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Chinese Religion and the Challenge of Modernity in Malaysia and Singapore: Syncretism, Hybridisation and Transfiguration

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The past fifty years have seen continuing anthropological interest in the changes in religious beliefs and practices among the Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore under conditions of rapid modernisation. Anthropologists have used the syncretic model to explain these changes, arguing that practitioners of Chinese "folk" religion have adapted to urbanisation, capitalist growth, nation-state formation, and literacy to preserve their spiritualist worldview, but the religion has also experienced "rationalisation" in response to the challenge of modernity. This article proposes an alternative approach that questions the dichotomous imagination of spiritualist Chinese religion and rationalist modernity assumed by the syncretic model. Using ethnographic, archival and secondary materials, I discuss two processes of change — the transfiguration of forms brought about by mediation in new cultural flows, and the hybridisation of meanings brought about by contact between different cultural systems — in the cases of the Confucianist reform movement, spirit mediumship, Dejiao associations, state-sponsored Chingay parades, reform Taoism, and Charismatic Christianity. These represent both changes internal to Chinese religion and those that extend beyond to reanimate modernity in Malaysia and Singapore. I argue that existential anxiety connects both processes as the consequence of hybridisation and the driving force for transfiguration.

Affiliations: 1: National University of Singapore


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