The article “Modalities of Doing Religion,” written by Adam Yuet Chau, in the volume Chinese Religious Life (Oxford University Press, 2011), presents a model for understanding religious practice in Chinese culture by means of five modalities: the discursive or scriptural, based on the composition and use of religious texts; the personal-cultivational, involving a long-term interest in cultivating and transforming oneself; the liturgical, which makes use of procedures conducted by priests, monks or other ritual specialists; the immediate-practical, aiming at quick results making use of using religious or magical techniques; and the relational, emphasizing the relationship between humans, deities, ghosts, and ancestors as well as among people in families, villages, and religious communities. These five modalities cut across different religious traditions and may be applied to the anthropological study of Buddhism, Daoism, folk religion, Islam, Christianity, or Confucianism.

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Adam Yuet Chau: The five modalities of doing religion

Adam Yuet Chau, the author of the above article, offers a new perspective of Chinese religion. He says, “I found that it is not helpful to look at Chinese religion as Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, and Christianity”; instead, Chau constructed the “five modalities” of doing religion – (1) discursive/scriptural, (2) personal-cultivational, (3) liturgical, (4) immediate-practical, and (5) relational — which cuts across the boundaries of religious traditions in China. Let’s see how he explains.

Adam Yuet Chau: The discursive/scriptural modality

When it comes to the study of Chinese classical texts, people have an impression that Chinese literature is dominated by Confucian classics, namely the “Four Books, Five Classics.” And yet, you can easily discover the richness of Daoist canons and Buddhist sutras. Adam Yuet Chau says, “And often, even though the fundamentals were always the Confucian classics, but they were often also drawn to Buddhist, Daoist, and even sectarian textual traditions as well.” If we really look into the Chinese texts, we can always find something more.

Kristofer Schipper: Religion is nowhere and everywhere

The well-known sinologist Kristofer Schipper says, “Religion is nowhere to see but everywhere to experience.” You can’t see any church-like religious institution in China. Most Chinese people often claim that they don’t have any faith? However, their lives are submerged in a deeply religious world. Chinese people worship ancestors at homes and halls; they may believe in karma; they have been rebuilding temples and monasteries which were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Religion in China is everywhere to experience as people are actually “doing religion” (see explanation in the above article) everywhere. That’s why we need to study the congruence of local customs, history, culture, and religion as a whole, instead of focusing only on clear-cut traditions, such as Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism.

Adam Yuet Chau: The five modalities in non-Chinese religion

The five modalities stated above is not an exhaustive list. They are useful in the study of Chinese religion, as well as in non-Chinese religion. For instance, as Adam Yuet Chau mentions, we may construct a new modality of “proselytizing” for Christianity, in which the mission of spreading the gospel has always been important. Apart from the five, we may have six, seven, or even eight. Thanks to Chau’s heuristic explanation. Please watch.