In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Heterodox Sects in Premodern China

  • Introduction
  • State of the Field
  • New Religious Groups
  • The Scriptures of New Religious Groups
  • (Semi-)Messianic Traditions
  • Case Studies of Single Groups or Traditions
  • Twentieth-Century Groups and Redemptive Societies
  • Religiously Inspired Rebellions

Chinese Studies Heterodox Sects in Premodern China
Barend J. ter Haar
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0151


Traditionally, new religious movements and networks in traditional China were seen as heterodox and potentially rebellious. A broad range of religious and magical phenomena was collectively labeled with the term White Lotus Teachings since the mid-16th century, though they were often very different in nature. Anything that was given this name was then deemed to be equal to a dangerous heterodox sect. The same stereotyped fears that led the traditional state to prohibit and often persecute new religious groups and other religious phenomena as “heterodox” have propelled modern states in China, on the mainland until the early 21st century and in Taiwan until the late 1980s, to prohibit and persecute similar types of groups as well. The category of “heterodox” sects does not make much sense in a sociological or anthropological approach, and it does not necessarily reflect local constructions of social and religious realities on the ground. Traditional and much modern historiography therefore needs to be treated with great circumspection. This is not to say that new religious groups, networks, and movements did not exist. Buddhism was long experienced as a new religious movement from a Chinese perspective. When Daoism as a religious movement first becomes visible in the historical evidence, it is in the context of the Five Pecks of Rice rebellion of 184 CE. Much later, we can think of the Buddhist Three Stages Teachings as a new movement in the late 16th century, which was indeed eventually repressed, or the Daoist Complete Perfection Teachings that started as a sect in the hills in the 12th century and then went on to become the mainstream monastic form of Daoism in the late imperial period. In the early 17th century and again in the 19th century, different forms of Christianity were introduced from abroad and then further developed internally (think of the Great Kingdom of Heavenly Peace and a wealth of indigenous groups that arose in the 20th century). In China, they were (and often still are) treated as a heterodox sect, and they must definitely be classified as yet another new religious group, despite their mainstream status in the West. Conventionally, the terms “heterodox sects” or its less pejorative equivalents are used for new religious groups, networks, and movements from the 12th century onward. Here, we will use the same periodization and leave mainstream Buddhist and Daoist traditions, as well as Christianity, out of consideration.

State of the Field

There are few bibliographical introductions to the field, but ter Haar 1992 (see under New Religious Groups) provides a good introduction to the field as it stood in c. 1990, with much attention to the then-still-crucial Japanese-language scholarship. The more important, recent Chinese-language scholarship will be discussed throughout the article, even when not exhaustively. The standard work for all religious culture is Goossaert and Palmer 2011. Lu, et al. 2012 collects several relevant articles for mostly mainland scholarship. Ownby 1999 summarizes work on early millenarian traditions, and Palmer 2011 is an excellent introduction to the redemptive societies of the 20th century.

  • Goossaert, Vincent, and David Palmer. The Religious Question in Modern China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226304182.001.0001

    Landmark in the study of religious culture in 20th-century China, and a must-read for most research into the topic.

  • Lu Yao 路遥, ed. Zhongguo minjian xinyang yanjiu shuping (中国民间信仰研究述评). Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 2012.

    Useful survey of Chinese-language secondary research on Chinese religion, including a contribution on secret societies and new religious groups by Paul Katz (pp. 345–393). Good to get a sense of the mainland scholarship and the Chinese academic vocabulary.

  • Ownby, David. “Chinese Millenarian Traditions: The Formative Age.” American Historical Review 104.5 (1999): 1513–1530.

    DOI: 10.2307/2649349

    After noting some research on millenarian movements in more recent history, including the contemporary period, Ownby provides an excellent survey of the state of the field on early messianic and millenarian movements before the 10th century.

  • Palmer, David A. “Chinese Redemptive Societies and Salvationist Religion: Historical Phenomenon or Sociological Category?” Minsu quyi 民俗曲藝: Journal of Chinese Ritual, Theatre and Folklore 172 (2011): 21–72.

    Excellent survey of the secondary research into redemptive societies. Also analyzes the existing vocabulary to talk about such new religious groups.

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