Universalism in redemptive societies: A potential threat to the rule of government

“A: It is the source of all things (wanyougenyuan). It is not a single religion; it has the power to clarify the good. . . .Actually the dao has no name, but we in the human world have to give it a name to show our reverence. So, we revere the founders of the five religions. . .. We also respect nature and morality, and cultivate the self through charity”

This is a quotation in Prasenjit Duara’s book Sovereignty and Authenticity. It was a statement made by a leader of the Daoyuan to a Japanese surveyor, demonstrating the spirits of Daoyuan, the predecessor of the Red Swastika Society. These are redemptive societies that embraced a boost in the early 20th century in China. Most of them possess the characteristics of synthesis of Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Redemptive societies adopted a syncretistic worldview in their discourse of civilization. Their speech contains the awareness of self-cultivation; through the effort made by men in charity and philanthropic activities, a person’s good nature can be recovered.1 This seemingly idealistic idea of universalism proved to be a real threat to governments in China and Japan. The universalist view of religion extends to the potential overthrowing political worldview.

“Cultivate the self through charity” can be interpreted as the combination of Confucianism and Pure Land Buddhism. The awareness of self-cultivation comes from Confucianist teaching of rites and rituals; by practising them, people could achieve the state of a gentleman; this belief remains in the doctrine of Redemptive societies, it became to be Jiaohua.2 And “through charity” reflects a Pure Land Buddhism idea of doing good to accumulate good karma so that one day one can receive a good result. From this statement, we can see that these Redemptive societies possessed a complete framework from the most abstract ideological level to the most practical instruction to the secular life of people. It also reflects how these metaphysical philosophies were brought into real life by these redemptive societies in the historical context in China in the early 20th century. According to Duara, they were one of the leading intellectual forces to form a new discourse of civilization, complementing the influx of Western ideas, representing an Eastern attempt to find solutions for contemporary society.3 Redemptive societies’ success of ‘secularizing’ all three schools of thought was why they could gain such significant influence among the public. Both people from higher and lower classes can take part in the societies.

This universalism, accepting all kinds of religion and thinking, and people from different classes proved to threaten Chinese and Japanese governments. Duara suggests that the redemptive societies, in a way beyond the boundary of government, conduct their world-saving activities, which is why the KMT sought to prohibit all redemptive societies. ((Ibid, p. 109.)) For example, the Red Swastika Society had a universalist view to see all nations, races, and religions as the same. The concept of boundaries is eliminated from the framework. They see the world in a transcendent view; they believe that the boundaries like nation-states will disappear one day.4 This cosmopolitan idea can be seen as the attempt to find a unique way to reform East Asia exclusively. Kang Youwei, as a prominent figure for his cosmopolitan thinking in Ta Tung Shu, was one of the leaders of redemptive societies. These characteristics of redemptive societies sometimes could remind us of Cooperatism anarchism in Japan; both believed in a boundary-free world.

Its popularity among the public and its potentially dangerous ideas all become why governments like KMT and Manchuria were highly concerned about redemptive societies. In complementing Duara’s argument, Sun Jiang’s analysis on the Red Swastika Society also proves the government’s worry about the universalism of redemptive societies.

  1. Prasenjit Duara, “Asianism and the New Discourse of Civilization” in Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern. (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004), pp106. []
  2. Ibid, p.108. []
  3. Ibid, p.109. []
  4. Ibid, p.106. []