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


Summary, Discussion, and Conclusion



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Summary, Discussion, and Conclusion

Fundamentalists are those who are interested in appropriating and renewing the use of traditional cultural symbols in order to counteract the influence of modernity as well as to protect themselves from imperialists’ invasion. Within a specific religious tradition, fundamentalists usually claim that there is an absolutely sacred authority in the perennial tradition that can resist external corrosion. In the revelational kind of religion, the monotheist religion, and the religion with a commonly accepted canon, because of their having a readily identifiable sacred core, we may expect that the fundamentalist response will be more easily to be adduced.

In many circumstances, the tendency toward fundamentalism is easily intertwined with strategic political mobilization. However, even within the same tradition, once the fundamentalist response is elicited, there may be quite a wide spectrum of variation, beginning from the fundamentalists’ choosing to be self-isolated, to the other extreme, fundamentalists who may accept the legitimacy of taking violence as the necessary means to protect the religious and moral truth (ter Harr 2003:4).

Several dimensions may affect the configuration of a specific fundamentalist movement. For example: (1) The previous religious tradition is diffused or institutional, where in the diffused tradition, every time the core is revitalized it needs a redefinition of what the cultural core actually is. (2) The background civil setting. In a rather mature democratic regime, even when gradually becoming militant fundamentalists still can be led into the public debate rather than going directly into violent action. Or, in other places, such as Taiwan, people at the grassroots level are getting used to limiting their influences on the nonpolitical sphere, thus fundamentalism could be just a means for local empowerment rather than direct political mobilization. (3) Who is the main agency initiating the fundamentalism? The state? The clergy? The cultural elite? The majority who feel marginalized by the secular state? Or the minority who think to take the violent means to extend their global political influence? The variation in these dimensions always affect what a fundamentalist movement actually looks like.

Regarding the fundamentalism in the Chinese cultural tradition, in the current global arena we do see governmentally mobilized Confucian revitalization in several East Asian countries, such as Korea and Singapore, as well as Taiwan. The purpose behind this for sure, is not really cultural concern; rather, it is economically driven. However, this kind of top down nonspontaneous fundamentalism has neither long-standing influence nor much effect in solving each individual’s real life problems.

In Taiwan, however, since the 1980s, a bottom up sectarian group called the I-Kuan Tao has continually claimed that it is embodying the true Tao Lineage in the Chinese cultural tradition. Even under the very harsh control of martial law between 1945 and 1987, it gradually prospered, and now with more than 1,000,000 participants it has already become the biggest sectarian group ever in Chinese history.

Can we say that the I-Kuan Tao is a fundamentalist group? And, of so, what does its success teaches us about Chinese fundamentalism?

To generate a bottom-up Chinese fundamentalism in modern times in a Chinese cultural arena, due to the traditional configuration of Chinese culture, as well as the ways different cultural agencies play their roles in the traditional cultural sphere, we found that there are some obvious internal difficulties involved:
1). If fundamentalism is to return to the cultural core, then looking at the cores of Chinese culture from its surface, as the Confucian scriptures have shown, they are only some moral precepts and life philosophy and have never been a coherent entity of religious teachings. Thus the question may be raised: To what what extent can we say that we have really found the cultural core, and where it exists?
2). Before the Ming dynasty in China, with regard to the competition for of cultural hegemony, in addition to the emperor in his role as the representative of the mandate of heaven, the most powerful cultural and political position, there would always be the Confucian intellectuals. These intellectuals were able to engage in literary composition and creation. They were the main legitimate incumbents of Chinese culture at that time. Since the mid-Ming, sectarian movements started to compete with the cultural orthodoxy represented by the Confucian intellectuals. Yet under enduring brutal persecutions, even though these movements mobilized vast constituencies and social resources, they never attained their final goal (to build an egalitarian utopia without exploitation) and never had a chance to wash out the mark of cultural inferiority and social marginality.
That is, due to both the lack of religious quality in the Chinese cultural core as well as the commoners’ previous marginal position in the culture and limited cultural resources, it is almost beyond possibility to see a fundamentalist movement starting from the populace in the Chinese cultural area.

However, during the Opium War (1839), China was bombed, opeing its doors to foreign powers. Things changed.

For China, a series of international failures were followed continuously by a series of internal reforms and revolutions. Then, under the name of cultural and political reform, Western technologies and institutions replaced the traditional education system, bureaucracy, and all classical knowledge. Not only the traditional Chinese culture retreated, the previous main agency of Chinese culture, the imperial court and Confucian intellectuals, also retreated.

Therefore, in China, or say in the areas embedded with the Chinese culture, now is the first time that the cultural agencies with a high social position are no longer willing to protect the traditional cultural resources. Or they no longer think that the traditional cultural resources can enhance or embellish their social status. Regarding the populace, or say the popular sectarian groups, they are now the only cultural agency left still willing to be associated with the already marginalized traditional culture. And since now only very few people in the high position still care about the traditional culture, these sectarian groups then can appropriate and manipulate the traditional cultural symbols without many others interfering.

Before, the repository of traditional culture was dominated by the emperors and Confucian intellects and was associated with the maintaining of cultural hegemony. Now the repository of traditional culture is no longer dominated by the upper classes, and it even could become the symbolic emporium offering resources for the subordinated class’s self-empowerment and identity construction.

As the subordinated class wants to appropriate and consume the classic symbolic repository, for whatever reasons, at least these proletarians transiting from a traditional agrarian society prefer a mystical and supernatural power style rather than the style presented in the version edited by the Song Confucians, which emphasized abstract principles without presuming the existence of any spiritual beings. However, the exact problem is that the classical scriptures in China, especially the Confucian scriptures, were never revelational texts. At best, they were only prepared by Song (宋) Confucians' “anthropocosmic vision,” which may have allowed the space for Confucianism to develop into a revelational kind of religion.

Now once the populace has a need to revitalize the traditional cultural symbols, if they want these symbols colored by religious authority and deities’ endorsement, they have no choice but to paint the old symbols in a new color. If fundamentalism means a new painting of old symbols in Chinese culture it happens in dual procedures. First it needs to transform the traditional cultural symbols into religious codes, then it needs to associate these codes with the modern arena.

Thanks to a lack of a clearly defined cultural core in Chinese lands, at least there was no fixed canon. This situation may be a major barrier to generating a cultural fundamentalism, yet it also opens a large gray area now allowing those previously on the cultural margin to do what they want.

In reformulating the cultural core----reediting the traditional scriptures, generating new scriptures backed by astonishing magic such as the xunzhongxun, renewing the dispensationalist cosmology, asking legendary deities and previous patriarchs to descend to this human realm----all are parts of the quasi-fundamentalist project in Chinese culture.

Although in the monotheist tradition, with a fixed historical archive such as the Bible, only a one-time revelation is allowed in the history, even though it still leaves possibilities for interpretations. Under this religious background, once one chooses to be a fundamentalist, sticking to the principle of literal inerrancy, one begins to follow the black-and-white rules of what is right and wrong. Through this principle, people can also renavigate themselves through the decayed and chaotic world.

In contrast to the above-mentioned “textual fundamentalism,” we may label the I-Kuan Tao as “cultural fundamentalism,” in which followers adhere to a set of fundamental principles defined or redefined by cultural essence rather than by the strict wording of the Scripture. Under this cultural fundamentalism, the I-Kuan Tao allows for multiple revelations. Every time there is a need, new scriptures can descend, in the name of corresponding to the “Heaven Tao.” This scriptural redundancy of course may water down the authority of the scripture. However, this is not the point; the point is that these “disposable scriptures” allow each individual to get a position within the interconnected spiritual network and within the grand salvational schema. We notice especially that these revelational texts (xunwen) must be generated in the setting of the collective rituals, which belong to every participating follower.

However, even under this “multiple revelations” approach, we cannot say that the I-Kuan Tao followers do not belong to the camp of fundamentalism, since these followers still take a strict black-and-white perspective in perceiving the things happening in this world and continually construct a cultural boundary for self-protection.

Nonetheless, this attitude of black-and-white, in the I-Kuan Tao, is always joined together with a feeling of emotional empowerment. In addition to the universal feeling of exaltation stimulated by the fundamentalist stance, in the I-Kuan Tao, the followers’ feeling of exaltation still has been aggrandized by other factors.

To put it simply, in Chinese culture, now is the first time that commoners, previously the cultural marginality, are allowed to be in the position of mastering the cultural rudder derived from the traditional cultural symbols. To master this cultural rudder, in addition to venting the feeling of outrage and frustration stimulated by Western imperialism, is itself is a novel experience of gratification.

For the first time, both the country’s political leaders and the intellectuals are discarding the type of cultural hegemony delineated by the traditional cultural symbols, and they are even unaware of how powerful these cultural weapons still could be. Now from these commoners we hear the exclamation: “Hurrah! We majority in the population at last have become the cultural orthodoxy—no one can marginalize us now.” Also: “the mandate of heaven at last corresponds to the place it ought to be, the honest, simple, and unadulterated commoners!” And: “The last chance of salvation soon will come. The truth will manifest itself. We’ll see!”

All fundamentalists take a perspective of black-and-white. However, fundamentalists in the Chinese cultural background, behind the shield of black-and-white, are involved in much more complicated mechanisms----we are not saying they are subtler however----to demarcate the line between black and white.

This is because there is no fixed canon of Chinese classical scriptures. When people want to go back to the cultural core, it is not a natural and straightforward thing. For sure, Confucian scriptures such as the Four Books definitely belong to the cultural core accepted by all Chinese. Yet the Taoist Daode jing and the Buddhist Heart Sutra, for whatever reasons, both have gained the status of scripture in Chinese culture.

To return to the Chinese cultural core, thus, is not just to return to one or two scriptures, or one or two religious schools; rather, it is to return to a crystal prism in which different angles may reflect out differently colored beams of light. At least, retrospectively, as Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism all have been prevailed in Chinese history and Chinese lands, most Chinese commoners thus would like to admit that all Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist scriptures belong to the same culture core. And actually, we do find out that these designations of this cultural core are various but have similar meanings, such as the Taoist designation “Tao,” the Buddhist designation “buddha nature,” the Confucian designation li (理, “the ordering principles of all that exists”), and the popular phrase “your original face” (benlai mianmu本來面目), and so forth. Among them, “Tao” becomes the most popular candidate and the designation used not only by Taoists. Here, the name of the I-Kuan Tao, literally meaning ”Way of Penetrating Unity” does embody this long-standing popular tradition. In the popular designation, Tao is the penetrating principle of everything. Of course, this Tao now can be referred to as a crystal prism in which Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism each form only one reflected beam of light from this cultural core.

Nevertheless, it would be totally a mistake to assume that, as a Chinese person accepts all religious teachings reflecting out from the same Tao, he or she does so just out of a naïve feeling of wanting to embrace all of the good things of the culture. That is, according to Jordan and Overmyer (1986:10), the syncretism in China comes from local people’s needs for democratic participation, thus they want to remove the cultural barriers between different traditions and want to join the three best traditions (Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism) in China at the same time. Here, I would like to argue, Jordan and Overmyer mistakenly take the result as the cause, thus drawing a wrong conclusion.

Of course commoners want to remove out the cultural barriers between different traditions. Yet in Chinese culture, the cause for this syncretism may be due more to China’s own cultural configuration than to preference of popular mentality. We see that in the Chinese cultural roof, the three pillars of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism are complementary and interdependent. Confucianism offers the cultural resources in guiding social organization and personal interaction, Buddhism offers the cultural resources for supernatural explanations and transcendental thinking, and Taoism enchants this world with a rather delicate view of organic interconnectedness and various thaumaturgical means for manipulating situations. If we lack any one pillar of the three, there would be not enough to bolster up the cultural roof that could cover all commoners’ social and religious needs.

Nevertheless, since these three are all parts of the same cultural roof, or say are beams of light reflecting out from the same crystal prism, the cultural core, at least functionally thinking, is only the one rather than the three. To this sense, I would like to argue, both the academically and commonly used term “syncretism” actually is not a good phrase to depict Chinese mentality; rather, “converging-ism” maybe better. Whereas the former makes different religious teachings or cultural elements equal on the same scale, the latter emphasizes a cultural core with the quality of both transcendentality and immanence that could encompass multifarious cultural elements.
A final thought: If fundamentalism is elicited from one’s feeling of belonging to the cultural orthodoxy, it should be popular in the place connected most to with the cultural orthodoxy. Now why it is in Taiwan, the place very much departing from the central land of China, that we see a most vibrant fundamentalist movement arising?

A simple answer would be: This kind of sectarian movement just cannot be legalized under the Chinese Communist regime, therefore Taiwan is one of the very few places left that could allow this kind of fundamentalist orientation to develop.

A more refined explanation: Fundamentalism is about the “construction of the feeling of orthodoxy being marginalized.” So, the methods and technology involved in the process of collective interaction and symbolic construction, people’s feeling of being marginalized in facing cultural imperialism or secular modernity, and people’s awareness of their belonging to or being possibly accessible to the religious orthodoxy, all these three factors are crucial in fostering people’s fundamentalist tendency.

For example, in discussing U.S. Fundamentalism, Bruce mentioned (2000:117):


The strength of the religious tradition is one consideration; the extent to which social change bears directly on a population is another. So US fundamentalism began in the north-east, where the press of modernization was felt first, but found its stronghold in the southern states, where Protestantism was strongest.
Referring to the above thinking, and considering the case of the I-Kuan Tao in Taiwan, we would argue that:


  1. Among those areas embedded with Chinese culture, Taiwan is the place where the press of modernization was felt much earlier than it in the Mainland China. Therefore, the newly experienced social change may bring Taiwanese to an earlier step toward cultural fundamentalism.




  1. However, the earlier American Fundamentalist leaders, as described by Lechner (1998:198), were by and large highly educated urbanites, several of whom came from elite intuitions. In the areas embedded with Chinese culture, as we have described, the sectarian movements colored by fundamentalism mainly came from the formerly marginal cultural position—that of the commoners. Besides, this is also the first time for these commoners to have a chance to become the main agency, or say the last remaining agency, to master the cultural rudder of traditional Chinese cultural symbols. Since this sectarian properity was started from a marginal cultural position, therefore in Taiwan it would not be at odds with Taiwan’s marginal location within the Chinese culture. It is just this marginality of Taiwan and the feeling of “Taiwan under siege” that resonate with the general feeling of “orthodoxy being marginalized.” Besides, since these previously marginalized commoners are now getting a chance to talk, why cannot a marginalized Taiwan now be the representative of true Chinese culture, especially since Mainland China has already become the enemy of traditional Chinese culture?

3) Last but not least, the modernization of Taiwan also allows commoners in Taiwan to

have the means to construct a vitalistic participatory group empowered by the feeling

of linking to the Tao Lineage. These advanced means for collective interaction and symbolic construction at least include the vast amount of publishing, media use, public transportation, telecommunication, and so forth.


To sum up: On one hand, we witness a bottom-up Chinese colonization of Taiwan. Since the I-Kuan Tao was brought by Chinese mainlanders to Taiwan, it has always had a strong bent toward the Chinese Tao Lineage. On the other hand, the I-Kuan Tao has shown how much construction can do, and how attractive the feeling of belonging to the orthodoxy actually is; therefore commoners in the “marginal land” of Taiwan would like to surrender themselves to this imported “orthodox Tao Lineage.”



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