#AsiaNow Speaks with Paul R. Katz and Vincent Goossaert

The Fifty Years That Changed Chinese Religion

AAS Publications has recently released the latest title in its Asia Past & Present monograph series. In The Fifty Years That Changed Chinese Religion, 1898–1948, Paul R. Katz (Academia Sinica) and Vincent Goossaert (EPHE, PSL [Paris]) examine a time of significant political and social upheaval in China and demonstrate how religious life was also transformed during these decades. The scale of their analysis ranges from communal religious life to individual practice, drawing in new commercial institutions and ways to disseminate religious knowledge that grew in the early 20th century. Focusing their story on Shanghai and the surrounding Jiangnan region, Katz and Goossaert consider how religious modernization in one area fit in with similar currents elsewhere in China, East Asia, and the world.

Below, Paul R. Katz and Vincent Goossaert share more about The Fifty Years That Changed Chinese Religion in an interview for #AsiaNow readers.

#AsiaNow: To begin, what is the primary argument you’re making in The Fifty Years That Changed Chinese Religion? How does your take on this topic and time period enhance or differ from those of other scholars who have worked on this area?

Katz and Goossaert: The main point of our study was to show that many forms of Chinese religious life we see today have roots in the 50-year time period covered by this book, including the growth of voluntary religious associations in urban areas and the use of mass media by religious groups to spread their beliefs and practices. While much research has focused on the late imperial and contemporary era, less work has been done on the 1898-1948 period, especially the forms of adaptation and innovation enacted by religious groups and individual elites. Our work also embraces a comparative perspective, considering what China had in common with other Asian nations as well as how its experiences might be considered unique.

#AsiaNow: What are some of the sources you drew on while researching and writing this book?

K&G: One of the joys of writing modern history, of course, is the sheer abundance and variety of sources. We found newspapers very useful for several aspects of our research; starting in the 1870s, newspaper reports published in Chinese, especially in Shanghai, provide fine-grained accounts of festivals, rituals and other aspects of religious life, allowing us to trace processes of change year-by-year rather than having to rely on generic descriptions. The religious literature of this period was also a major inspiration; it proved much more diverse and revealing of multifarious attitudes and practices than is commonly thought.

#AsiaNow: You’ve chosen to concentrate your analysis on Shanghai and the region surrounding it. What were some of the aspects of religious life unique to this geographic area, and what were some that reflected or played into processes taking place elsewhere?

K&G: The Jiangnan region we focused on is, like other parts of the Chinese world, a distinct cultural milieu with its own language, history, and gods. It has also long been the richest and most densely populated part of the empire; this wealth produced a very large pool of educated elites and supported a larger number of major religious institutions than anywhere else, including Buddhist monasteries and Daoist temples. All this also explains the extreme abundance of printed sources, including village histories. On the other hand, Jiangnan local culture was also shaped by incessant inward and outward flows of people, resources and ideas. Perhaps the best example is Shanghai: a recent and cosmopolitan metropolis.

#AsiaNow: “Religion,” of course, is a very broad category. In what ways was religious modernization in China during the early 20th century a coherent set of processes, and in what ways did it break down among different belief systems or sects?

K&G: From 1898 onward, the same political imperatives applied to all religious traditions: eliminate superstition and align with science, organize in a hierarchical way to be able to negotiate with the state, and contribute to nationalist state-building efforts. But some traditions were in a much better position to meet these goals than others, sometimes because of their worldview, but in other cases because they were more favorably positioned in the overall social upheaval. Community-based practices predicated on shared land-based resources suffered when these resources were confiscated or reallocated, whereas individual-oriented practices, including all sorts of self-cultivation traditions, flourished.

#AsiaNow: What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

K&G: Actually, our research at times suffered from an overabundance of data. In the realm of religious publishing, for example, one of our partners found data on nearly 6,000 religious works printed during this era by 28 different publishing houses, but since reasonably complete records exist for only 9 of these publishers, the actual number of works should be very much higher. And that’s without even beginning to consider Christianity (not to mention Judaism and Islam). We had considered trying to include these religions in our study, but it really would have been too much.

From today’s perspective, doing archival and ethnographic research in China during the early 2010s proved so much easier than today (even without considering the impact of the pandemic). Oh how we miss the days of perusing primary source materials and temple hopping in different cities and market towns.

#AsiaNow: What are the scholarly works that inspired you as you wrote this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

K&G: In some ways, this book represents a long-term result of Sanjiao wenxian 三教文獻 project organized by the late Kristofer M. Schipper and his students during late 1990s. That project’s focus was on Beijing, which was also the subject of Vincent’s 2007 book, The Taoists of Peking, 1800-1949. Other works that inspired us include Thomas DuBois, The Sacred Village; David Jordan & Daniel Overmyer, The Flying Phoenix; Liu Xun, Daoist Modern; Tobie Meyer-Fong, What Remains; Rebecca Nedostup, Superstitious Regimes; and Poon Shuk-wah, Negotiating Religion in Modern China. Other titles that read nicely alongside ours include: Adam Chau, Religion in China; Jan Kiely & and J. Brooks Jessup, eds., Recovering Buddhism in Modern China; David Ownby, Vincent Goossaert & Ji Zhe, eds., Making Saints in Modern China; Philip Clart, David Ownby & Wang Chien-Chuan, eds., Text and Context in the Modern History of Chinese Religions; and Mayfair Yang, Re-enchanting Modernity.

#AsiaNow: What are you each working on now?

Paul Katz: I am doing the copy-editing on my latest book, Religion, Ethnicity, and Gender in Western Hunan during the Modern Era: The Dao among the Miao?, which explores the interaction between the Miao and Han Chinese ritual traditions in this region, including the impact of organized religions like Daoism, the role of gender in goddess cults and female spirit medium practices, etc. My next project will be a study of Hakka social and religious networks in Northern Taiwan, particularly the ways they adapted to the changes of the modern era.

Vincent Goosaert: I have finished a book on the history of revelations in China, Making the Gods Speak: The Ritual Production of Revelation in Chinese History, and I continue work on spirit-writing by looking at the religious lives of late imperial elites. I am also part of a project aimed at producing an open-access catalog of Chinese religious literature: www.crta.info.