Sunday, February 21, 2010

Rebecca Nedostup's "Superstitious Regimes"

Rebecca Nedostup is Associate Professor of History at Boston College.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Superstitious Regimes: Religion and the Politics of Chinese Modernity, and reported the following:
In Superstitious Regimes I look at the social and cultural impact of the near-simultaneous development in China of the concepts of nationalism and secularism -- by which I mean the idea that religion is a separate sphere of human pursuit from politics, philosophy, economics, etc. The idea that China’s fate in a social Darwinian struggle of nation-states depended on the beliefs of its citizens dated back at least to the turn of the 20th century, when the Chinese neologisms for “religion” and “superstition” were coined, hinting at the process of cultural critique that was already underway. After the fall of the imperial state in 1911, though, the architects of popular sovereignty began to question the public role of Chinese religion in very comprehensive and material fashion. My book looks at the social effects of the policies of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to regulate religion and eradicate superstition during the 1920s and 1930s. In many ways the Nationalists created the system of state control that remains in the PRC today.

In the most dramatic episodes in the book, party operatives and government officials smashed temples and their contents, arrested monks, and banned fireworks and parades on the lunar New Year. In response, blind fortunetellers organized support from Shanghai powerbrokers and published angry petitions, and displaced worshipers rioted and held government officials hostage. The incidents I recount on page 99, however, are less juicy but perhaps more representative of the everyday transformation of public life that the book portrays. On that page I describe two court cases in which people who had donated money to or oversaw the affairs of City God temples argued in vain to retain control of the shrines. Temples to local City Gods constituted prime real estate in county seats, large towns and cities; they were markets, meeting places and courts of popular recourse as well as ritual centers. Thus the Nationalists eagerly converted them into government and party offices or schools, or merely sold off the property.

Whereas in the late imperial era City God temples served as a nexus between local society and the state – very often, local donors paid for the shrines and their upkeep, but officials recognized and supported them – that bond was no longer of importance to the state. Using slim legal pretext, the government claimed both the property and the roles it once played in public life: economic, educative, social, moral and judicial. Even though much of what the Nationalists attempted during this time did not succeed as expected, this basic calculation about the role of the state and the shape of secular-nationalism seems very much to me to be one of their lasting legacies.
Learn more about Superstitious Regimes at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue