prescribing superstitious remedies”, they “seduced and raped
women”, “printed reactionary tracts”, “diffused superstition and heresy” and “constantly
changed activities and methods”, and were “infiltrated” by “foreign forces” including the
Taiwan Guomindang regime’s spy network (Gong’an bu 1985: 67-80). In a phrase which
could have been taken directly from Ming imprecations against White Lotus followers who
“congregated at night and dispersed at daybreak”, huidaomen leaders were said to “keep a low
profile in the daytime, going out only to call meetings at night” (Gong’an bu 1985: 78). In
his study of the Way of the Temple of the Heavenly Immortals (Tianxian miaodao), repressed
in the 1950’s but which resurfaced in the 1980’s, David Ownby notes that police documents
reveal an obsession for those group teachings and slogans which could be interpreted as
signs of an ambition to found a new imperial dynasty, although such allusions, while present
in the group’s literature, are relatively rare and can be interpreted in different ways depending
on the context (Ownby 2001: 84-85).
Paradoxically, while the anti-huidaomen propaganda repeated many of the same
themes as the old discourse against the White Lotus, White Lotus rebellions were described
in generally positive terms in the new communist historiography as part of the revolutionary
genealogy of peasant revolts against feudal authority and even against foreign imperialist
churches (see for example Cai Shaoqing 1996[1990]: 203-268). The Yellow Turbans similarly
became a paradigmatic case of a peasant rebellion inspired by religious egalitarianism. A
leading historian of peasant rebellions in the 1950’s, Sun Zuomin, argued that heretical sects
expressed the interests and desires of the lower classes, and opposed the upper-class religion
which sought to delude the people. Sun considered that such religious groups provided
peasants with the only effective form of organizational and ideological framework to unite
the peasantry in the absence of political parties; empowered peasants by giving them a sense
of mystical invincibility; and, after rebellions were defeated, provided peasants with the
means for the secret transmission of the ideas and resources of resistance – the latter factor
being especially evident in the case of the White Lotus, with its repeated uprisings emerging
from underground splinter groups (Sun Zuomin 1956)5. The role of religion in peasant
rebellions was the subject of heated academic debates in the PRC in the 1960’s and early
1980’s, but overall, the “White Lotus” sects of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing were depicted as
having played a positive role of resistance against feudal domination.
It thus became necessary to distinguish White Lotus sects from the “huidaomen
societies of the Republican era which, in the revolutionary discourse, had only one objective:
to defend feudalism and restore the empire (Lu Zhongwei 2002: 7). At the same time, it
became necessary to reconcile the proletarian and proto-revolutionary origins of the
huidaomen as described in the socialist historiography, with their current counterrevolutionary
nature. Thus an internal document published by the ministry of Public Security places the
huidaomen in direct filiation to the White Lotus, stating that such societies first appeared at
the end of the Yuan dynasty; then,
“In the initial period of the emergence of the secret societies, they played a clearly
progressive role in the struggle against imperialist invasion and the corrupt Qing
dynasty regime. For example, the famous Boxer movement at the end of the Qing
was launched with the « White Lotus sect » and the « Red Yang sect » as its
organizational core. Later, the secret societies were gradually coopted and controlled
by the reactionary ruling classes, to become counterrevolutionary political groups
protecting the dominant class at different periods.” (Gong’an bu 1985: 1).
The return of xiejiao via Christianity and the West
With the deepening of economic reforms in the post-Mao era, the state gradually
distanced itself from revolutionary ideology, going so far as to abandon the theory of class
struggle. In this context, as the “reactionary secret society” label began to seem anachronistic
and limited to the counterrevolutionary groups of the early years of the Peoples’ Republic,
the label xiejiao previously used in the Ming and Qing dynasties resurfaced and entered
popular discourse in the mid 1990’s, but this time to translate the term “cult” in Chinese
press coverage of the tragedies of the Branch Davidians (USA, 1993), of the Order of the
Solar Temple (Switzerland, Quebec and France, 1994 and 1995), and of Aum Shinrikyo
(Japan, 1995). In 1995, the State Council and the CCP Central Committee emitted a circular
banning several groups designated as xiejiao, most of which had been denounced as heretical
by the official Christian associations: the Shouters (Huhanpai), the Complete Domain Church
(Quan fanwei jiaohui), the New Testament Church (Xinyue jiaohui), the Oriental Lightning
(Dongfang shandian), the Assembly of Disciples (Mentuhui), and the Church of Spirits
(Linglinghui) ; as well as a Buddhist-inspired group headquartered in Taiwan, the Guanyin
Dharma Gate (Guanyin Famen). The contemporary reappearance of the xiejiao label is thus
associated with Christian and foreign groups and translates Western categories of the “cult”
disseminated by the anti-cult movement which, in North America, is dominated by Christian
At the same time, journalists and scientists who, in 1995, were in a heated polemic
against the “superstitious” and “pseudo-scientific” deviations of the qigong movement, noted
the similarities between foreign xiejiao and some qigong organisations, and called for an
immediate purge of such groups before they became Aum Shinrikyo-style cults and caused
large-scale deaths (Palmer 2007: 170-172). Following this polemic, the political support
which had contributed so much to the spread of the qigong movement dissipated, and the
state attempted to regulate the thousands of qigong associations and networks. In 1998,
several Buddhist magazines specifically attacked Falungong, which had become the most
popular qigong form, as a xiejiao which drew lay Buddhists away from orthodoxy, and
inscribed Falungong in a genealogy which linked it to Yiguandao and the White Lotus
(Palmer 2007: 262-263; Chen Xingqiao 1998). Thus, through the combination of scientistic
polemics and Christian and Buddhist apologetics, a new Chinese discourse on “cults”
emerged, which resuscitated the old imperial model of xiejiao and the White Lotus and
combined it with fears of the collective suicides and mass murders of Western and Japanese
cults. Ironically, this re-appearance of the xiejiao discourse on the Mainland occurred just
after it had faded in Taiwan, with the end of martial law and the legalisation of Yiguandao in
The PRC’s ministry of public security, which in 1997 had begun an investigation on
Falungong as an “illegal religion” (feifa zongjiao), lauched a new investigation in 1998, this time
designating it as a xiejiao (Palmer 2007: 265). Starting on 22 July 1999, when the CCP decreed
the total suppression of Falungong, the xiejiao label, which had now become a mark of
political demonization, was repeated ad nauseam in the propaganda campaign which saturated
the media for several months. Translated in documents published for foreign audiences,
xiejiao became “evil cult” or “destructive cult” in English and, in French, “secte” or “secte
insane”6. Scholars and religious leaders were summoned to conferences in which the
category of xiejiao was defined on the basis of Western cases, applied to Falungong, and
distinguished from orthodox religion (Chen Hongxing & Dai Chenjing eds. 1999). On 30
October of the same year, the state retroactively gave itself the legal instrument of repression
when the highest legislative body passed a resolution banning xiejiao “which act under the
cover of religion, qigong or other illicit forms”, and stipulated the punishment of those who
“manipulate the members of xiejiao organizations to break the laws and decrees of the state,
organize mass gatherings to disturb the social order and deceive the public, cause deaths,
rape women, and swindle people of their goods and money, or commit other crimes of
superstition or heresy”(Decision… 1999).
The new Chinese discourse on xiejiao
A legal framework having been set up, and a flurry of anti-Falungong books and
propaganda materials having been released, it was now necessary to produce a more
sophisticated discourse to legitimate the repression and to elaborate a general policy to
counter evil cults of which Falungong was seen to be but one case of a general phenomenon.
An anti-cult association of ideologues, scholars and journalists was founded on 13
November 2000; international conferences of Chinese and foreign “experts” on cults were
organized; and a large number of works were published from 2000 onwards. In contrast to
the imperial discourse against “heretical doctrines” and the communist discourse against
“reactionary” societies, in which groups were condemned according to explicitly political
criteria defined arbitrarily by the state itself, the new discourse aimed to be objective and
scientific, defining the xiejiao as a universal category in time and space, dangerous for society
and humanity in general rather than for a particular political regime. Hence many articles
drew on the Western sociological and Christian literature to enumerate the characteristics of
a xiejiao. In the book On Evil Cults (Lun Xiejiao), which collected the proceedings of the first
“International Symposium on Destructive Cults” held in Beijing in November 2000, the first
chapter is the contribution, translated into Chinese, of an American anti-cult activist who
defined the “cult” as a group whose doctrine contradicted that of its mother religion: for
example, it does not admit the doctrine of the Trinity, of the bodily resurrection of Christ, of
salvation by grace, etc. The cult uses methods of psychological pressure, forms a totalitarian
community, its founder is self-proclaimed, dogmatic, messianic, and charismatic, and
considers that the ends justify the means to make money and recruit followers. The author
continues by listing the sociological characteristics of the cult: authoritarianism,
psychological manipulation, psychopathology, breaking of family ties, communal living,
distortion of sexuality, deprivation, fraud, and deception, and gives psychological
explanations for joining a cult: the need for love and encouragement, idealism, poverty,
intellectual satisfaction, health, etc. (Pei Fei 2002). These criteria, which are a basic summary
of the pseudo-scientific Western discourse on cults which combines elements of Christianity,
sociology and psychology, were widely referred to, discussed, and debated by Chinese
authors, often with quotations from the Bible and references to the history of Christianity, in
the new literature on xiejiao and even in university textbooks and reference works on the
theory of religious studies or of the sociology of religions (Lu Chunben 2002; Chen Linshu
& Chen Xia eds. 2003; Sun Shangyang 2001). Other works use psychological methods to
analyse the “mental control” which Falungong operated on its victims, and evaluate the
techniques used to reconvert them (zhuanhua)(Zhongguo kexueyuan 2002). Western
terminology is studied and its Chinese equivalents discussed at length: articles are often
riddled with English, German, French, Latin and Greek terms -- « kult », « cultus », « sekten »,
« crazed », « destructive », « heresy », « airesis », « secare », « sequi », « denomination »,
« charisma », etc (see for example Guo An ed. 2003: 8-13). Indeed, this literature shows a
great interest for the foreign experience with cults. The work The True Face of Cults (Chen
Zhiming & Zhang Xiangqi 2001), for example, devotes its first volume to cults abroad (Aum
Shinrikyo, Branch Davidians, Order of the Solar Temple, etc.) and the second volume to the
Chinese case (Yiguandao, Shouters, Assembly of Disciples, Falungong, etc.), as if to insist
that the Chinese experience is but the local expression of a world phenomenon : indeed, the
introduction to On Cults argues that the trend of cult activities is one of internationalization,
so that “it is impossible for a single country to stop cultic expansion alone. It is thus
necessary to reinforce international anti-cultic cooperation” (Shehui wenti ed. 2002: 2).
Entire books are devoted to anti-cult movements around the world, giving special attention
to the American and French cases and containing chapters presenting the anti-cult policies
of countries as varied as Belgium, the Philippines, and the Democratic Republic of Congo
(Guo An ed. 2003: 292-342; Luo Weihong 2002).
One of the problems encountered by the authors of this literature is how to clarify
the relationships between the current usage of xiejiao, the imperial meaning of xiejiao, the
huidaomen of the Republican and Maoist eras, the “new religions” xinxing zongjiao 新興宗教
which also entered the Chinese academic lexicon in the 1990’s, and, of course, the concept
of “religion” zongjiao itself. In their introduction to a series on Chinese “secret societies”, Qin
Baoqi and Tan Songlin note that the term xiejiao was used by the Ming and Qing dynastic
authorities, but should not be used today to label groups from that period, because that
would imply ignoring their positive contribution to popular resistance to imperial
dictatorship. Qin and Tan therefore prefer giving them the more neutral term of jiaomen or
“teaching lineage”. But since the positive value of these groups ends during the Republican
period, using a neutral term is no longer justified, and the pejorative label of huidaomen
should now be used to name groups active during that period. Further on, they note several
commonalities between huidaomen and foreign xiejiao: the political ambition and self-
deification of the master, the apocalyptic doctrines, the corrupt life of the master compared
to the ascetic denial imposed on followers -- but in order to avoid “conceptual confusion”,
they insist on the importance of maintaining a distinction between the huidaomen as groups
active in China in the first half of the 20th century, and the xiejiao as contemporary foreign
cults and Chinese groups which “raise the banner of Christianity to carry out anti-social
activities” (Qin Baoqi & Tan Songlin 2002: 2-3, 113-121).
But overall, even though some historians stress the different social conditions
prevailing at different periods, the new discourse burdens itself less and less with such
intellectual acrobatics to separate the various generations of groups having existed under
different political regimes. On the contrary, xiejiao becomes a universal category including all
evil cults at all periods of Chinese history and in all parts of the world. The discourse on the
“positive” contribution of these groups to peasant resistance against feudal dynasties is
entirely revised: xiejiao masters used their organization and their charisma to coopt and
exploit popular revolts to further their personal ambition to establish a new feudal theocracy;
they thus diverted the imperial authorities from gaining an accurate understanding of the
true causes of popular discontent and provoked all kinds of calamities for common people
(Liu Xiangyu 2002: 332-334; Liu Ping 2002; Zhao Zhi 2002; Zhang Li 2002). At the same
time, there is an interest for the methods deployed by the imperial state to exterminate xiejiao
-- not to condemn the feudal oppression of peasant rebellion, but to glean lessons from the
past and, in one study, to take inspiration from the successful policy of the Jiaqing emperor
(1796-1821) against the White Lotus and Eight Trigram revolts (Zheng & Ouyang 2002;
Zheng Yonghua 2003; Dong Xiaohan & Zhou Yiwen 1999).
Several articles on the etymology, usage, and history of xiejiao in imperial China have
been published since 1999 in Chinese newspapers and journals. In a synthesis of these
studies, Guo An concludes that in Chinese history, it is the government and the orthodox
religions which defined which groups were xiejiao on the basis of their “anti-social and anti-
orthodox” nature, i.e., that they “opposed the interests of the governing group (tongzhi
jituan) or “turned their back to orthodox religion” (Guo An ed. 2003: 7). Although the author
tries to deny making links with the current situation in China, it is clear that the same criteria
are in operation today, under an alliance between political and religious orthodoxy. Indeed,
the new discourse on xiejiao gives particular attention to drawing a clear boundary between
xiejiao and “religion”, and even between xiejiao and “new religious movements”, to such an
extent that both “traditional” and “new” religions are depicted in a positive light for their
contribution to social stability. The demarcation line between “orthodox religion” (zhengjiao)
and xiejiao is not based on heresy in relation to the doctrines and practices of particular
established religions, but on general notions of moral and social order, almost identical to
ancient Chinese notions of politico-religious orthodoxy, but this time extended to the whole
world with the aid of a universalist discourse derived from the social sciences.
Comparing religion and xiejiao, Guo An lists several differences. On the object of
devotion, religion worships a transcendental divinity, towards which the clergy are mere
servants, while xiejiao demand the absolute veneration of a man who himself claims to be
god. Concerning eschatology, religions do have doctrines on the “end of the world” but
without a clear date or seen as occurring in a distant future, and busy themselves with
bringing spiritual encouragement to practical life, so that “traditional religion contributes to
social stability” – while on the contrary, xiejiao predict the imminence of the end of days and
try to terrorise their followers with their prophecies. Regarding behaviour, religions
propagate “ethical and moral values recognized and accumulated by humanity for millennia”,
while xiejiao force their followers to sacrifice all their possessions and even their family in
order to put themselves under the protection of their master. Concerning organization,
traditional religions have an open and “relatively democratic” organization which does not
contravene the constitution or the law, and the clergy does not intervene in the life of
believers – whereas xiejiao “establish secret organizations and underground kingdoms, exert a
dictatorial control on their adepts, practice forced brainwashing”. Finally, in relation to their
social and political role, the main religions of secularized countries “take the initiative” to
harmonize their relations with the government and “do not have an anti-governmental
potential”: all the more so in countries which do not separate between the state and religion,
where the national religion plays “a crucial role” as a “supporting force” for the
government on the contrary, the “evil nature” of the xiejiao is to “destroy social stability,
slow down economic development and overthrow the government” (Guo An ed. 2003: 36-
42). Though some Chinese authors, following Western categories, consider that xiejiao is a
form of religion (Dai Kangsheng 1999: 311-315), the consensus imposed by the CCP’s
policy, which on the one hand guarantees the freedom of religion but on the other forbids
xiejiao – sees “religion” and xiejiao as two diametrically opposed categories:
« a demon who wears the mask of a beautiful girl is not a beautiful girl ; a wolf
wearing a sheepskin is a wolf and not a sheep. Xiejiao organizations which drape
themselves with religious language cannot become religions and can only be xiejiao
gangs of social criminals. In dealing with the evil forces and social garbage of xiejiao,
they must absolutely not be considered as religions, nor be given a legal social status:
they can only be swept into the rubbish heap of history with the iron broom of the
law. […] Eliminating xiejiao not only has no impact on the rigorous application of the
policy of religious freedom; on the contrary, given that the xiejiao stain the reputation
of religion and distort religious concepts, inverting black and white and sowing
confusion in public opinion, to eliminate xiejiao signifies to respect and to protect
religion» (Feng Jinyuan 2002: 24-25).
At the same time, a clear distinction is also made between xiejiao and “new religious
movements” or “new religions” (xinxing zongjiao), which are beginning to be known to
Chinese scholars and religious affairs officials since a decade or so, both through
acquaintance with Western academic works on this subject and through the introduction to
China, following China’s greater opening up to foreign contacts, of certain “new religions”
from abroad. Guo An thus insists that although several xiejiao were originally new religious
movements, one cannot consider all new religions to be xiejiao. On the contrary, he affirms
that most new religions remain within the realm of “orthodox” religion and have “an
internal structure which governs its organization and the relationships between believers and
the society which, though different from that of traditional religion, “remains within the
bounds of social norms and morals. As products of “religious secularization”, new religions
propose a “vision of the future and a worldview adapted to social development, whose
objective is to enable a given religion to better conform itself to a dramatically changing
social reality and respond to the spiritual needs of those who are perplexed by this reality”,
while the xiejiao claim that “one merely needs to join their organization for all one’s troubles
to be immediately solved” with the sole objective of increasing the number of recruits in
order to control their minds, their property and even their bodies, which followers
“completely and unconditionally sacrifice to satisfy the selfish and unspeakable desires of the
master.” While new religions “practice their teachings by exhorting to do good and by
bringing benefits to the world, and are constantly developing community applications which
are beneficial to society in order to gain the understanding and support of society:”, xiejiao
turn their backs on social morality and the law, and oppose the government, culture, and
even material life, disdain the existing social order and collective ethics, and constantly
attempt to use various means to destroy state institutions and threaten the life of the people
and the security of public property”(Guo An ed. 2003: 51-52).
Conclusion: the end of modern ideology and the elevation of Religion
The importing of two modern paradigms – the revolutionary model in the mid 20th
century and the social science of religions paradigm fifty years later – appears at first glance
to have only served to provide new ideological clothing for a category which never changed
in its essence, that of xiejiao, which became huidaomen in the Maoist period and reverted to
the xiejiao appellation under Jiang Zemin. But the application of modern paradigms reflects
an attempt to inscribe the struggle against evil cults into a universal framework: the
worldwide struggle against imperialism and feudal oppression in the case of the huidaomen,
and against the international menace of destructive cults in the case of contemporary xiejiao.
In the second case, however, the recourse to academic institutions to produce social
scientific discourses, in a context when these institutions are increasingly integrated into
international research circuits, represents a change in relation to previous situations in which
the anti-cult discourse was elaborated entirely in relation to the ideological framework of
Confucianism or Marxism.
The new Chinese discourse on xiejiao combines traditional notions of heretical
doctrines with Western elements derived from Christian apologetics, psychology, and the
social sciences. The result is a xiejiao category which borrows from imperial Chinese ideology
a concept of orthodoxy based on notions of order and social harmony, of which the state is
the prime protector with the assistance of religion as an instrument of moral education
(jiaohua), and from Western discourse a universalist approach which defines “social order”,
“religion” etc. in general and abstract terms, citing examples from the whole world, without
giving a special role of arbiter to the Chinese state or to specific religions recognized as
orthodox in China. While anti-huidaomen propaganda of the 1950’s and 80’s defined these
groups almost exclusively as a function of their feudal and counterrevolutionary nature,
without giving much consideration to the relationship between such groups and religion, the
new discourse places a strong emphasis on the relationship between xiejiao and religion,
practically defining them as an anti-religion. It is striking to note that, if we recall the central
role of scientism and anti-superstition campaigns which oriented religious policy in the first
half of the 20th century7 and which structured the polemic around qigong until the end of the
1990’s, “science” as an absolute value is rarely called on to discredit xiejiao, and
“superstition” is not the principal charge made against these groups whose cardinal sin is
their “anti-social” and “anti-human” nature, i.e. their ambition to destabilize the socio-
political order. The discourse of the struggle against superstition and “pseudo-science”
which had been the chief weapon of the first polemists to attack qigong and Falungong in the
mid 1990’s (Palmer 2007: 122-126; 160-162; 170-177), indeed seems to have been
marginalized since the xiejiao label was officially fixed on Falungong in 1999.
A general and universal concept of “religion” has thus become the defining standard.
We are far from the doctrine of religion as the opium of the masses, from the Marxist and
modernist idea of religion as a relic of the past destined to naturally and gradually disappear,
and even from the recent admission in official pronouncements that religion will still last for
a long time. What is significant here is the unambiguously positive evaluation of “religion”,
of which the “orthodox” nature is understood quite broadly, rarely specifically mentioning
China’s five official religions and even embracing new religions.
We can now begin to discern the possible long-term structural consequences of the
Falungong affair on China’s politico-religious dynamic. Although the Falungong suppression
campaign uses all the classical instruments of propaganda and repression of a communist
regime, the discourse on xiejiao which has emerged from it marks a complete rupture from
50 years of socialist and secularist ideology, a return to the traditional paradigm of the state
as protector of the orthodox Order against the heretical and demonic forces of Chaos, and
the entrance of Religion onto the stage as a supportive force for protecting social order and
the moral and ethical heritage of society.
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phenomenon] Beijing: Kexue chubanshe.
Bailianhui 白蓮會 White Lotus Society
Bailianjiao 白蓮教 White Lotus Teachings
banghui 幫會 underworld gang
Daode xueshe 道德學社 Society for the Study of Morality
daohui 道會 cultivation society
daomen 道門 cultivation lineage
Daoyuan 道院 School of the Way
Dongfang shandian 東方閃電 Oriental Lightning
Falungong 法輪功 Qigong of the Dharma Wheel
feifa zongjiao 非法宗教 illegal religion
fengjian 封建 feudal
gelaohui 哥老會 Elders’ Society
Guanyin Famen 觀音法門 Guanyin Dharma Gate
Guiyi daoyuan 歸一道院 School of the Way of the Return to Oneness
fandong huidaomen 反動會道門 reactionary secret societies
hongqianghui 紅槍會 Red Spears
Huhanpai 呼喊派 The Shouters
huimen 會門 secret society
jiaohua 教化 moral education
jiaomen 教門 teaching lineage
jiebai dixiong 結拜弟兄 sworn brotherhood
jiehui shudang 結會竪黨 creating associations and forming cliques
Jiushi xinjiaohui 救世新教會 Association of the New Teachings for World Salvation
Linglinghui 靈靈會 Church of Spirits
Mentuhui 門徒會 Assembly of Disciples
mimi jieshe 秘密結社 secret association
mimi shehui 秘密社會 secret society
Quan fanwei jiaohui 全範圍教會 Complete Domain Church
Taipingdao 太平道 Way of Supreme Peace
Tiandihui 天地會 Heaven and Earth Society
Tianxian miaodao 天仙廟道 Way of the Temple of the Heavenly Immortals
Tongmenghui 同盟會 United Allegiance Society
Tongshanshe 同善社 Fellowship of Goodness
tongzhi jituan 統治集團 governing group
Wanguo daodehui 萬國道德會 Universal Morality Society
xie evil, heterodox
xiejiao 邪教 heretical teaching, evil cult
xieshuo 邪説 heretical sayings
xinxing zongjiao 新興宗教 new religion
Xinyue jiaohui 新約教會 New Testament Church
yiduan 異端 heresy
Yiguandao 一貫道 Way of Pervasive Unity
Zailijiao 在理教 Teaching of the Abiding Principle
zhuanhua 轉化 reconversion
zheng upright, orthodox
zhengjiao 正教 orthodox religion
Zhongguo sanjiao shengdao zonghui 中國三教聖道總會 Association of the Sagely Way of
China’s Three Teachings
Zongjiao zhexue yanjiushe 宗教哲學研究社 Society for the Study of Religious Philosophy
Names of persons:
Chen Duxiu 陳獨秀
Faqing 法慶
Han Shantong 韓山童
Jiaqing 嘉慶
Jiang Zemin 江澤民
Lin Shuangwen 林爽文
Sun Zuomin 孫祚民
Wang Lun 王倫
Wuzong 武宗
Xu Hongru 徐鴻儒
Zhang Guangbi 張光璧
Zhang Tianran 張天然
Zhang Jue 張角
Zhu De 朱德
Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋
1 My thanks are extended to the Antenne expérimentale franco-chinoise en sciences humaines et sociales, the
Sociology Department of the London School of Economics and Political Science, and the Institute of History
and Philology of the Academia Sinica for financing trips to China and Taiwan during which some of the
materials used for this paper were collected. I would also like to thank Mayfair Yang and an anonymous
reviewer for their suggestions for improving an earlier draft of this paper.
2 The latter is examined critically in Ownby forthcoming. For an example, see Chen Hongxing & Dai Zhenjing
eds. 1999.
3 Known as Zhang Tianran by Yiguandao followers.
4 Picking up on this distinction, much of the historical scholarship has insisted on the difference between the
“secular” nature of the former and the “religious” nature of the latter. For a refutation of this point of view, see
Ownby 1995.
5 For detailed discussions of religion in the Mao-era historiography of peasant rebellions, see Man Kam Leung
1989; Harrison 1970: 140-189.
6 See for example the press releases posted on the website of the Chinese Embassy in France :; http://web.amb-; accessed 5 Oct. 2005.
7 On scientism, see Kwok 1965; on the anti-superstition movement, see Nedostup 2001.
... Један од разлога може бити управо тај што је држава одређивала категорије по којима се овај однос могао изучавати, не остављајући довољно простора за критичку научну анализу. Позивајући се на Палмера ( Palmer 2005), oн сматра да кинеска држава још од доба Републике и све до данас, ставља академске текстове у службу оправдавања своје религијске политике. Овим аутор у ствари критикује савремену научну кинеску мисао као ограничену државном политиком. ...
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The paper treats the challenges and transformations of the Buddhist community in China on its way to the present state, both in national and international terms. The research focuses upon the dynamics of the relationship between the state and religion in China – from the demise of the empire to the present, with special emphasis upon the period of the People’s Republic of China. This review of the relevant literature concentrates upon the anthropological paradigms treating the relationship between state and religion, as well as upon state, political and religious institutions – national, provincial, municipal. Two concrete examples are presented of the renowned Buddhist monasteries – Nanputuo and Shaolin. Special attention is paid to the Buddhist Association of China and its role in the negotiation between the state and party organizations and Buddhist monasteries.
... The CCP often imposes even harsher re percussions on religious groups that are ac cused by mainstream Christianity of being "heterodoxies," such as the Shouters and the Disciples. These religious groups are often la belled as "evil cults" (Palmer, 2008), and it is not uncommon for their leaders and mem bers to face legal action or even criminal charges (Zhu, 2010). The protests organized by these religious groups have not only tar geted the government but also the main stream Christian churches that criticize them from a theological point of view. ...
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The relationship between religion and protest has been thoroughly discussed in various academic disciplines of social sciences, but there is far from consensus on the topic. Scholars differ significantly in their opinions on how religious values and doctrines shape the mechanisms which link protest and religion, and on how interaction between religious groups, the state, and other secular and religious groups may increase or reduce the likelihood of protests. Contemporary China provides an ideal setting in which to further advance scholarly understanding of roles that religion plays in protest, thanks to its richness, diversity, and complexity of religion, protest, and their relationship. In contemporary China, due to the inherent, profound, and possibly deliberate ambiguities within the state’s legal and regulatory arrangements on religious affairs, the boundaries between government-sanctioned churches and “underground” churches are often blurred. Many Christianity-related protests directly respond to government crackdowns, which are aimed not only at those congregations and groups that are normally considered as “underground,” “unofficial,” or “independent,” but also at churches that have long been tolerated or even officially recognized by the state. Further, while many Christianity-related protests are closely associated with the clash of ideologies in contemporary China, the specific causes of protests differ significantly among Catholic and Protestant churches, and Christian-inspired groups. The ideological incompatibility between the ruling Communist Party and the Catholic Church in China is epitomized by their struggle for authority and influence over the Chinese Catholic community. Until the provisional agreement signed between Beijing and the Vatican in September 2018, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Holy See had been competing fiercely for the authority to approve the ordination of new bishops, with such confrontations triggering numerous protests among Chinese Catholics. Unlike the Catholic Church, many of the Protestant churches that have emerged in the post-Mao era—including most “house” churches that do not affiliate with the state-sanctioned church—have no direct link with the transnational denominations which were active in China before the communist takeover in 1949 and are operated solely by Chinese citizens. However, while many Chinese Protestants display affection toward China and a sense of responsibility for improving their country, some influential Protestant church leaders have turned their progressive theology into social activism since the turn of the 21st century, leading to various forms of protests against the authoritarian policies and politics in contemporary China. Ideological and theological conflicts between different religions or religious schools may also trigger the Chinese state’s suppression of certain religious groups and activities, which often in turn cause protests. In particular, the Communist Party tends to impose extremely harsh repercussions on religious groups that are accused by mainstream Christianity of being “heterodoxies,” like the Shouters and the Disciples. These religious groups are often labelled as “evil cults” and their leaders and members often face legal action or even criminal charges. The protests organized by these religious groups have not only targeted the government but also the mainstream Christian churches that criticize them from a theological point of view. Given the profound ideological and political incompatibility of the CCP and various Christian groups, it is unlikely that Christianity can replicate the close collaborations that Buddhism and Daoism have developed with the CCP since the early 1980s.
This article seeks to outline struggles of self-understanding for Chinese Protestant Christians during the decades of great transition between the late Qing and the early Republic, and view how such understanding anticipated later nationalist discourses on state sovereignty. Using both existing scholarship on statism and Chinese Christianity, as well as primary texts from historical journals and Christian newspapers, the article argues for a consistent tension as many Chinese Christians strived to close the gap between their religious and political identities. In doing so, they ended up espousing and practicing a synthesis of piety, progress and patriotism which, though later subjected to state regulations, may have contributed to the statist claim over religion before the heightened political mobilization in the late 1920s.
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The capacity to classify social groups legally is a central characteristic of modern states. Social groups, however, often resist the classificatory schemas of the state. This raises the following question: how do modern states exercise symbolic power in social fields beset by acute classification struggles? While existing scholarship has demonstrated that states exercise symbolic power, there has not been a concomitant effort to systematize and theorize the various strategies through which they do so. This article addresses this lacuna through examining classification struggles centered on a number of “heterodox” religious groups that have historically been perceived as deviant from mainstream religions. Specifically, it looks at Falun Gong in China, Mormons in the United States, and Baha’is in Egypt. The analysis draws attention to three strategies through which states exercise symbolic power: coercive classification, wherein the deviant group is forcibly fixed as such in law; juridical normalization, whereby the deviant group is allowed to enter the mainstream by shedding “problematic” ritual practices; and legal erasure, whereby the deviant group is kept out of the official classificatory system so that it becomes a legal non-entity. In summary, this article both identifies the religious field as a critical domain in which states of various ideological orientations exercise symbolic power and deploys this analysis to identify distinct strategies through which they do so.
In this chapter, by reviewing the major scholarship focusing on the cultural politics of rural migrant labour, I will tackle the following questions: how has the Party-state altered its ideological system and its own identity to the conditions of the political economy of global capitalism to reconcile exploitative forms of labour with its own founding narratives?1 How does the cultural politics of labour inform the issue of the changing relationship built between the Party-state and rural migrant workers, as well as with other subject categories? Moreover, the following complex question will be dealt with: how can the analysis of the cultural politics of rural workers’ labour inform the processes through which a “new field of articulation” is shaped where various forces such as the Party-state, contemporary capitalism, as well as the agency of rural migrant workers meet and are constituting the identity of the subject worker ( Pun 2005 : 7, 26).
During the Republican era and the PRC, both regimes labeled religious practices outside official institutionalized religions as “superstition” (mixin). In the early PRC, the CCP labeled superstitious activities with mass participation as “mass superstitious incidents.” This article examines a mass superstitious incident in Chongqing in 1953 in which more than fifty thousand people participated. In this case, local residents, especially local merchants, advertised an old woman as a Living Guanyin Bodhisattva with supernatural disease-curing powers to expand their economic interests. The incident was also a result of poor healthcare infrastructure management. Key organizers in the incident were severely punished, in part because they were scapegoats for the problems of the new national policy of State Monopoly for Grain Purchase. The incident also had a strong contagion effect that led to various similar “superstitious incidents” in the vicinity that were eventually suppressed under the name “huidaomen.”
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The majority of Ahmao in southwest China have been Christian since a mass conversion movement took place in the 1900s. Throughout the century, Ahmao congregations have gone through several reforms and survived many political campaigns. After two decades of prosperity through China’s reform era, since the 2000s many Ahmao congregations in northern Yunnan have experienced schisms. This paper sets out to investigate a schism that took place in a medium-size Ahmao congregation between 2005 and 2015. Based upon several years of continuous fieldwork, I found that the alleged schism in this Ahmao congregation – rather than describing a long-standing fracture in the community – appears intermittently and should be considered as an effect of religious regulation that problematizes the agency of spiritual practice. Under the regime of religious regulation in contemporary China, Ahmao congregations have been delicately negotiating between different modes of agency as changes in Christian practice become necessary or inevitable.
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This paper is devoted to the genealogy of the term “evil teaching” (邪教 xiejiao), a Qing label for heretical lay religious groups who were stereotyped as practising black magic, spreading messianic messages and as inherently rebellious. Our modern understanding of the term xiejiao is based on its late imperial use, but in fact its meaning changed greatly over time, in ways that reflect the changing state perception of lay religion. This evolution has been overlooked by many late imperial and modern scholars. As a result they project their contemporary perception of lay religion onto the earlier periods. Here I would like to correct this anachronism, uncovering a more complex and varying history.
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Reviewed by Pete Sweeney for SISEA590 Yue Dong Duara's work on Manchukuo and the story of "a state in search of a nation" is clearly coordinated with prior readings of Liu, Rogaski, and Fitzgerald. Once again we find ourselves in the midst of a somewhat abstracted debate about the nature of abstractions like "nationalism," the way they are formed, and the way symbols and language are manipulated to shape them. Duara's work is particularly dense in its implicit reference to the theories of deconstructionism as advanced by Jacques Derrida. As with Derrida, we see in Duara a certain less-than-accessible style. Thus alas I must qualify whatever reactions I have to the more philosophical assertions of the book by noting that it is entirely possible I did not actually get what Duara was actually about here or there. And I do confess at times I feel that when I reduced the intricate language in some of his points, they did not appear to merit the complex language used to make them. Some words are very precise and can't be substituted, like aporia or monopsony, but why use "labile" instead of "unstable?" Nevertheless, the historical picture is a fascinating and somewhat unique one. Manchukuo was, like opium, many things to many people. Duara's exposition of the fight over the definition of Manchukuo as a nation, a borderland, an imperial frontier, and a nation state is enlightening to the extent that it illustrates the diplomatic and governmental mechanisms by which nationalism is induced, manufactured, fabricated . . . and Duara is not averse to questioning the value of such fabrications. Indeed, his primary premise, that the thesis builds on, is that the association of the personal identity with a national identity is not a product of a scientific process, historical understanding, or of any genuine affiliation (or at least, regarding the latter, it doesn't have to be) but rather the product of governmentalizing elites who use the concept of nation for mobilization for the purposes of the state. It is difficult to outright refute this premise and since I agree with it I won't try. I do, perhaps, question the necessity for Duara to belabor this point a bit; the work appears to exhibit a certain uncertainty in direction; are we going to look specifically at Manchukuo or are we going to merely use it as a springboard to attack other targets sideways? For example, his chapter on "Women and the Figure of Tradition within Modernity" is interesting, yes, but it scarcely requires the history of Manchukuo to support it, and Duara spends much time in this chapter wandering around the rest of China making points.
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During the 1980s and 1990s, Qigong or “breathing arts” became the most wide-spread form of popular religiosity in Chinese cities. Thousands of charismatic Qigong masters appeared, promoting Qigong methods through transmission networks covering the whole country. Falungong became the biggest Qigong group by the mid-1990s. The article examines the hypothesis of links between Qigong and a galaxy of groups which were widespread in pre-Communist China, often called “sectarian” in the academic literature and also known as “White Lotus” sects. By comparing the ideology, the practices and the structure of these groups, it is possible to conclude that Qigong is a modern expression of the Chinese tradition of popular sectarianism.
In this article, Wang Jianchuan examines the early history of the Tongshanshe, one of the major redemptive societies of the Republican period, using newly discovered archival documents and other historical data.