Not about religion: A reinterpretation of the Chinese rites controversy



Gao Z (2023) Not about religion: A reinterpretation of the Chinese rites controversy. Critical Research on Religion, 11 (3), pp. 332-348.

As one of the most significant events in the history of Sino-Western interaction and that of Chinese Christianity, the “Chinese Rites Controversy” has been the subject of numerous studies from both Western and Chinese scholars since the 1980s. When interpreting the rites issue of the Controversy, most studies see the crux of it as the “religious” nature of the Confucian rites. In contrast to this dominant understanding, this article argues that both the uncritical repetition of “religious” in the modern interpretations of the Controversy and its tacitly approved validity presuppose a universal and timeless conception of “religion.” Through a method of historicisation, i.e., examining carefully in what sense “religious” and related terms such as “civil,” “political,” “superstitious,” and “yinsi,” etc. were used in the original texts of the Controversy, this article intends to show that the use of “religious” by modern authors constitutes, though to a great extent unconsciously, a hermeneutical anachronism. The root of this anachronism lies in that the use “religious” as a generic adjective defining a distinct sphere of human enterprise that can be differentiated from those “non-religious” ones is a modern invention, and could find its place in neither encompassing Christian truth nor the tianxia order, nor even the fusion of these two horizons manifested in the awareness of literati Catholics, all of which defined the context in which the rites issue was debated during the Controversy.

Religious studies

Critical Research on Religion: Volume 11, Issue 3

Publication date31/12/2023
Publication date online30/09/2023
Date accepted by journal28/07/2023
PublisherSAGE Publications

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Dr Zhe Gao

Dr Zhe Gao

Senior Lecturer, Religion