The research field “Religion(s) in China” deals with various religious traditions and with the phenomenon of religion as part of China’s social, historical and discursive reality. One focus explores the transformations of the religious field with a special emphasis on the transition from pre-modern to modern China. In intersection with the Research Field “History and Culture” also the role of Christian mission in the context of colonialism is investigated.
The concept of religion has often been applied not only to the pre-modern Chinese traditions of Buddhism and Daoism, but also to Confucianism, which others, however, have regarded to be rather a philosophy. Altogether the three traditions have been described as China’s “three teachings” (sanjiao). However, beyond these three traditions also Christianity, Islam, and many smaller religious communities also belong to China’s past and present. Their intellectual traditions can be analyzed through their writings as indigenous thoughts as well.
Like other intellectual traditions, religion has been a part of the social reality in pre-modern and modern China. This is particularly true for popular religion, whose temples, temple festivals and customary practices were an integral part of the local communities. Also contacts of different religious traditions took place not at least on the local level as part of processes of social exchange and transformation, as can be seen for example in the encounter between Christian mission and local traditions. The modern processes of transformation and globalization caused significant changes in the religious field, which has to be analyzed in comparative perspective taking into account the respective local contexts (such as Taiwan, PRC, Hong Kong, and overseas Chinese).
Religious discourses can be already found in pre-modern China, where it took the form of inner-religious debates and public discussions about the role of certain religious traditions. Following the introduction of the modern term for religion (zongjiao), since approximately 1900, a series of debates about the role of religion in China took place. In this subfield one can ask questions such as: how have the religious traditions and phenomena been described after the introduction of western terminology? How can we describe the continuing change of religious semantics, considering not only the term “religion” itself but also terms like superstition, faith, religious experience, mysticism, or freedom of religion and others?
The relationship between state and religions is a further issue addressed in this research field. In pre-modern imperial China, the state played an important role in the religious field and privileged Confucianism by making it a state ideology and orthodoxy. Buddhism and Daoism, though accepted, were subject to control. Other groups were stigmatized as “heterodox sects” and often persecuted. In present-day People’s Republic of China ruled only by the Communist party, the officially accepted religious communities are subordinated to the state applying a corporatist model, while other groups (underground churches, Falun gong) are exposed to repressive measures. The role of the state is therefore an important issue in analyzing the interactions between diverse traditions in past and present China.