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University of Chicago Press


Shifts in terminology may be harbingers of a revolutionary new paradigm or a repackaging of older dilemmas. Recently some terminological rearrangements have emerged with sufficient consistency in studies of Chinese religion and culture to warrant examination of their implicit assumptions and practical ramifications. In brief, the trend in the study of Chinese religion, and in the history of religions generally, has been to talk of "popular religion," "local religion," or, most recently, "popular religious cultures" instead of "folk" and "elite" religions or "great" and "little" traditions.' Certainly, the problems besetting the older terms have been amply debated and demonstrated. However, are the new terms more effective replacements? That is, do they actually transcend the persistent assumptions of their predecessors, enabling us to perceive and analyze dynamics barely visible on earlier hori- zons? From the standpoints of five recent books on Chinese religion and culture, the horizon certainly begins to look less familiar and more promising. Although these books may not constitute a revolution, both their modest revisions as well as their daring near misses suggest that the study of Chinese religion is undergoing a fascinating shift. There is a new maturity in the variety of disciplines contributing perspectives and data to an open dialogue on basic issues. There is also a new deftness and simplicity in the focus on religious phenomena, a focus that does not isolate religion for the sake of a false clarity but rather explores religion as fully embedded in society and culture. Finally, one theme is central to all of these books-to uncover "popular religion" and to analyze the relationship between religion and culture implied by such a phenomenon. By exploring the treatments of this theme, I hope to discern the direction of these works as a whole and to begin to assess the innovations they introduce.


Copyright © 1984 The University of Chicago Press. Reprinted with permission.

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