Representing the Sacred in China, Past and Present

Dr. Benoit Vermander, Academic Director, The Xu-Ricci Dialogue Center; Associate Professor of Philosophy, Fudan University, Shanghai

Tue, September 25, 2012 | Meyerson Conference Room, WCH 4.118

3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

Representing the Sacred in China, Past and Present

Reception will be held at 3:00 p.m.

There are many pitfalls involved in the use of the word  “sacredness” when speaking of a culture where the categories of “sacred” and “profane” have not been elaborated through the lexical tools that govern the use and meaning of sacer and of profanus for instance. This is not for denying that such categories may refer to feelings and experiences loaded with universal appeal, but defining this “universal” character has proven quasi impossible if it means to enclose the “Sacred” into a well-defined field of cultural references.

Taking into account the variability of our sets of aesthetic and spiritual perceptions, I will suggest that the realm associated with “sacredness” has to do, in the Chinese world, with the way to relate to territories: the “body” metaphor is central in China’s perception of the world. Every territory is a sacred body, and, in Chinese medicine, every body is a sacred territory. Territories are shaped by forces to be identified, exorcized and tamed. The whole universe, China, local societies and the human person are all “continents of spirits.” All space in China is inhabited by divine energies, which – because they sustain us – must receive in return our sacrificial recognition.

However, China is a country of contrasts. To the charm of the microcosm succeeds the awe of the macrocosm – when China makes itself its own object of veneration. At the same time, the land that is venerated is also desecrated through social and ecological exploitation. The sacredness of the “Chinese garden” (a leading metaphor for any sacred territory) contrasts with the desecration of the “waste land.” How does the Chinese collective psyche respond to the present dichotomy between cultural nostalgia for ancestral worship of the land on the one hand and the actual depletion of its resources on the other?

This presentation will try to make sense of contemporary relationships to “sacredness” in China such as fostered by this double reality– continuity of the “sacred territory” world-view and experience of the “desecration” of the soil. It will then try to sketch the trajectories through which “sacredness” is embodied, denied and reshaped in everyday life and practices.


Dr. Benoit Vermander is associate professor at Fudan University, Shanghai, Faculty of Philosophy. He is Academic Director of the Xu-Ricci Dialogue Center in the same faculty. His publications include L’Empire sans milieu, essai sur la sortie de la religion en Chine (DDB, 2010), Chine brune ou Chine verte (Presses de sciences po, 2007), Shamanism and Christianity: Religious Encounter among Indigenous Peoples of East Asia (Taipei Ricci Institute, 2008, edited with Olivier Lardinois), Creeds, Rites and Videotapes (Taipei Ricci Institute, 2004, edited with Elise DeVido), and others. His recent articles and book chapters include “Blessed are the Peacemakers: The Search for an East Asian Reading” in Asian and Oceanic Christianities in Conversation, Exploring Theological Identities at Home and in Diaspora, edited by Heup Young Kim, Fumitaka Matsuoka and Anri Morimoto, Amsterdam/New York, NY, Rodopi,  2011; “Scholasticism, Dialogue and Universalism“ in Universitas, 2011, n.438; "Chinese wisdom, management practices and the humanities", Journal of Management Development, 2011, Vol. 30 - 7/8; and “Religious Revival and Exit from Religion in Contemporary China” China Perspectives, January 2010. He is also chief-editor of the Internet magazine

Sponsored by: Department of Art History and Art History, Center for East Asian Studies

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