A Review of Cultural Intermediaries and Globalization: Transforming Pentecostalism in Post-Mao China by Ke-Hsien Huang
The revitalization of religion in China since the 1980s, in particular the rise of Protestant Christianity, has attracted much scholarly attention from various disciplines. Scholars have increasing interest in situating the religious revival of China in the broader context of global religious change. Sociologist Ke-hsien Huang’s informative study of the contemporary transformation of a Chinese Pentecostal church, the True Jesus Church (hereafter the TJC), is in line with such efforts. But he pays special attention to the roles of “cultural intermediaries” in facilitating the embodiment of the global into the local. Being a Taiwanese with family background in the TJC, Huang was able to gain unique access to the TJC communities in China during his eight-month fieldwork across seventeen provinces (in particular Fujian and Henan) between 2010 and 2012.
Based on extensive interviews with TJC members and personal observations, Huang narrates four encounters against the backdrop of China’s opening to the world that, he believes, profoundly reshaped the TJC in Mainland China. They are: the interactions of coastal urban TJC communities with overseas TJC communities, especially those in Taiwan; the encounter of rural migrant workers with urban TJC church elites; the attempts of coastal urban TJC missionaries to reform rural counterparts; and the dynamics between TJC leaders and religious officers. Huang argues that these interactions propelled urban church elites to take a string of actions to democratize church management and improve its relations with the government. As a result, the TJC in Mainland China today, “which used to be stigmatized as superstitious, has been reformed as a more rationalized, more institutionalized and less self-closured group”(p. 3).
The dissertation opens with an introductory chapter that first situates Chinese Pentecostalism and the TJC in both domestic and global contexts since 1978 and then proposes a “cultural intermediary” perspective on global Pentecostalism.
Chapter 2 traces the history of the TJC, one of the earliest indigenous churches in China before the Reform period, to set the stage for its contemporary developments. It narrates the formation of the TJC amidst the independent church movement in early twentieth century China. In this chapter, Huang highlights the backgrounds of the TJC founding leaders in facilitating their role as “cultural brokers” to mediate the reception of Pentecostalism in China. On the one hand, being natives, they were better received among fellow Chinese than Western missionaries in the anti-imperialist atmosphere. On the other hand, many early leaders of the TJC were from poor rural families with little education, which made them more open to Pentecostal practices that were not welcomed by mainstream Chinese church leaders.
Chapter 3 then shifts to contemporary religious life in the TJC churches. Pentecostalism has undergone a process of indigenization since its arrival in China. This chapter showcases indigenized Pentecostal practices as observed in the TJC churches across China today. It identifies three major characteristics that inform the TJC. The first is faith-healing suffused with “local knowledge”, which is heavily relied on to attract new converters. The second is a string of discourses and practices implemented to distinguish the TJC from the more established churches by declaring the “trueness” of the TJC faith and practices. The third and most distinct feature of the TJC, Huang argues, is the absorption of Confucian elements (as opposed to popular beliefs, on which previous scholars focused) in the syncretism of Chinese Christianity.
Chapter 4 is primarily devoted to the role of overseas TJC communities, in particular those from Taiwan, in the transformation of the TJC in the coastal province of Fujian since the 1990s. In addition to the historical connections between the TJC in Fujian and Taiwan (as members of the global TJC family) and cultural affinity between Fujian and Taiwan, the Chinese government’s pursuit of both economical and political interests from bonds with Taiwan also gives Taiwanese TJC a relatively advantageous position in operating in Fujian. Huang thus conceptualizes Taiwan as a type of “regional hub” in mediating globalization. The impact of Taiwanese TJC communities on their counterparts in Fujian, according to Huang, is manifested in three ways: as “an initiator of the reform”; “a resource provider;” and “an endorser of legitimacy” (p. 69). The push from the overseas TJC such as Taiwan TJC, in addition to burgeoning local economy, Huang argues, is critical to the creation of a new TJC in Fujian that is increasingly urban-based, more open and democratized with the active participation of well-educated younger generations.
Both Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 explore the influence of urban TJC communities in transforming rural TJC communities, but they look into two different channels through which urban TJC communities wield their influence on rural counterparts. Chapter 5 surveys rural TJC followers who work in cities and participate in the activities of urban churches. Huang contends that exposure to the “new type of faith” in the urban church conceptually and practically influenced those rural followers of the TJC, even though they remained at the bottom of urban church hierarchy. Chapter 6 follows the steps of urban church leaders who, with a “sense of responsibility and superiority”(p. 210), are trying to help reform and build rural TJC communities across the country, using their financial and organizational resources. Against this background, Huang shows significant transformations that rural TJC congregations have undergone, including reforms in the practices of faith-healing, exorcism, prayer, and worship services.
Chapter 7 examines the TJC’s shifting relations with the state. It says that the TJC used to be aloof from making contacts with the government, but in recent decades, driven by pragmatic needs, it has been trying to forge a more constructive relationship with the state. Highlighting the role of new TJC leaders in this relation, Huang points out that these church leaders have strived to manage a balance between engaging with and distancing from the government. Using the case of the TJC, Huang concludes that the state-church relation in contemporary China is neither “antagonistic or [mutually] accommodating” as previous studies suggest but rather “of alternat[ing] cooperation and conflict” (p. 229).
This dissertation aims at not only speaking to the study of Chinese Christianity and Pentecostalism but also the fields of “sociology of culture, sociology of religion, and microsociology”(p. 4). Accordingly, in Chapter 8, the concluding chapter, Huang ambitiously proposes a “meso-level approach to cultural globalization” by generalizing the findings from previous chapters, and attempts to go beyond the dichotomy of micro-level and macro-level approaches in the sociological study of religious changes. The “meso-level approach” holds that “globalization usually proceeds in regions where changes happen in cultural-politics-embedded interactions between mediators and locals” (p. 270), rather than proceeding directly from the global to the local. Huang therefore stresses the significance of “mediating groups” and “the regional hub” in transmitting culture.
This dissertation adds to our understanding of the rich complexity of religious revival in contemporary China through various experiences of reinvention of the True Jesus Church across China’s rural and urban areas, north and south, as well as coastal and inland provinces. It also provides new perspectives for understanding the motor of religious revival in contemporary China by linking domestic (rural and urban; coastal and inland) church dynamics with mainland and overseas Chinese Christian community interactions—two processes that have previously tended to be examined separately. Huang’s dissertation would appeal to both specialists working on Chinese religions and global Christianity and those with a more general interest in rural-urban relations in contemporary China.
PhD, East Asian Languages and Civilizations
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Northwestern University. 2013. 460pp. Primary Advisor: Carolyn Chen
Image: Photo by the author