Reviewed by Robert Sivigny, University Librarian
Chinese Religions by Joseph Adler is part of Routledge Publisher’s Religions of the World series and is one of the books referenced on the Center for Teaching & Learning’s Global Faculty Development Resources page. Each of the volumes in the Religions of the World series aims to present a short overview of one of the major religions of the world in a straightforward, easy-to-understand manner. Adler, a professor of eastern religions at Kenyon College does just that in this pleasing historical survey of religions in China. If you are looking for a quick introduction to Chinese religions this is a good place to start.
Adler focuses on four main traditions, Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and popular religion. Popular religion, he explains, is eclectic, taking bits and pieces from other religions such as the worship of various gods, festivals, rituals, and ancestral worship. I especially like the way Adler goes through each Chinese dynasty historically, showing the development of each of these religions in each period.
Four ideas have prevailed throughout Chinese religious history: 1.) Change and transformation are fundamental to the nature of all things, including human life. 2.) Harmony and continuity of the family, including ancestor worship, are of fundamental importance, especially in Confucianism and popular religion. 3.) Religion and politics have always existed as a close bond in China, and even today, the government maintains a high level of control over religion. 4.) The linkage of the human and divine arenas (e.g. between human rulers and divine sovereignty) is considered a “unity of Heaven and humanity” or the “non-duality of the transcendent and the mundane” (p. 19).
Many readers will find interesting Adler’s explanation of the Chinese concepts of yin and yang as archetypes of high and low social positions. Adler quotes from a translation of Commentary on the Appended Phrases [of the Yijing]: “As Heaven is high and noble and Earth is low and humble, so it is that qian [pure yang] and kun [pure yin] are defined. The high and the low being thereby set out, the exalted and the mean have their places accordingly.” As Adler observes, “The ‘exalted’ and the ‘mean’ here refer to high and low social positions. Thus the text is outlining a parallel relationship between the natural world and the social world, thereby legitimizing the social hierarchy that has always characterized Chinese society” (p. 60).
This little historical guide is well put together, with tables showing the three major dynasties and major periods in Chinese history, and a great map of mainland China. Considering the increasing significance of China in world affairs, this work will assist the reader with a better understanding of the very important place religion has in Chinese culture.