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

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Grassroots Fundamentalism

If we perceive fundamentalists are those who are interested in appropriating and renewing the use of traditional cultural symbols in order to react to modernity, we may find that in any territories or racial groups, if their histories long have been associated with a specific religious tradition, once they experience a certain kind of economic difficulty or cultural frustration following modernity, the fundamentalist kind of cultural responses will be inevitable.

Even though India has a very diffused1 form of traditional religion, it may have difficulties finding a coherent base for fundamentalist response. Yet under certain historical circumstances, since the chance arose, an inclination toward Hindu fundamentalism has been elicited. Observing contemporary Hindu fundamentalist movements, Talbot (1991) concludes that they are due to the fact that the majority of Hindus regard the state as endlessly favoring the minorities’ interests at the expense of their own, whereas the minorities see the state as failing to afford them protection. Therefore the political alienation of the Hindu majority has caused Hindus to respond by supporting militant Hindu organizations. In this case, we can see that even without a coherent organizational form and text, as the material and mental needs arise religions can be politicized into, for example, a Hindu fundamentalism to serve a specific collective function.

In parallel to traditional Hinduism, the faith of the majority in traditional China has neither a fixed organizational form nor a commonly accepted coherent text. The core of the mainstream religions in traditional China is less readily observable than the institutional kind of religion. In terms of “diffused religion,” Yang (1961:294) explains that Chinese mainstream religions are in a pervasive and diffused form. With regard to content, Mou (牟1995:82) has labeled this diffused kind of Chinese mainstream religion as the “traditional Chinese patriarchal religion”(Ting 2004:65-66).

Indeed, in traditional China, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism all are just threads of one coherent, mainstream, and diffused kind of “traditional Chinese patriarchal religion.” Yet, officially, the imperial order is still formally maintained by Confucianism, mainly through Confucian mechanisms in the education and examination systems, the rites of heaven worship, and most important, the Confucian ethical codes of san-gang-wu-chang (三綱五常, “the three cardinal guides and the five constant virtues”).

Looking at this historical and cultural background, once the majority of Chinese feel the need to renew their cultural tradition, in order to protect their own collective interests and to heal their ethnic alienation, what should they do? How do the majority of Chinese protect their interests and keep hold of their cultural identity? What kinds of cultural symbols could be appropriated and manipulated for specific social and political purposes?

In the previous section we saw Tu’s argument that due to capitalist civilization’s cultural deadlock the restoring of Confucianism is either functionally necessary or historically inevitable. However, this kind of revitalization of Confucianism, colored by a highbrow intellectual expectation, without paying too much attention to the mass-based, grassroots, local Confucian effervescences, sounds inadequate.

In this paper, I will turn the focus to the mass level. If fundamentalism is a kind of popular cultural response to modernity, and if certain historical conditions are sufficient to elicit mass-based grassroots fundamentalism, then maybe this general category of fundamentalism really can be applied to China’s religious tradition. However, we also expect that, due to China’s special social and cultural configuration, the ambiguous feeling of Confucianism toward spiritual practices, and the complicated relationship among different cultural agents within the field of cultural hegemony in China, fundamentalism in China may have its own special forms. It is worthwhile for us to examine and reflect on these issues a further.

Here, I choose the case of the I-Kuan Tao (see Seiwert 2003:427), currently the largest sectarian group in Taiwan (an updated yet underestimated official figure shows that in 1995, the I-Kuan Tao in Taiwan had approximately 942,000 members; see Statistical Abstract of the Interior of the Republic of China 1996:117), to explore these issues. We can lable the I-Kuan Tao as cultural fundamentalism in the modern world arena, in which local people use the fundamentalist package as the solution for each individual’s life problems and as a strategy to construct the collective’s renewed identity. Through a study on the development of a popular sectarian group, the I-Kuan Tao in Taiwan, we may shed light on what the cultural trajectory of fundamentalism actually looks like within a locality embedded with Chinese culture.

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