Constructing Social Worlds through Memory, Mimesis, and Metaphor

Pluralism and Chinese Religions

In: Review of Religion and Chinese Society
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What counts as the same? Judgments of sameness and difference are fundamental to how social groups create and define themselves over time and across space. This is never a purely objective decision because no two things, people, or groups are ever identical. Group identity thus depends in part on interpretive decisions about similarity and difference. This paper examines three primary mechanisms for such interpretation: (1) memory, in which we identify similarities that continue over time and are shared only with certain other people (e.g., memories of an ancestor or a local miracle); (2) mimesis, in which we create similarity by repeating actions over time (as in the performance of periodic rituals); and (3) metaphor, in which we come to see new similarities that had not been obvious before (typical of much conversion, for instance). Each of these modes of sameness and difference creates an alternative social dynamic, with different consequences for how people can live together socially. This presentation will analyze a range of Chinese religious behavior, from ancestor worship to Christian conversion. The approach suggests that theological considerations (as a form of memory) alone never fully determine the social importance of religion, that we need to understand the ability to impose particular interpretive frames, and that pluralism needs to be examined over time as well as space.

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