New Religious Movements in China

deadline for submissions: 
April 30, 2018
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In the late 1970s, academics came to use the term New Religious Movement (NRM) to replace “cult” in light of the pejorative connotation in daily English. At the time, NRM referred to small religious groups whose membership was predominately in the first generation. The leaders’ authority derived from charisma and they promised exclusive means to access the ultimate source of the cosmos that they alone possessed. They held beliefs and practices that differed from the traditional ones in the surrounding religious environment, such as innovative interpretations of ancient scripture or rituals and an independent organization. They lack recognized legitimacy in the eyes of the religious establishment. Apocalyptic beliefs about the immediate end of the world were common among the NRMs which did not help to ease the suspicion among other part of authorities in society.  

Over the course of time, the characteristics of NRMs have been revisited and debated. Many of the groups that have been unquestionably categorized as NRMs in the 1970s have survived the first generational leadership transition through establishing an institutional process, and developed a sizable membership. Some of the best known NRMs have changed drastically with demographic change in membership (Family International and ISKCON, for example). Aspects of their development resemble those of major religions at early stages, such as sectarian accusations from their neighbors, denunciation from contemporaneous authorities, simultaneously evangelical and esoteric practices, and internal factional conflicts on top of determined proselytization beyond their original cultural/social/ethnical circles. NRMs provide researchers a window to look into the birth a religion with their own eyes.

NRMs in China are an integral part of the country’s religious history. Studying NRMs in China, in addition, offers a different type of geo-political perspective. For scholars, this will be chance to further rethink the definition of NRM. Through its long history, China has had its fair share of sectarian groups. They produced their own scripture showing eschatology to be foundational in their belief system. While they were mostly peaceful as Daniel Overmyer has shown, they did not renounce violence entirely. They posed a threat in the eyes of the political elites. For this reason, governments ridiculed, denounced, and persecuted sectarian members, creating a public image of the latter as under-privileged and confused while their leaders were fraudulent and criminal. This narrative is only too familiar to researchers on NRMs.

The end of the 19th century is crucial in modern Chinese religious history and serves as a good starting point for Chinese NRMs. As Goossaert and Palmer argue, the short lived Hundred-days Reform in 1898 produced long-term consequences for Chinese religions with its intention to panoramically (not just militarily or economically) modernize China, including its religious landscape. The call for modernization in China, although auditable by the mid-19th century, became prevalent as the century was winding down. The awareness of modernity among religious groups that were founded or reorganized at the end of the 19th century was surely unprecedented in sectarian groups. The relevance of modernity in these groups – embracing it, opposing it, responding to it, etc. – is a key factor that made them different from sectarian groups before.

Approaches to appreciate NRMs in China should combine sociological analysis, ethnographic research and historical perspective. Articles collected in this volume will present an effort that crosses disciplinary boundaries.

The volume will start with a survey article introducing religious reforms within and without religious establishments during the period of time. This will provide non-China experts with a functional background knowledge. It is also the place to explain the criteria of NRMs in China (i.e. why some groups are not included, for example, the Compassion and Relief Foundation which is a new organization within the institution). I myself will write this article.

They volume will then present articles that offer big-picture of NRMs in present-day China from sociological aspects. More specific cases studies then follow. The following types of groups will be included: indigenously developed Christian groups; intensively synchronized redemptive societies; the highly Daoist-oriented body cultivation traditions; self-defined Buddhist groups; and the innovative Ahong (Imam) in Chinese Islamic communities in the early 20th century.  

Research on missionary history in China has opened a new field on non-Western forms of Christianity. Indigenously grown Christian groups and charismatic leaders have finally attracted scholars’ attention. The most extraordinary Chinese Christian NRM in recent history (since the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace) is arguably the church of Eastern Lightning (better known as All Mighty God in China) that believes the Second Coming has taken place; Christ has been incarnated in China, in a woman. There are other extraordinary, although much less outrageous, Chinese Christian leaders worth studies as shown in Paul Chang’s works.

Redemptive societies, which gained currency in the late 19th century and 20th centuries are still an important members in NRMs today, for example, Yiguandao and Cihuitang (Compassion and Benevolence Hall). While there the redemptive societies are divers, a common characteristic of the redemptive societies is “their attempt to synthesize Chinese spiritual tradition into a single whole, structured within a single organization in which deity worship, spirit writing, study of the classics, philanthropy, moral exhortation, and body cultivation could be practiced under the same roof” (Vincent Goossaert and David Palmer). Redemptive societies like Yiguandao are popular Chinese communities in Singapore, Malay, Indonesia and Canada. China-grown NRMs among the overseas Chinese world is a new sub-filed in the study of Chinese religions.

Body-cultivation groups, conventionally known as qigong nowadays, are often centered around religion and spirituality, as discussed by David Palmer. The best known case is of course Falun Dafa. Several books on Falun Dafa have being published and there is enough material to provide a refreshing approach, although more theoretical analysis is needed.

Most Buddhist groups locate themselves within a recognized legitimate lineage. However, the very popular Zhaijiao (lit. “vegetarian religion”) in Taiwan is a direct offspring of the officially illicit sect in imperial China. There are also new groups created in the late 1980s like the True Buddha Sect (Zhenwufo zong) which are outside traditional lineages and have organized in overseas Chinese communities and deserves scholarly attention.

Islamic communities in China proper and the northwest in the early 20t century witnessed the rise of new interpretation and practices regarding scriptures and rituals. Articles exploring Islamic NRMs in China are encouraged.

Given the digital nature of the journal, there is no restrictions on the length of manuscripts, provided that the text is concise and comprehensive.

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Religions Office