An Interview with David A Palmer

David A Palmer is an associate professor in sociology at the University of Hong Kong. He was a keynote speaker at the August 2013 conference Religion and Locality in the Chinese World (a video of his public lecture ‘Locality, Globalisation and the Construction of Sacrality: Transnational encounters at Huashan’ can be found here). After the conference Dr Palmer sat down with Paul Farrelly to discuss his research on religion in China.—The Editors


David Palmer

Can you say a bit about your personal background as an academic and why you started studying religion?

The way I ended in academia studying religion in China was a bit of a roundabout route in that my undergraduate degree at McGill was in anthropology. My mentor there was Ken Dean who was working on Daoism, so I guess that triggered certain interests. After I finished my first degree, I wasn’t really planning, consciously anyway, to study religion further. But what I did want to do, having done a degree in anthropology in which I had been looking at culture, was to look at the inner lives of people. So I actually wanted to do graduate studies in psychology.

I went to Paris where there was a school of ethnopsychiatry at the University of Paris, working on the clinical application of anthropology to migrants of different cultural backgrounds. So I went to see Tobie Nathan who runs the clinic and research centre. I told him I was planning to go to China and asked him what I should do if I wanted to study with him. He said ‘OK, go to China and become the apprentice of a traditional healer there. When you come back, we can discuss the possibility of doing a PhD.’

I went to China in 1993 as an English teacher near Chengdu and started to see what was going on in terms of traditional healing. Within days of arriving in China I was invited to qigong healing sessions. And I realised that this was a big thing and also seemed to be an interesting modern iteration of traditional Chinese healing. In my masters degree I investigated this further thus beginning my research on qigong. For my PhD I switched to work with Kristofer Schipper who was at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. In those days he gave a seminar on Chinese ethnopsychiatry but his specialty and the training he was giving were in the anthropology and history of Daoism and Chinese religion. When I started my research I saw myself as doing medical anthropology but I increasingly realised that the phenomenon I was researching could not be separated from Chinese religion. In fact, while I was doing my PhD research in the late 1990s, the whole qigong movement was becoming more and more religious, year after year. At the end, the Falun Gong 法輪功 issue really woke everyone up to the fact that religiosity was there under the surface in China and nobody had been paying attention to it. Everyone was shocked and surprised when Falun Gong erupted. This was really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of all the different kinds of religiosity that were starting to bubble under the surface in China.

The Religious Question in Modern China

Your recent book The Religious Question in Modern China (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011, co-authored with Vincent Goossaert) is comprehensive; someone told me nobody needs to write about this topic for a while as it has now all been covered! In writing it and as an anthropologist of contemporary religious practices, was there anything in particular that you really learnt about religion in China that you were not aware of, especially through looking at the historical aspects more deeply?

One is that there were so many interesting things going on in the Republican period in terms of religion. In fact many of the issues that we have today are exactly the same issues which appeared and were being grappled with in the Republican period. In many ways we are now going in the opposite direction. The Republican period was a time of creating certain categories and regimes of administering religion, and finding boundaries and exclusions and so on. And there was a lot of grappling with these concepts in order to create a whole system of the state control of religion and the transformation of certain types of popular culture. We are grappling with those concepts now but it is the other way around. In other words, the whole system of conceptualizing and managing religion, which began to be worked out in the early twentieth century and that was fully implemented under the Peoples’ Republic, is unraveling. We are going through the same debates but in the other direction, starting often with the realisation that modernist categorisations and regulatory frameworks don’t really work. So the Republican period is a very interesting period to study to give us a perspective on what is going on today.

The other thing was redemptive societies. If there has been one thing that has almost been completely neglected in past scholarship and which is emphasised in this book—the topic occupies the middle of the narrative—is how a whole wave of new religious movements appeared in the Republican period. These groups tried to reorganise China’s religious traditions, to find their points of compatibility and resistance in relation to the transformations of modernity, and they tried to combine and synthesize China’s various religious traditions. Prasenjit Duara called these ‘redemptive societies’ and previously they had been looked at as secret societies or sectarian movements, but their place in the overall religious landscape had not really been considered. It turns out that during the Republican period, they were really the largest organised religious groups in China. Examples would be the Universal Morality Society 萬國道德會, the School of the Tao 道院 or Fellowship of Goodness 同善社, or Yiguandao 一貫道.

These groups had tens of millions of adherents and when the PRC was established in 1949, one of the first mass campaigns the party launched was to eradicate those movements, which shows their size and influence on Chinese society at the time. That’s an aspect of the history of twentieth century China that had been completely ignored in the past by scholars of modern religion or of modern China in general. And yet, these redemptive societies were just one expression, in Republican China, of a certain undercurrent of Chinese salvationism, body cultivation, moral teachings and so on, which keeps reappearing in different periods in different forms and guises. In a sense the redemptive society reappeared in the eighties and nineties in the form of qigong and it will undoubtedly reappear in the future. These undercurrents of religiosity in China cannot simply be pinned down as a fixed form of a single organised religion. Nor can they be pinned down as simply local temple cults or folk religion.

For example, with Christianity and Buddhism, you have a single identifiable organised religion with its name, its scriptural tradition and a visible continuity going back at least 2000 years. Or with a village, you have its temples and festivals. Those customs do evolve over time but you can be sure that over the centuries, a village has its identifiable and continuous temples and local cults that are closely integrated with the local social structure. So those are relatively easy to grasp, in a sense, but here I am talking about something else. There are these ever-dynamic constellations of practices of the body and morality, of charity and of universal salvation, and of syncretism. In different historical contexts they appear in different forms, spread from one region to another, and then they subside. Transmissions occur and a new socio-political configuration arises in which they resurface. But they do so in a different form that reflects that particular moment in history. So when Vincent and I were working on this book, it was one area that I focused on a lot and it became one of our main findings.

Another thing I would mention is the role of Christianity; in the book we talk about a ‘Christian/secular’ model. When you talk about the role and influence of Christianity, you not only talk about the number of Christians, which at the end of the nineteenth century or in the Republican period was growing but still quite small. Nowadays, of course, it is growing and doing so very fast. So people are paying attention to that and rightly so. But then there is the institutional influence of Christianity which from the early twentieth century started to completely shape the religious field in China, in terms of elites having a Christian education and adopting concepts derived from Christianity to form a model of what a religion should be. Religious policies were also derived from these models. Thus other religions such as Buddhism, Daoism and Islam, as well as redemptive societies, were modelling themselves on what they saw as what a religion should be like in the modern world, taken from a Christian model. So in the early twentieth century even though the actual number of Christians was small, the influence of Christianity was enormous.

Another interesting dimension was the interplay between Chinese elites, colonial rulers and religion in Chinese colonial entities. Looking at Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, even the Philippines, Vietnam or Indonesia, we see different societies which have an entirely Chinese population or large Chinese ethnic minorities which were under Japanese, English, Portuguese, Dutch, French or American colonial rule. In many ways there were parallels in these societies with what was going on in Mainland China but there were some differences too. It was really interesting to put all of that in the one narrative to see how it played out in the book.

Cover image_FINAL

Getting back to one of your points where you talk about undercurrents in China and religions reappearing when the conditions are right, is there anything that you have seen, like the qigong boom and bust or the renewed rise of Christianity, that suggests such a current is reemerging at the moment? Or are there developments that we might want to look for in the future?

Now I think it becomes harder and harder to answer that type of question. My sense is that Chinese society is becoming more fragmented than what it was before. In the eighties and nineties, for example, where you had these ‘fevers’, the entire society became caught up in one thing. But now it seems that Chinese society has become much more differentiated and the situation has become far more complex. In a sense, this fragmentation is completely normal. China is a huge country and it was incredible how, in the Maoist and early post-Mao period everyone was on the same page in some sense, with an incredibly high level of integration. Everyone was caught in the same process. I think a holistic view of contemporary China is becoming more and more difficult nowadays.

Within different religious communities, the fragmentation is accelerating. This is partly the result of the overall social trend where there are groups of people who are better informed and more empowered and capable of doing their own thing. On the one hand, they are going in their own directions. On the other hand, because of the general sociopolitical context that prevents strong organisations such as religious institutions from forming, there is actually no real control of religion. Although the state wants to control things, the result is a lack of control because there are no strong religious organisations. People talk about sixty or eighty million Christians in China, but nobody knows how many there really are. Those Christians belong to tens of thousands of churches, most of which are unregistered. Many of them, from the perspective of institutional churches, are heterodox. There are rural churches that merge characteristics of Chinese popular religion but in the city you have intellectual churches that are acting more like Western civil society organisations, through activism and so on. The orientations are so different. In Buddhism the same thing is going on with fragmentation. And there is the possibility of combinations between all these different things. Qigong has gone bust, as you said, but it is still going on albeit less visibly and it is becoming more explicitly associated with Daoism. Buddhist groups are also directly involved in the promotion of Confucianism, such as Confucian scripture recitation. The nexus of this spread of different practices of Confucian cultivation, Buddhist meditation and traditional Daoist practices, all of this is drifting, mixing and matching. But will it be like in the past, where there was one wave going on after another? Or is it an increasingly fragmented phenomenon, with more and more groups going in different directions and combining things in different ways? This is difficult to say.