In Reclaiming the Wilderness, Sébastien Billioud presents a systematic study of the contemporary development of the Yiguandao religion (一贯道), “the Way of Pervading Unity.” Though the movement claims a long spiritual lineage (daotong 道统) with its origin tracing back all the way to the dawn of Chinese civilization, this redemptive society named Yiguandao was not established until the late nineteenth century. The movement underwent striking development in China between the 1930s and 1940s, but since the end of World War II, Yiguandao practitioners have suffered from harsh persecution both in mainland China and Taiwan. In 1987, however, Yiguandao was officially legalized in Taiwan and entered a period of resurgence and rapid expansion. Today it is “one of the fastest growing religious movements in Asia,” with millions of followers (1–2). As a transnational religious organization, its impact goes beyond Asian and Chinese culture circles.
The main body of the work addresses contemporary dynamics of the Yiguandao focusing on four aspects. First, it considers how Yiguandao adepts live their faith and how this relates to the expansionary dynamic of the group. Then, it looks at how charisma operates in the movement and, in particular, how a routinization process consolidates the enduring postmortem charisma of dead patriarchs as well as living specialists. Third, it examines how the promotion of Confucianism helps the movement defuse tensions with the sociocultural environment and the Chinese state authorities, and how that plays a key role in the proselytizing and development of the movement. Finally, it discusses the well-structured expansionary strategies of the group, including the quasi-diplomatic efforts it has taken in cross-strait relations. An epilogue summarizes the major themes of the chapters and adds a brief discussion about the Yiguandao temple (fotang 佛堂) in Paris, which provides a European case for globalization of the movement and a different context for the comparative understanding of its dynamics.
Yiguandao carries a strong sense of mission to spread the “Dao of salvation” to all people under heaven. Taking expansionary work into places still ignorant of the Dao is figuratively described as kaihuang (开荒), which literally means “opening the wilderness.” The author’s research largely focuses on the group’s efforts to re-establish itself in mainland China, where Yiguandao originated and where it remains officially banned today. Thus, the book is titled “Reclaiming the Wilderness” (2).
Participant observation was the major methodology used in this study, but the author was not a typical participant. When Billioud first visited a Yiguandao temple in Taiwan, he was asked to attend a ritual and moved step-by-step following the instructions of a senior religious specialist. The author did not understand that he was in fact being initiated into Yiguandao until the end of the rite, when he was given an official membership card (25). Although the author insisted on his scholarly identity and the nonvoluntary nature of his initiation, the Yiguandao community seemed to accept him as a “regular” member and he acted accordingly, making himself truly a “participant” in all kinds of rituals and activities (26). Billioud’s fieldwork lasted for about ten years among the “companions of the Way” and in numerous temples (or fotang) in Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China, and Paris. In addition to the author’s comprehensive command of the literature, this excellent book is based on unusually rich firsthand information collected by a member/researcher of the Yiguandao movement.
Billioud considers his research a case study illustrating one of the modern fates of Confucianism (2). In his examination of the relationship between Yiguandao and Confucianism, he tends to stress the appropriation of the latter by the former for various purposes, such as defusing tension with the authorities, fostering proselytism, and promoting cross-straits relations. Confucianism appears to be an instrumental element rather than a doctrinal or genetic part inherent to the movement, despite Yiguandao’s claims of being primarily Confucian. This will be an open question for further discussion.
I highly recommend this well-researched book to those who are interested in the Yiguandao and Chinese folk religions. Due to the complexity of the syncretistic features of the movement (both in orthodoxy and orthopraxy) and its deep involvement in China’s modern and contemporary history, relevant background knowledge is necessary to better appreciate Reclaiming the Wilderness. For those who are less prepared but interested, they may find it helpful to start with the Introduction and not to skip the lengthy footnotes throughout the book.