This article contextualizes the rise of “early religious studies in China” with its apex in the 1920s within the heated debates on the role of religion in a modern Chinese society. While the most recent development of religious studies (zongjiaoxue) in China (including Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) is well known, its early emergence in the late Qing and Republican periods (ca. 1890–1949) has been a neglected topic. The author demonstrates first how antagonistic anti-religious and affirmative positions, received from Western modernization discourse and informed by the contested character of the concept of religion itself, led to the emergence of this new discipline in Republican China as a product of broader discourses on modernization. Secondly, the article evaluates the limited institutionalization of religious studies as a distinct “full” discipline in relation to the broader interdisciplinary “field” of research and public debates on religion. While the interdisciplinary character is typical of the field in general (also in the West), the limited degree of “full disciplinarity” depended on specific, local discursive and political factors of its time. As “religion” appears as an important modern discourse in East Asia, the early emergence of religious studies in China thereby reflects social, political, and intellectual transitions from Imperial to Republican China, and offers a unique perspective on Asian discourses on religious and secular modernities.