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Sacred Matters, Stately Concerns

Faith and Politics in Asia, Past and Present


John M. Thompson

Politics and religion have been major forces throughout history, and they still are as anyone who pays attention to current events can see. Understandably, the relationship between religion and politics calls for careful and ongoing scholarly exploration. At the same time, global centers of economic and military power are shifting from being concentrated in the West (Europe and North America) to areas in Asia, the world’s largest landmass and home to the bulk of the world’s population. Indeed, the twenty-first century is already shaping up to be the «Asian century». Perhaps not surprisingly, just as in the West, so in Asia, societies have been – and are still being – shaped by religious and political forces.
Sacred Matters, Stately Concerns: Faith and Politics in Asia, Past and Present examines the complex and intertwined nature of «politics» and «religion» in diverse cultures within Asia, ranging from China and Japan to Indonesia, Pakistan, and India. By their very nature, the essays included here defy easy generalizations about the nature of religion in various societies, forcing us to rethink, and, one hopes, pushing us beyond staid assumptions. Certainly, these essays challenge prevailing views of national/political boundaries in Asia (and by extension elsewhere), and highlight the fact that the «separation of Church and State», a hallmark of the American political system, has rarely been observed in other places and times.
Sacred Matters, Stately Concerns is suitable for use in a variety of courses on Asian history and politics as well as surveys of Asian culture and international relations and comparative/world religion and philosophy courses.
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Chapter One: She skillfully manages the Affairs of State and Sangha: Empress Wu as Chinese Cakravartin


Religion and the State have been intertwined in Chinese culture from the very beginning. Traditionally for the Chinese, the legitimate ruler was also a religious figure, the “Son of Heaven” (tian zi ) who reigned benevolently (albeit dictatorially) by virtue of the “Mandate of Heaven” (tian ming ).1 While this theocratic form of rulership does not make China unique (most civilizations both past and present reflect a similar intermixing of politics and religion), China’s system was by no means identical to other cultures’. The late Julia Ching has argued that what we see in the case of China is essentially the rise of a mystical “sage-king” ideal as model for rulers.2 With its roots going far back into the prehistoric era, the sage-king ideal developed overtime through the Shang and Zhou dynasties. As a pan-Chinese paradigm, the sage-king ideal was recycled and articulated by all major Chinese thinkers, be they Confucians, Daoists, Moists, or Legalists. The entry of Buddhism into China posed certain challenges to this ideal at first, in part because there was tension between the sangha and the state in certain areas.3 However, Buddhist tradition also includes the idea of a “holy king” in the person of the cakravartin (“wheelturning king”), and over time this ideal was became assimilated to that of the Chinese sage-king.

During the medieval period there were several examples of Chinese rulers who demonstrated how the ancient sage-king ideal could be recast in true Buddhist cakravartin fashion but none were as notorious as...

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