Is There Religious Fundamentalism in Chinese Culture? The Case of the i-kuan Tao in Taiwan Jen-Chieh Ting

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Since the 1980s, after retreating from the public sphere for a long time, religions have begun to reemerge in the global arena. International political conflicts and the religious ferments of revitalization are intertwining. The 911 attack drew the world’s attention to religious issues as never before. The word “fundamentalism” has become especially hot. It is believed that fundamentalists’ tenacious use of antimodern and violent means has brought the world to great disaster.

Fundamentalism can be referred to as a specific kind of religious and political orientation. Marty and Appleby (1911:ix) describe a variety of “family resemblance” of religious fundamentalism that appears in widely divergent cultures. This similarity includes, in particular, a reliance on religion as a source for identity; boundary setting that determines who belongs and who does not; dramatic eschatology; and the dramatization and mythologization of enemies (Marty & Appleby 1991:819-821)

The modern fundamentalist position developed for the first time in the United States in the late nineteenth century as a reaction to liberal Protestantism. A “Bible Conference” in 1895 issued a statement of belief affirming what were later called the five points of fundamentalism: the literal inerracy of the Bible, the divinity of Jesus Christ, the virgin birth, a substitutionary theory of the atonement, and the physical resurrection and bodily return of Christ (Marsden 2006:117).

“Fundamentalism” soon became a general term that can be applied to the similar attitude and orientation in all religions. The word covers religious phenomena that are much broader and not only happening in the United States. In their Fundamentalism Project, Marty and Appleby (1991) explore the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism from North America to Iran and even to Confucian East Asia.

If fundamentalism were only a religious ideology, it would be of little concern to anyone outside the particular religious tradition to which it belonged. What forces the attention of all of us on it is its desire to reshape the world at large, and that often leads to violence (Bruce 2000:8).

Geographically, fundamentalist influences are indeed represented almost everywhere on the inhabited globe. There is Islamic fundamentalism in North Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asian countries and fundamentalist conflict between Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism in India. Also South America has seen the rise of large Protestant evangelical fundamentalist movements on traditionally Roman Catholic soil. In the United States, fundamentalist parties, linking with conservatives, have formed movements like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. Today their influence is felt most at the local level, in anti-abortion, anti-pornography, pro-censorship, and pro-family activities.

Marty and Appleby concluded their project on global fundamentalism by explaining it as a reaction to modernity. Fundamentalists “no longer perceive themselves as reeling under the corrosive effects of secular life: on the contrary, they perceive themselves as fighting back, and doing so rather successfully” (Marty & Appleby 1991:ix). In short, intertwining with the complex of international political conflict and racial confrontation, in the name of counteracting the influence of modernity, a group of people may be interested in the renewed use of religious symbols, in order to attain specific political purposes. Then, in the name of traditional religions, this group of people could possibly break into the public areas.

This new cultural and political response, even though it appropriates major symbols from established religions, still its prevalence should be understood as a late modern or postmodern phenomenon (Hinnells 1995: 178).

Fundamentalism could appear in any religious tradition. However, if one can return to the core of a specific religion, usually we assume that there does exist a coherent, readily identifiable canon, or at least a single God within this religious tradition. It can be seen obviously in Qur’anic Islam, biblical Christianity, and Judaism, where there are standard texts and the belief in a single God. Fundamentalism may be harder to find in other religious traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. Nevertheless, in the modern world arena, both Buddhist and Hindu fundamentalists appear, in terms of an aggressive and intolerant religious exclusivists.

For Buddhism, indeed a person who would strictly interpret traditional Buddhist texts such as the Tripitaka would not find any excuse to resort to violence. Buddha preached compassion and wisdom in every sutra, and so when the sutra are interpreted strictly they should lead one to follow the nonviolent noble eight-fold path. However, aggressive forms of Buddhism exist, many where, such as in Sri Lanka (Bartholomeusz & de Silva 1998) and Bhutan, so-called Buddhist fundamentalism has imposed and prescribed strict adherence to the set of Buddhist dogmas and beliefs among the Buddhist populations. As an aggressive conservative movement, it excludes and expels those who do not share its conservative faith or dogmas. For example, as a Sri Lanka historian, K.M. de Silva (1986:31), emphasizes:

In the Sinhala language, the words for nation, race and people are practically synonymous, and a multiethnic or multicommunal nation or state is incomprehensible to the popular mind. The emphasis on Sri Lanka as the land of the Sinhala Buddhists carried an emotional popular appeal, compared with which the concept of a multiethnic polity was a meaningless abstraction.
With regard to Hinduism, a nineteenth-century reformist movement called the Arya Samai (Society of Aryans) sought to cleanse modern Hindu thought and practice of unnecessary clutter that had contaminated the tradition over the centuries. They society condemned not only Muslims and Christians but members of various Hindu denominations as well. Another fundamentalist-style force in recent times has been the political faction called Bharatiya Janata. In 1992 the party supported agitation by the militant Vishva Hindu Parishad (Universal Hindu Assembly) to destroy a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya. They wanted to replace the mosque with a temple to Rama and to rededicate the site as Rama’s birthplace, the area having been desecrated centuries before by Muslims. Also, the VHP throws its considerable weight behind political candidates who promise to do whatever is necessary to keep power in the hands of Hindus (Renard 2002:266).

Now, compare those fundamentalist ferments with religious revitalization of Chinese tradition. In the modern world arena, does any Chinese fundamentalism or fundamentalist-like group appear?

Indeed, after 1911’s republican revolution in Mainland China, the Qing empire collapsed, and soon many Confucian movements rose up. The purpose of these movements was to establish Confucianism as the state religion and to restore the traditional Chinese moral standards among citizens. However, due to the lack of religious leadership, weak organizations, and too much conflict among intellectuals’ visions of restoring a traditional thought as a religion, all these movements failed (Qiu 邱 2001:57). Besides, these top-down movements were only promoted by a few intellectuals and did not have any solid social base.

Moving to modern-day East Asia, in Marty and Appleby’s reports on global fundamentalism Tu Wei-ming (1991) addresses the Confucian arena in the section entitled “Confucian Revival in Industrial East Asia.” Through the case of East Asian governments’ boosting Confucianism after the 1980s, Tu wanted to know whether this promotion may be related to the recent economic prosperity of East Asia. Tu (1991:746) starts his project by arguing that:

the Confucian revival thus raises issues familiar to scholars of fundamentalism, even as its motivation, justification, and interpretation suggest that its overall spiritual orientation is significantly different from that in Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism. Furthermore, East Asian Confucian revivals in the twentieth century are frequently led by sophisticated intellectuals and are often supported by the central government. While these revivals may on the surface have little to do with mass movements, secret societies, and subversive organizations, they signify a general pyshocultural pattern in East Asia in its response to the impact of the West.
However, according to Tu, the overall picture of whether Confucianism has revivals in industrial East Asia, by and large, is not very clear, at least, it is hard to say that industrial booming in East Asia is benefited from Confucian ethics.

Nevertheless, Tu does argue that the core values in East Asia are still Confucian in nature (1991:773). He adds:

the designation of East Asia as “Confucian” in the ethico-religious sense is comparable in validity to employing “Christian,” “Islamic,” “Hindu,” and Buddhist” in identifying regions such as Europe, the Middle East, India, or Southeast Asia. Notwithstanding the crudeness and inadequacy of such denotations, they give us a sense of the life-orientation, which can be otherwise easily relegated to the background as a residual category (Tu 1993:218).
Thus even though Confucianism may differ from those institutional kinds of established religions, yet it is an important value system comparable to world religions, and after it absorbs the modern spirit and adapts to the current world arena, there could come a new era of Confucian revivals (Tu 2001:81-87)。

For Tu, the future of Confucianism is not inside China; rather, the future of Confucianism depends on how people in Western capitalism resolve their cultural deadlock. To this extent, a multicultural reflection is necessary, and a Confucian revival is both functionally necessary and historically inevitable. This Confucian revival, in Tu’s thinking, of course will be led by intellectuals (Tu 1996:436-438).

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